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In 1989, 25 people turned out for Coming Out Day in Phoenix. Last year, 250 people attended the barbecue. Today, 500 people will show up.
The atmosphere is idyllic. It's a warm day, not hot. People sit around on benches or lie on the grass. There's music, dancing, games, a raffle. Hamburgers, hot dogs, veggieburgers, soft drinks and beer.
Some guys are wearing kilts so short that they're skirts. Two big, redneck-looking men in cowboy hats appear. They're holding hands. A guy wears a tee shirt with the slogan: "Jesus is coming--look busy." The women are a mix of butch and fem. Some could have stepped off the cover of Spare Rib, others from Cosmopolitan. People walk around with their dogs. It's the kind of scene you rarely come across east of California. Everybody seems welcoming, a far cry from the cliques who frequent the bars.
Jody is stoked to see so many new faces. He's so active on the scene that he thinks he knows just about everybody else on it, but he says only about 5 percent of the faces here today are familiar to him.
There doesn't seem to be any separatism going on; men and women are hanging out together. Jody admits to some sympathy for lesbians who're hostile toward gay men. "The average gay man who's out is white and middle-class, and is complaining about being denied the privileges society would grant him if he wasn't gay. But women are denied those privileges anyway, so I can understand women seeing their problems as being different from men's." He also believes gay men to be more solipsistic than lesbians. "You see lesbians at AIDS marches. You tend not to see gay men at pro-choice marches."
But there are women who have the opposite view. Jody runs into a woman he knows, and asks about some others. She shrugs and says they haven't come along. "I don't know what it is with women," she says. "Men will come along."
"We'll do anything for free beer," Jody tells her, and they both laugh.
I don't see Emily at the barbecue. But, since it's Sunday, she's probably in church. She had her first gay relationship in her senior year at a private Christian school in Oklahoma. "If there was any suspicion of homosexual activity, you had the choice of quitting school or going into counseling. Needless to say, that was not the time for me to come out . . ."
She didn't come out then, but the relationship lasted about nine months. It would be three years before she had another. That was after she'd moved to Phoenix. "Although Phoenix is conservative, it's a lot more liberal than Oklahoma. The possibility became real again, and I found myself attracted to women."
She started coming out to close friends she trusted. "I was fortunate because I work with a lot of gay and lesbian people, so I didn't receive any negativity." But she came out selectively. "I know who I can trust and who I can't. If I don't trust someone, I don't come out to them. I let them assume whatever they assume."
The only negativity she encountered was when she outed herself back home in Oklahoma. "That's not something you do there. It's just not within the realm of possibility. I come from a small town out in the panhandle, with about 600 people. Right in the middle of the Bible Belt. When I came out to my mother, she just went into denial. I was raised Southern Baptist, and so were most of my friends. Many of them just wouldn't interact with me."
Surprisingly--or shockingly, considering the way churches revile homosexual behavior--Emily has never lost the Christian faith she was raised with. Couldn't she smell the brimstone as she realized she was gay?
"Oh, yes. Especially during the relationship at school in Oklahoma. Before anything had even happened, when I was just having feeling towards my friend, I was almost paralyzed with shame. I thought I was the biggest sinner in the world, and I hadn't even done anything yet.
"It took a while--it was a gradual process--but I realized that God knew me. He knew my heart, and this wasn't something I'd asked for. I couldn't fathom the loving God that I knew would let me have the feelings I did if it was such a terrible thing."
In the Valley, she found churches whose congregations were made up of gay Christians. She now worships at Gentle Shepherd Metropolitan Church.
"God and I are great. My problem's not with God. It's God's people who tend to get in the way."
Contact Barry Graham at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org