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Andrew Downing

May 1997

Policy of Truth

"Openly gay." It's a phrase you've probably heard (and used) a thousand times before. But have you ever really taken some time to think about what it means?

Does it mean that you don't feel a need to hide the fact that the CD that you're buying is by Backstreet Boys? Does it mean that you hold hands with your boyfriend in the mall? Does it mean that you tell everyone you know? Or does it mean that you tell everyone you encounter, regardless of whether you know them or not?

Well, I don't know what the "correct" definition is. Actually, scratch that. I don't think that there is one "correct" definition for this somewhat ambiguous term.

I think that each of us must define this term in our own lives. "Open" is not an absolute term, when you think about it. Go to your front door and take it off of its latch, then pull it very slightly ajar. By definition, the door is "open," but you still can't see what's on the other side unless you look extremely closely - and sometimes not even then.

Now give the door a good healthy yank. (You may wish to move your head out of the way before attempting this particular maneuver.) Now you can't help but see what's on the other side. (Unless you ignored my earlier advice, in which case you'll more than likely be lying in your doorway unconscious, and not seeing much of anything other than stars.) Both of these states that the door has gone through are technically "open," but there are different degrees of open.

It's the same way in our lives. Some people are only openly gay to themselves, and perhaps to a select group of loved ones. They're like the door which is slightly ajar. Some are open to everyone they know fairly well. You could say they're like a door which is halfway open; if you're in a certain place, you can see inside. And then we have those people who are simply out to everyone they meet. Now these folks are like a wide-open door with a flashing neon sign above it -- you simply can't miss it unless you're in a coma.

In case you're wondering where I lie on this admittedly arbitrary scale, I'd have to say that I fit somewhere between halfway open and the neon sign, depending on the company, the setting, and my own mood.

Usually I'm what I like to call "subtly open." I'll wear an identifiable earring or pin or T-shirt, but won't behave outrageously "gay." (Actually, oddly enough, the queerer the stuff I wear, the more butch I act.) There are times, however, that I just don't feel like hiding anything, and I just say whatever comes to my mind, much to the chagrin of many of my straight friends; but, back to the definition of "openly gay."

I guess I can give you a working definition off the top of my head. (Especially since not giving you one would completely ruin my flawless reputation of omniscience!) I think being "openly gay" means that you carry a light in the darkness, however small and dim. You carry it to make yourself feel assured - to be able to see yourself as you really are - and to help drive back the monsters that the child within us still sees in the darkness. Our "adult" minds rationally know that there isn't anything in the darkness that isn't there in the light, but our inner child still harbors those old insecurities.

I think that Robert Louis Stevenson illustrated this idea very well in his story The Lantern-Bearers, in which he and his friends would imitate British police officers by carrying small, tin "bull's-eye" lanterns on their belts. They would make a game out of hiding a glowing lantern inside the front of their buttoned overcoats and then making their way in the dark as if they had no light with them.

In Stevenson's words, When two of these [youths] met, there would be an anxious "Have you got your lantern?" and a gratified "Yes!" That was the shibboleth, and very needful; for, as it was the rule to keep our glory contained, none could recognise a lantern-bearer....

The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public: a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool's heart, to know you had a bull's-eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge.

...[One's] life from without may seem but a rude mound of mud; [but] there will be some golden chamber at the heart of it, in which he dwells delighted; and for as dark as his pathway seems to the observer, he will have some kind of a bull's-eye at his belt.*

This is a private kind of joy. But it is so significant that Stevenson says, "[T]o miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action. That is the explanation, that is the excuse. To one who has not the secret of the lanterns, the scene [of the young people in the darkness] is meaningless." **

In case you missed it, the point I'm trying to make with this story is that only the youths themselves knew that they had the lanterns, so only the youths themselves could delight in the knowledge of it. It's a more directed application of the old saying, "He who would keep a secret must keep it a secret that he hath a secret to keep."

Though the light was kept inside, where nobody could see it, the light was there inside, and only they knew it.

It's like being open to yourself about being gay. Only you know that you have that special light shining inside of you. To others, you don't look any different from anybody else. Openness to others is then merely a matter of opening your coat - how far you open your coat, and to whom, is completely under your control.

So perhaps there is no convenient definition of being "openly gay." Maybe that's my point - maybe it's not supposed to be convenient to define. Maybe it's meant to be an ongoing process you have to work through in order to examine yourself in the context of your own life. Maybe it's just fate playing silly buggers with you. I don't know.

Ah well... I'll keep trying to figure out a workable definition of the phrase "openly gay." It seems like a question that I can really sink my teeth into, and I'll tell you if I ever figure out the answer.

Until then, I'll be making arrangements to rent a neon sign.


* Robert Louis Stevenson, The Lantern-Bearers, from The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson 548-49 (1910)
**Id. at 554.

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