It’s time to jettison the backhanded merit badge “openly.”
Much of the deservedly fawning coverage of the Biden administration’s rainbow wave of appointments used this well-meaning but inappropriate term. The New York Times touted Pete Buttigieg’s successful appointment as “the first openly gay Cabinet Secretary to have been approved by the Senate.” The Washington Post also wrote Buttigieg “is the first openly gay person to be confirmed by the Senate for a Cabinet position.” Even the Human Rights Campaign tossed off the label in their press release heralding “Secretary Pete Buttigieg Makes History As First Openly LGBTQ, Senate-Confirmed Person to Lead a Department.”
Dr. Rachel Levine, nominated for assistant secretary of Health, got similar treatment by The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Human Rights Campaign, and many others as she was reported to be the first openly transgender federal official put forth for Senate confirmation. Even this publication chose to signify Levine’s appointment with the loaded term.
“Openly” is a noxious designation that is not as accepting or as enlightened as it seems. “Openly” is in fact the reaction to disapproval. It expresses surprise, shock, that someone LGBTQ+ is actually, officially, not hiding in plain sight.
“Openly” applauds audaciousness, signaling that an out LGBTQ+ person is not the norm and this particular LGBTQ+ person isn’t as shameful as warranted. The term is for straight people, not for us. It is their marker, not ours. “Openly” is their tracking system to keep an eye on us as we make our way in a system built entirely for straight people. It signifies that an LGBTQ+ person is living too large in the straight world. It dangerously gives tacit approval to think those are the only members of our community they need to see, the only ones worth knowing.
We LGBTQ+ people must not treat the “openly” moniker as if it were a medal being placed around our necks. By accepting being labeled “openly,” we are doing ourselves a disservice, allowing the dangerous lie that being LGBTQ+ is something to be ashamed of to be reinforced. Every LGBTQ+ person knows the sting of being diminished. Daily we are told to make ourselves and our lives smaller so as to fit in and get by, often just to be able to live safely. By attaching “openly” to recipients, they are hamstrung and branded "less than" right out of the gate.
But the word “out,” on the other hand, does belong to us. It is our word. “Out” is hard-fought and hard-won, the crowning achievement of each of our own specific stories of bravery and resilience. Each of us defines what “out” means for ourselves and each of us chooses when it’s an apt description of how we are living. It is time-honored, well-worn, and universally understood. Using “out” instead of “openly” would pay respect to the significance both of the specific achievement and the uniquely LGBTQ+ journey it took to get there. “Out” also illustrates for LGBTQ+ youth the benefits of coming out.
Celebrating firsts is important and so too is the need for some classification when every exciting first is conquered – we need to know where the glass ceilings have been shattered so the rest of us can walk through and to show LGBTQ+ youth all the facets of society they can see themselves in. We also need it specified so that we don’t erase the many accomplishments of LGBTQ+ people that happened before the visibility we enjoy now. Achievements from behind closed closets are worthy as well.
Some long for a time when, as they say, it won’t matter anymore, that when the firsts are over there will be no need for the LGBTQ+ flag to be attached to anyone. But visibility and representation will never make being LGBTQ+ matter-of-fact. Maybe one day, our successes won’t always include overcoming bigotry and stigmatization. But even then, our otherness, the unique way we get to see and experience the world, will still be our superpower. Anytime we celebrate our successes, we are also celebrating our queerness.
Richie Jackson is the author of Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son, published by HarperCollins. He is an award-winning Broadway, television, and film producer who most recently produced the Tony Award-nominated Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song on Broadway. He executive produced Showtime’s Nurse Jackie for seven seasons and co-executive produced the film Shortbus, written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell. He and his husband, Jordan Roth, live in New York City with their two sons.