Michelle Courtney Berry, an award-winning poet laureate and politician, will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Textor Hall 101 about National Coming Out Day. Contributing Writer Nicole Black spoke with Berry Friday about gay rights and her upcoming presentation to the college.
Nicole Black: Do you feel that being a writer and a performer helps you in the political realm?
Michelle Berry: Absolutely. I think that it takes a lot of diversity of experience and persistence to make it in politics. Here at home in Ithaca, I feel respected for my diversity: in understanding finances and budgets, in having ability in the arts (literary and healing) and being a spouse and mom. I don’t know if every place would be as intrigued and supportive as this region seems to be of all that I bring to the table. That’s why I love living here.
NB: What are the most important gay rights issues right now?
MB: I would think that [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] issues related to aging, the economy, health, safety in the workplace, crime, marriage and relationships, parenting, international rights and immigration, health and much more are of serious importance.
NB: Can you elaborate on why it is important to have a day to recognize that coming out is important?
MB: I really believe strongly that visibility is important. I also don’t want to imply that everyone who’s coming out has to do so publicly, because I believe it’s a really private decision that people can then decide to be public. I have always found it important as a legislator, as an elected official who has spent a lot of time talking to LGBT communities, being endorsed by the Pride Agenda… to really be very clear that straight allies and public support and legislation that ensures the safety of LGBT communities is paramount. It’s very important that National Coming Out day be supported by straight allies, legislators and elected officials so it gives further testament to the importance of equal rights for everybody.
NB: Do people often think that coming out needs to be public. Is that a common misconception?
MB: When people talk about coming out it’s largely thought of and marketed as public because of the importance of visibility, so they are linked. If everyone is not public then people don’t realize the number of people who are LGBT so it defeats the purpose. I want to hold to the fact that I think it can be a very private process and that’s important, too. I think that process is internalized and private and then it moves towards a public process. I know other people who said it was always public for them. They always felt comfortable being out and other people felt it was very complex and painful. It’s an individual process.
NB: Specifically, how can legislation help create a safe environment in the work place and the home for the LGBT community?
MB: We want to hope in the best-case scenario that people will do the right thing. If you look at the cases of affirmative action, ensuring that people of color and women were hired had to be part of our laws for it to really happen. Federal and state laws, courts and election all really matter for LGBT equality and they have to go hand in hand. There are a lot of people who are LGBT who are not protected in the work place by laws or in legislation. There is something about living here, and I’ve traveled, it’s not the same as in other areas.
NB: Is there anything else you want our readers to know about National Coming Out Day or you coming to speak at the college?
MB: I feel very close to being an artist and I’m really excited about letting the work and the stories I’m going to bring speak for themselves. I’ve always felt honored when I have an opportunity to present my work to the community and especially to students. I’m very fond of the students at Ithaca College. Connecting with IC students will be a delight for me.