6.4. The Lesson of the Coming Out Movement

It’s not a coincidence that many of our biggest divisions thrive on silence and separation.

We live in an era in which progressives are working hard to hold governments accountable to the highest standards of equality and fairness.

We believe in those ideals. We believe that all of us are created equal, that we all have certain unalienable rights, and in all the other great principles our democracies have stood for.

But for too long, the reality hasn’t matched the rhetoric.

We’ve taken shortcuts. We’ve swept atrocities under the rug. We’ve fulfilled those lofty promises to some…by denying them to others.

We won’t rest until we truly and fully live up to those standards.

But how do we speed up the process?

How do we convince people that lazy, crude, prejudicial stereotypes aimed at all kinds of marginalized groups are just flat-out wrong?

How do we convince people that it isn’t just about having nice thoughts and treating people kindly—but also fixing the systemic injustices in our institutions?

How do we convince people that we don’t hate our country or are just trying to be “politically correct?” That we’re patriots too, who—in the words of George McGovern—love our country deeply enough to call it to a higher standard?

It’s famously hard to change people’s minds. Psychologists and neuroscientists have produced hundreds of studies to prove this. We’re prone to dozens of cognitive biases—many of which are designed to keep us clinging to our beliefs. Some studies even flat-out demonstrate that presenting the facts just makes people cling to their beliefs even harder!

None of these studies have discovered a magic formula or silver bullet. But there is a historical example that we’ve all lived through—that has been extremely rapid and successful, as far as these things go.

The coming-out movement.

Before this movement, when nearly all gay people were closeted, it was easy to label all of them as dangerous sex criminals.

But as more and more people bravely started coming out, it became apparent that they were just ordinary people who deserve to love in their own way.

They weren’t monsters. They were family, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers who were liked and respected.

According to Gallup polling, in 1996, only 27 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage. Today, 64 percent do.

That’s a 37 percent jump in about 20 years—a extraordinary turnaround.

To put that into raw numbers, that means roughly 100 million Americans changed their mind on this issue in just a couple of decades!

There were other factors besides the coming-out movement, of course. But its crucial role is a testament to the power of visibility.

It’s a testament to the power of being who you are in your own social networks, of showing people rather than telling them that all those stereotypes that somehow got in their head are wrong.

It’s not a coincidence that many of our biggest divisions—from race and geography to political and religious affiliation—thrive on separation. On the lack of flesh-and-blood examples to counter the wild accusations and stereotypes.

We need to end this conspiracy of silence and separation.

We need to stop hanging out in our own little bubbles.

We need to unapologetically be who we are in each other’s presence.

That’s how we’ll finally live up to those democratic ideals we set for ourselves long ago.


This is the 96th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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