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Politics weigh in on Coming Out Week

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The annual National Coming Out Week festivities on college campuses last week boasted the typical student event fare: food, friendship and fun.

But in this election year, with the culture war over gay civil rights raging in neighborhoods, churches, state legislatures and Congress, some of the events offered a political edge, too.

The theme this year: “Come out. Speak out. Vote.”

And at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, University lecturer and gay rights activist Michael Henry urged several dozen people at the Coming Out Day luncheon to counteract use of gay issues as political wedge issues by being open with their friends and families.

“We’re in a huge struggle. We are the targets. We are the pawns,” said Henry, who teaches a communications course at UMKC and also serves on the board of governors for the Human Rights Campaign. The national organization advocates for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people.

“It takes courage to come out,” Henry said. “It was easier, actually, last year to come out than it is this year.”

Henry was among more than 400 people at UMKC whose names appeared in the campus newspaper last week on a “Declaration of Support for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual ‘ Transgender Members of the UMKC Campus Community.”

Signatories said they supported the University’s values of diversity, inclusiveness and respect; they believed everyone should be treated with dignity and respect; and they respected leading honest and open lives as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals, or as “heterosexual allies.”

This was the first year for such a list in Missouri, said Tobi Leuthardt, coordinator for UMKC’s new lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender office, which is part of the Women’s Center. But some other colleges nationally have printed such lists for years.

Candace Gingrich, the campaign’s youth outreach manager, said rhetoric over gay rights this election year brought a new dimension to coming-out events.

At some colleges, gay students are highlighting politics by displaying faux ballot boxes alongside Coming Out Day’s more traditional wooden doors. The doors represent the closet of isolation where some gay people take shelter because of fear.

“While it’s easy to be kind of whimsical with Coming Out Day, I’ve spoken with a lot of people who feel under siege,” Gingrich said. “A lot of college students probably aren’t thinking about getting married at this moment, but they realize that depending on how things go, same-sex couples may not ever get to marry.”

Coming Out Day participants said by revealing themselves as regular citizens, they could open other people’s minds and create tolerance and political change.

“It’s hard to hate me as a person, as opposed to this `mass of gays,'” Leuthardt said.

Henry, from UMKC, was devastated in August when Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman, even though that limitation already was in state law.

He asked the senators’ staffers “if they could understand what it would feel like to be cut out of the Constitution. … It doesn’t feel good at all. It feels like we give to the community –my partner and I are very involved in the community — and our neighbors have turned on us and said, `Who cares whether you care about our community? We don’t want you here.'”

National Coming Out Day began as a commemoration of the 1987 gay rights march on Washington.

Kansas City poet and lawyer Joel Brown read his poems. He wants to give young gay people hope.

“You can come from a place of confusion, bewilderment, disillusionment, and reach a place where you are totally comfortable with who you are. You can lead a productive, positive life without engaging in destructive behavior,” he said.

In a 2003 poll, 77 percent of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people considered themselves “out.” But only 32 percent talk to their parents about public policy issues, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation survey found.

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