COME OUT, COME OUT, WHEREVER YOU ARE
By Kelly Rentzel
I was only 12 in 1987, but I remember hearing the first rumblings of the gay movement, from the whispers about Rock Hudson and Freddie Mercury to the roaring parties of Fire Island. Then it happened: the drip-drip-drip of speculation was followed by a steady stream of voluntary celebrity disclosures: Elton John, Boy George, Barney Frank, Rupert Everett, Ian McKellan, Ricky Martin, Lance Bass, Rufus Wainwright, George Takei, Neil Patrick Harris, Anderson Cooper, etc. I could go on, but you get my point.
It took years for societal acceptance to take hold. At first, when New York club kids or high-profile celebrities came out of the closet, they could be dismissed as fringe players on society’s edges. In terms of people’s everyday lives, gay men were invisible. Not until the gay “middle class”--men who with ordinary careers and lives--began speaking out did broader social acceptance follow. As a critical mass of “normal” gay men appeared in workplace, mainstream society reached certain inevitable conclusions:
1. GAY MEN EXIST IN EVERYDAY LIFE.
2. GAY MEN ARE PEOPLE WITH HUMAN WANTS AND NEEDS.
3. GAY MEN CAN MAKE CONTRIBUTIONS TO SOCIETY.
The key was proving the first of these. Once others perceived the existence of gay men in everyday life, the second and third realizations naturally followed. But no one cared about club kids, and celebrity disclosures only push a movement so far. Until those men who really had something to lose (the “middle class”) began coming out, it was easier for society to believe that a celebrity announcement of “I’m gay” was based on a fashion statement or whim. In 2018, coming out in the workplace may be a challenge, but it is not the challenge that it was 40, 50, or 60 years ago. The openly gay “middle class” can be thanked for that.
There are obvious parallels between the evolution of the gay rights movement and the evolution of mental health awareness. At present, mentally ill people are visible in much the same way gay men were in the mid-’80s: (1) they are visible (as were disenfranchised club kids) as unfortunates whose illness is revealed to the world involuntarily (homeless people, addicted people, the person who has a “nervous breakdown” at work); or (2) they are visible as celebrities who have voluntarily disclosed their conditions. These top and bottom rungs are easily dismissible as fringe elements, and they are invisible in everyday society.
Recently, I was discussing the similarities in the movements over dinner with a gay couple. Bemoaning the limitations of celebrity disclosures in the context of mental health awareness, I said, “I love Carrie Fisher, Patty Duke, and Halsey,” I said, “But their stories aren’t really relatable to the average person because people think of artists in a separate category. They’re supposed to be eccentric. They’re allowed to keep weird schedules and go on benders. Celebrity stories aren’t convincing anyone that mental illness is something that normal people in everyday life can have and overcome.”
My friends exchanged knowing glances as if to say,
“SHE’S JUST NOW FIGURING THIS OUT?”
and then looked back at me. Reaching out to pat my arm, one of them said, “How do you think we felt, honey? All we had was Liberace and George Michael!” The table howled with laughter and rang with truth: nothing big changes until the “normal” people start taking chances.
Over the next months and years, through this website and through my public speaking and writing endeavors, I hope to assist others who are, for want of a better word, “normal” to disclose their conditions at work and elsewhere. For reasons that I will explore in greater detail at a later date, I firmly believe that openness about one’s mental illness in the workplace is better for one’s employer and for one’s soul. Beyond these immediate goals, by being open our journeys with mental illness, those of us who have survived and thrived can be beacons for the next generation of sufferers.
THERE IS AT LEAST SOME SAFETY IN NUMBERS.
As a preliminary step towards making it safer for “normal” people to come out, I would like to invite anyone with a mental illness to join my “Bipolar Bio” project. To participate, please send the following to email@example.com: a brief bio outlining your life and work history (much like the bio of myself I have on this website) along with a statement identifying your mental illness diagnosis plus types of episodes and time periods suffered, if possible. If you wish to remain anonymous, please feel free to redact and/or amend your bio accordingly.
AS GLINDA THE GOOD WITCH SAID, “COME OUT, COME OUT, WHEREVER YOU ARE….”