Jerry Leedom's life was changed seven years ago when one of his daughters told him that she was a lesbian. "We [Leedom and his wife] went through, 'Oh, my God, what did we do wrong,' to 'You'll get AIDS,' to 'You need to protect your privacy — translation: you need to protect our privacy,' to 'Oh, my God, we're not going to have a wedding,'" Leedom said.
Leedom and others spoke about their different experiences at the Oct. 28 "Coming Out Journeys" panel discussion, which met at Old Town Hall in Fairfax. Approximately 50 people came to hear all the panelists present their perspective on the way that coming out — telling others about their sexual orientation — affected them and those around them.
The discussion, explained Vienna resident Paula Prettyman, was striving to raise the profile of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. "Right now, we're too hidden," said Prettyman, president of Equality Fairfax, one of the sponsors of the discussion.
The hidden nature of the community, Prettyman said, is one factor that contributed to the passing of a bill during the last session of the Virginia General Assembly.
House Bill 751 made civil unions — arrangements similar to marriage for a same-sex couple — illegal in Virginia. Same-sex marriages have been illegal since 1997.
VIENNA: Locally, Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites-Davis (R-34th) and Dels. Vincent Callahan (R-34th) and Steve Shannon (D-35th) voted for the bill, and Sens. Janet Howell (D-32nd) and Richard Saslaw (D-35th) and Dels. Ken Plum (D-36th) and Jim Scott (D-53rd) voted against it.
FAIRFAX: Locally, Sens. Jeannemarie Devolites-Davis (R-34th) and Ken Cuccinelli (R-37th) and Dels. Steve Shannon (D-35th), Chap Petersen (D-37th) and Tim Hugo (R-40th) voted for the bill, and Dels. Vivian Watts (D-39th), James Dillard (R-41st), Jim Scott (D-53rd) voted against it.
Prettyman hopes that events that raise the profile of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community can allow lawmakers to oppose such measures in the future. "We really think it's our responsibility to make it safe for them to do the right thing," she said.
Leedom echoed this sentiment during the panel discussion. "We all know, love and respect gay and lesbians, transgender and bisexuals," he said. "We may not know it, but we do."
With issues like gay marriage at the forefront of local and national political races, simply announcing sexual orientation can become a political act. "I don't think anything is as political as coming out," said Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia.
Mason cited polls showing that the South is 5-10 points behind in acceptance of gay people. "We're also the region where people are least likely to know a gay person," Mason said. She sees a link between those two points.
Leedom agrees. He explained that since his wife's co-workers found out that her daughter is a lesbian, no one has made comments disparaging gays around her.
This, he said, might also help to protect others who have not publicly acknowledged that they are, or someone they are close to is, a member of a sexual minority. "Every time we stand silently," Leedom said, "someone in that context is being hurt by what is being allowed to happen."