NOW Activists Celebrate National Coming Out Day

Tammy BaldwinTammy Baldwin, the first out lesbian elected to the Wisconsin legislature, is running for an open U.S. House seat. Here she receives a standing ovation at NOW's 1997 National Conference. Photo by Beth Corbin.

by Barbara Hays, Lesbian Rights Program Director

During October, many NOW chapters are organizing Come Out Against Homophobia actions aimed at making the world a safer place where lesbians and gay men can in fact "come out."

"NOW has long recognized that lesbian rights is a feminist issue," NOW President Patricia Ireland said. "Our members gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered are raising their voices to condemn hatred, bigotry and discrimination."

Coming Out Day is rooted in the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights with its AIDS Quilt display. That event is widely regarded as pivotal for the gay community, bringing together and politicizing lesbian and gay men and turning the tide on treatment for people living with HIV and AIDS. Rob Eichberg and Jean O Leary, two well-known gay rights activists, founded Coming Out Day on the first anniversary of the march, October 11, 1988, to encourage lesbians and gay men to reveal their sexual orientation to family, friends and co-workers.

Since the first National Coming Out Day, progress has been made, despite the growing power of the religious right, particularly in the legislative arena. While efforts to pass positive legislation have often been met with virulent homophobia, NOW activists have played a significant role in convincing two states, Maine and New Hampshire, to adopt non-discrimination laws and in defeating anti-lesbian and gay civil rights ballot measures in Maine and Oregon.

In addition, major corporations have adopted policies extending family health coverage and other benefits to unmarried couples in committed relationships regardless of their sexual identity. NOW is a long-time supporter of such expanded coverage. Delegates at NOW's 1988 National Conference voted to support domestic partner legislation, and NOW's current Women Friendly Workplace campaign calls on employers to provide all employee benefits without discrimination based on sex, marital status or sexual orientation.

More and more employers are using domestic partner benefits to help attract and retain top employees. Those employers claimed, in a recent Washington Post article, an increase in morale and productivity after such policies were introduced.

Despite these results, companies such as American Airlines and Walt Disney Company are targeted by religious political extremists as "promoting homosexuality" through such lesbian-and-gay-friendly policies. American was the first airline to adopt a non-discrimination policy that covers sexual orientation.

Disney has also been under attack for providing company-wide domestic partner benefits, as well as for the televised coming out of the title character on the sitcom Ellen, which is produced by Disney and airs on the Disney-owned ABC network.

The media frenzy accompanying Ellen offered lesbian and gay activists an opportunity to learn who is and isn't supportive of gay rights. Several big companies like Chrysler and Wendy's quickly pulled advertising. ABC itself rejected gay-themed advertising from the Human Rights Campaign and Olivia Cruise Lines, although some local affiliates did run the ads. The episode was the top-rated primetime show for the week, introducing to millions of viewers the fact that lesbians and gay men can be someone you've known and laughed with for years.

"Many NOW activists watching Ellen come out couldn t help but think how times have changed, but this year on National Coming Out Day, we are all renewing our commitment to making our world safe and supportive for lesbians and gay men," said Ireland.

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