Okay, I’ve been officially called out by one of my gay friends for being flip about National Coming Out Day, so I’ll ‘straighten’ my act out and give the day the attention it deserves.
Nineteen years ago on October 11, 1987, I was a student at Ball State University. I had been out of the closet since the previous year, but I didn’t have a huge amount of exposure to the gay community. The on-campus gay group was rather small, and I couldn’t get into bars yet, and I knew very little about gay culture.
The Thursday night before this day, I had been hanging out drinking with the small handful of gay people I did know: Gary Rice, Scott McClintic, Kally Love, and Kathy _____ (who’s last name I don’t quite remember.) It was about 1 in the morning, and someone brought up this “March on Washington” happening this weekend. And we all looked at each other, and someone said “We should go!” and the idea caught fire. Kathy called up some friends she knew in Maryland (in the middle of the night, of course), and asked if we could crash, and they said, “of course!”
So we went home, slept a couple of hours, threw some clothes in bags, and piled into Scott’s red Camaro. (Yeah, that’s five people in a Camaro, if you’re counting. I sat in the middle of the backseat, on the hump. I was really skinny back then.) After about twelve hours of singing, drinking and flashing pro-gay hand-drawn signs at other people on the road also driving to the March, we arrived in Maryland at Kathy’s friends apartment to sleep.
The next morning, Saturday, we drove to a metro parking lot, parked the Camaro, and took the Metro line to Dupont Circle (which is a very gay-friendly, progressive area of town with lots of gay businesses, like boystown in Chicago, or Greenwich Village in NY) to “find the gay people”. We were all from midwestern small-towns, and as we started to realize how many people riding the Metro with us were gay, we started getting more excited. I’m not sure I can adequately describe the feeling of being empowered/alive you feel as a minority when you find yourself in a group where there are more of “us” than there are of “them” — especially when you’re gay, because you typically don’t grow up with other gay people around you to temper the hostility directed at you, and you often feel very alone.
And then we got to the Dupont Circle Metro station. As we rode the escalator steps up from the dark station into the daylight, with the sounds of lots and lots of people overhead — the lyrics to a Wizard of Oz song popped into my mind:
You’re out of the woods, You’re out of the dark, You’re out of the night.
Step into the sun, Step into the light.
Keep straight ahead for the most glorious place
On the Face of the Earth or the sky.
Hold onto your breath, Hold onto your heart, Hold onto your hope.
March up to the gate and bid it open
There were people hanging out at the top of the stairs with signs — “Welcome Gay People!” and the circle was absolutely packed with people, and rainbows, rainbows, everywhere. And then there was a low rumbling sound, that got louder, as hundreds of motorcycles roared past — the Dykes on Bikes were driving through. I, of course, had never heard of the group, so I had no idea what to expect, or what to think of hundreds of butch women in leather on motorcycles, with femme blonde women in leather bikinis riding on the back of their bikes. I was thunderstruck.
That’s when I first realized how very different my life was going to be.