Arizona State Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford (D) is concerned that her colleague Sen. Steve Gallardo (D) is being dishonest by continuing in his role as Senate Minority Whip while running for Congress. Given Gallardo voted last October to oust Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor (D) from her position as Senate Minority Leader because she was running for Secretary of State, Bedford believes it’s inconsistent for him not to similarly step down. Gallardo also just revealed that he is gay, which Bedford believes supports her concerns about his honesty: “Why was he hiding it?”
According to Gallardo, not only has Bedford questioned his integrity, but she also suggested that he needs “to act more gay” — what she described as an attempt at humor. (His response: “I can’t.”) Bedford may, as she claims, be “fine with him being gay,” but her insinuation that he was dishonest for hiding his sexual orientation is problematic and reinforces the very kind of stigma that keeps people in the closet.
Acceptance of homosexuality has certainly progressed quickly, but that shift in the culture does not change nor negate the purpose of the closet. People hide the fact they’re gay to avoid experiencing discrimination related to anti-gay sentiments. Bedford’s claim that this implies dishonesty suggests that she believes that Gallardo would have something to gain by staying in the closet, creating a lose-lose situation for his reputation. Under this logic, courageously opening up about his identity constitutes evidence of dishonesty. People come out when they are ready to do so, and shaming them for not doing so sooner constitutes a rejection of their own experience with their identity.
Research on the coming out process demonstrates how Bedford is perpetuating anti-gay stigma. Coming out is good for the mental health of gay people, but it is impacted by how people respond. For example, it’s better for young people’s mental health when they come out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual if their parents are accepting; family rejection, on the other hand, can contribute to depression and substance abuse. In the workplace, an unwelcoming environment causes people to stay closeted, which in turn negatively impacts their ability to advance in their careers. Another study has found that coming out genuinely makes people feel happier, but only if they’re supported when they do; if they’re not, the stigma cancels out the benefits. Over a lifetime, gay, lesbian, and bi people who are regularly exposed to stigma are more likely to actually die younger.
Conflating hiding a person’s identity with dishonesty is a problem across the LGBT community. This comparison was one of the core problems when Grantland reported on “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” — the implication that an individual’s desire to hide her transgender identity was evidence of fraudulent intentions. And bisexual people experience unique health deficits because being honest about their identities causes both gay and straight people to distrust them.
Gallardo came out after a nationwide backlash against Arizona’s passage of a bill that would have allowed for anti-LGBT discrimination. When he shared his identity with the press, he said specifically that he was motivated to “take a stance” and tell people about his experience after watching his Republican colleagues advance that bill. Though Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed the bill, Arizona still doesn’t have any statewide LGBT protections, and the Republican majority continues to consider other legislation that could hurt the LGBT community. If the closet ever disappears, it will not be until long after LGBT people have full legal equality, and Arizona is nowhere close to achieving that milestone.