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Torie Osborn: The Optimistic Activist

By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor

As is the case with any journey, where you've been is just as important as where you're going. Whether your specific journey is life, a well-earned vacation or gay liberation, you need to be able to look at a map and be able to point at where you are at present to better understand the future direction.

Most books looking at the gay community within the current political landscape further define the obvious: the religious right hates us, the government betrays us and we face adversity due to ignorance and fear. What many such books lack is the history, focus and vision to put all of the factors in context to show us where we fit in the grand scheme of things.

In her new book "Coming Home to America: A Roadmap to Gay & Lesbian Empowerment," Torie Osborn offers her take on the movement's future, but never forgetting the foundation on which our current community was built.

Long considered our community's cheerleader, Osborn is the former executive director of both the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. A political activist for over 30 years, she brings with this book a refreshing and startling optimism to the current culture war.

'Let's stop whining'

There is a wisdom that comes with Osborn's many years of activism, and the readers of this book reap the benefits as they get to see our community through her eyes.

In the book, Osborn eschews the victim mentality often associated with gays and lesbians, and instead paints queer Americans as better representing our country's values than those in the majority.

"I've always believed that people's marginality or their oppression or their minority status teaches them more lessons then whatever their majority status is or how they fit into the mainstream," Osborn told Oasis during a recent stop on her book tour. "I just think you learn more lessons from struggling against discrimination and having to fight for your self-esteem. That's something I've thought for all my life, because I know much my own strengths have come from being a woman or struggling to come out of the closet. So, that's a baseline kind of life philosophy."

Her optimism permeates every chapter of the book, every quote in our interview and it becomes rather infectious. You could almost picture Osborn as a little lesbian David about to slingshot the Goliath Right with a beaming smile on her face.

"Let's look at the positive. Let's stop whining. Let's stop looking at the glass as half-empty. Let's look at the glass as half-full, which doesn't mean we have to whitewash what the problems are," she says. "But let's stop all this whine, whine, whine and talk about how far we've come. Because unless we look at our strengths, we're never going to be able to lay a foundation to move forward. If you just feel how far you have to go, it's depressing. You hang it up and go away or burn out.

"I am kind of the movement cheerleader and I have been all my life. It's been a role I've played and I'm really happy to do it. I love to put out the positive instead of the negative, while being honest," she says. "The book was a creative process of writing what I knew intuitively. I knew that in the course of fighting AIDS, I had watched almost a spiritual transformation. I knew I had watched people's values shift. I watched people who only cared about making money suddenly not give a shit, well, not saying they weren't professional or successful, but suddenly the work they were doing volunteering with youth was just as important as their job in Hollywood. I watched our community's values shift. I watched men and women learn to care about one another."

Throughout the book, Osborn also focuses heavily on gay youth. Many anecdotes in the book are from young people who have inspired her. Osborn says her view of the gay community has always included its youth.

"I have really been influenced by youth, both by individual youth activists or the work I did at the center in L.A., which had such a major youth services program," she says. "It just seemed to me the heart and the soul of our movement seems to either be grappling with dealing with the youth issue."

'These are our kids'

Osborn admits there has often been an air of ambivalence when it has come to youth issues in the gay community.

"At the L.A. Center, I was there during a period where we tried to work through that. In other words, there used to be there was an entire generation of gay activists who didn't want anything to do with youth issues because of the charges of pedophilia, because of ... ambivalence about their own youth? I don't know the psychological reasons, other than the fact there was this mythout there that clung to us that we were bad for kids," she says. "So, it was during my time at the center that we kind of struggled through that and said 'Whoa, these are our kids,' particularly the ones that were throwaways. Los Angeles has a huge runaway and throwaway youth population. There's like 10,000 homeless kids in the street in Los Angeles, 30 percent self-identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual. So, there was an obvious need to deal with those kids. And there's always been such vibrancy and significance to that movement."

While executive director of the L.A. center, Osborn used to drop-in on the youth group which has been in existence since 1971, where 40 to 70 young people of all colors would gather. It was her way to keep focus in the midst of dealing with management, media and fund-raising.

"My grounding, my spiritual resuscitation, my way of remembering what it was that life was all about as this lesbian and gay activist was to go to the Friday night youth meeting," she says. "They would usually give me a little slot and the kids could ask me questions or whatever. But sometimes I'd just go and hang for 15 minutes, and listen and say 'Ignore me, I just want to learn and listen.'"

Osborn says listening to the youth gave her insight to issues she hadn't realized before, which are now reflected in the book. She always knew coming out had important self-esteem and political significance, but the youth group taught her it went beyond that.

"The fact that people's courage in coming out has an actual qualitative effect on their families, I never would have thought of that," she says.

'I was scared of it myself'

Osborn didn't come out until she was 22, but she reminds: "They were different times and I'm an old broad." Osborn was 15 in the summer of 1966, when she had her first sexual experience with a woman.

"I had kissed guys before and nothing happened, but then I kissed this girl and the heavens and the whole world opened up. I knew that night and it was painful," shesays. "She and I worked on the literary magazine and the school newspaper and didn't look at each other for two months. We managed to work together and not look at each other because I was so ashamed and she was so ashamed. The day after the kiss, we pretended like we didn't know one another. I think that was a common experience. And I'm ashamed to admit, I went out and got a boyfriend the next week. Of course, I wouldn't sleep with him or anything. I didn't really care about that, I just wanted to fit in."

>From ages 15 to 22, Osborn lived her double life of having boyfriends, and girlfriends she had crushes on and encounters with. "We're not talking heavy-duty sex here. It was just kissing and groping in the shadows. It was pretty tame stuff," she recalls.

A college student in New York City in 1969, she missed her chance to go to the Stonewall riots, which are now considered the beginning of the modern day gay and lesbian rights movement. Osborn had a gay male friend in college who told her about the riots that started the night of Judy Garland's funeral between the queens and the police in Greenwich Village. Even though she was a radical student, her homophobia prevented her from going with him.

"I remember he said 'You're against this because you are gay,' and I slugged him," she says. "I didn't tell this story in the book, this is for my memoirs. On Broadway and 116th Street, I hauled off and slugged this guy. And he got in the subway, headed on down to the village and probably had a great old time. I went back to my room fuming, 'How dare he.' That was the worst thing he could call me, because I was scared of it myself."

Active in the women's liberation movement, Osborn finally got the support to come out as more and more lesbians became visible. "I can't say I was this brave early dyke. In the grand scheme of things, I was, but I was one of the last ones in my group to come out."

'Don't live an isolated life'

Osborn has watched many young people break out of their closets and start to live happier, richer lives. While she says younger people should only come out when they are ready, she says there are consistent factors which help people find that inner strength.

"First, there's breaking the isolation. You can't think you're the only one in the world," she says. "You have to get over that isolation, whether it's getting on the Internet and finding other gay men or women or whatever. Once you have enough support for your own personal coming out to yourself, once you take that leap, and say to yourself 'I'm gay,' you find somebody else, some friend, some cyber-buddies, and get a little more self-esteem.

"What I find is the most liberating is when people come out to their folks. But you have to start coming out to other people first to build the real strength of character that carries you through in difficult situations. The most significant thing is to get support once you realize you're gay. Don't live an isolated life. Once you get that support, your bravery multiplies."

'I think political correctness strangles us'

Osborn also has some simple words for people who think the gay community is becoming more about assimilation than liberation.

"I don't buy it," she says. "I think there are some interesting challenges in going mainstream. People always say 'Well, are we for liberation or assimilation?' Both." As an example, Osborn points to the upswing of prominently displayed queer sections in mainstream bookstores. The books are cheaper there, but it financially hurts smaller gay bookstores, which also serve as focal points for the community.

"I think that's a real problem, but on the other hand I say to myself a gay kid who wouldn't walk into a gay bookstore will walk into Barnes and Noble.. so, this is the kind of dilemma I think is real," she says. "The kind of dilemma I don't think is real is that the very notion of us being out in the mainstream makes us lose our specialness. I just think that's bullshit. I think it's the kind of fear and addiction to the margins, like we have to stay pure and be powerless. I think we need to be as powerful as we can."

As in the book, Osborn proves her point in the interview with an anecdote of two moderate, suburban Republican gay men. One works in a law firm, the other is a realtor. But despite being openly gay, they still had some closets in their lives.

"At night, they are into putting on aprons and singing show tunes, and they used to hide that," she says. "They would be out, be very straight-seeming, but there was this whole campy part of them. And I'm not saying all gay men have that, but these guys did. So, one night their neighbor knocks on the door and happens to see them dancing around the kitchen and they are mortified, because they thought this would turn off their neighbor, but their neighbor was fine.

"So, the lesson that these guys learned is they could be their true selves and show people the whole truth of who we are. One of the central points of the book is that I don't want us to lose our specialness, because we have special gifts to bring, be it alternative families or community building," she says. "I think political correctness strangles us. I think we've spent too much time trying to be politically pure and stay at the margins and not trying to be powerful, being our best selves and moving forward."

'It's about changing hearts and minds'

Witnessing how far gays and lesbians have come in so short of a time keeps Osborn upbeat.

"I think that social change happens slowly, particularly on tough issues. And this is a tough, taboo era. In 30 years of organizing, I've never seen anything like now. The control over the agenda that the far Right has, they claim everything," she says. "Not everyone believes them. I'm not saying they speak for a majority of people, but they frame the issues. We're constantly reacting against them. They are in charge of the social issues right now."

Osborn says her optimism persists because of the changes she has witnessed in her own life, in conquering her own low self-esteem, drug and alcohol addictions, guilt and shame. But her optimism is also recharged by what she sees in the larger society.

"I see the changes around me, the 22 characters that are now gay or lesbian on television. 25 years is not a long time. We've been fighting racism in this country for a century and a half, for women's rights for a century and half, and we still aren't there," she says. "So, 25 years to get as far as we've gotten ... where 70 percent of Americans don't want gays discriminated aga inst in the workplace, it's phenomenal. Even though only 40 percent think we're morally equal... we've got a ways to go with that.

"This is why I say we have a moral responsibility to come out, because when we come out of the closet it's not only our own liberation, our own sense of honesty. So, it's not just personally liberating, but it's about changing hearts and minds. And I think we have a moral responsibility in a conservative era to come out to anybody who matters."

Osborn can be reached by e-mail at ToriesBook@aol.com; or you can visit her web page at http://www.erols.com/torie/.
©1996 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.