Why make an issue out of being gay?

First, let me talk about the cover (right) that we didn't use in this week's Creative Loafing print edition.

Yes, that's Charlie Crist, our gray eminence, the governor who would be veep.

And no, he's not gay. Or maybe he is. Reports differ.

But that's why, when we decided to do an issue that dealt with a variety of gay topics (timed to coincide with St. Pete Pride) — and to call it not just "The Gay Issue," but "The [Openly] Gay Issue" — a cover shot of the much-debated bachelor guv seemed an apt point of departure.

Because questions about Crist's orientation continue to bubble up: Is he? Isn't he? He's got that gorgeous girlfriend, right? Anyway, would it matter if he was? How dare we bring it up in the first place?

And meanwhile, two openly gay candidates are running for County Commission in Hillsborough and Pinellas.

As they tell us in this week's Influencers interview, Kevin Beckner and Darden Rice are getting weary of the words "openly gay." They're both excellent candidates with smarts, experience and leadership ability who deserve consideration on those qualities alone. What difference does their sexual orientation make? You don't hear Beckner's opponent Brian Blair referred to as "openly straight," do you?

But there's a difference. Unless a candidate chooses to be open about being gay or lesbian, or unless he or she is outed, the "openly straight" part is presumed. We only know about the gay part if the candidate — or the athlete, or the actor, or the teacher, or the girl next door — goes public.

And if he or she does, it's news. It's important. That's the whole point behind coming out — gays and lesbians have been for most of American history an invisible minority, and unless and until we come out, we can't fully realize our potential, either as human beings or as a political force.

Not that we seem all that invisible anymore, right? But even within today's more-or-less tolerant climate, coming out is not necessarily easy. There is still danger: The deaths of Matthew Shepard and Ryan Skipper remind us of that. And no matter what the surrounding conditions, the process is always intensely personal.

The stages vary — coming out to oneself being the first, sometimes toughest step. Then there's telling a therapist, perhaps, or telling a friend. There are the first tentative moves outward (into a bar, a community center, a school club) — then telling more friends, employers, parents, the newspaper.

OK, not everyone comes out in the newspaper. That was me: In my first alt-weekly job, in Philly, I wrote a piece comparing the Mummers parade and the University of Pennsylvania's Mask & Wig Club, noting that in both cases these were putatively straight guys spending a lot of time dressing in drag, so what's up with that? And by the way, I added, I'm gay, so maybe my perspective's a little skewed. Which drew this response from a female reader: "Was it absolutely necessary for your new editor person David Warner to unzip his fly and expose himself? I mean, really, guy, I sleep with men, too, but I don't have to declare that in print just to make sure my readers know where I'm coming from, ya get my drift or what, buddy?"

I don't recall any responses to my self-disclosures since then that have been quite that indignant. At 55, my sexual orientation is more a matter of fact, anyway; most of the people who know me — well, know me.

And I suspect that for younger people, the whole coming-out process may be different than it used to be. There's certainly enough support available to them and, of course, tons more representations of gay life in popular culture, so that you'd have to be living a highly sheltered life to think you were all alone. And some members of the new generation actively resist any kind of label — like John, the college-age son of my friend Lucy. He'd always been straight, as far as his mother knew, but he recently introduced her to his boyfriend. Lucy was delighted — she'd actually been hoping John was gay — but her excited reaction prompted a letter from John telling her, essentially, to calm down: I'm not gay, I'm not straight, this is just the person I like to spend time with.

So perhaps there's a more fluid sense of possibility now, or maybe the question of sexual orientation is becoming "So what?" instead of "So what are you?" And yet, in high schools across the country "that's so gay" is still a standard insult. Homophobia is still a go-to trope in hip-hop. The prospect of same-sex marriage can still stir up the anti-gay brigades.

All of which means there's still something important, not just fun or sexy, about pride celebrations like St. Pete's — something vitally necessary about being out, outside, in the daylight, in front of the cameras, riding the float or marching in the parade. Gay is good, yes, that's the message, but being openly gay — that's something we must not only celebrate but encourage.

So ultimately, it didn't seem relevant to put Charlie Crist on the cover. The gay community can't really celebrate him as one of its own. And we can't really condemn him either — he has been commendably low-key and sensible on issues that concern us and has intentionally stayed out of the gay marriage battle (so far). So even if he is gay, he's not a hypocrite — unlike some of his cowardly Republican counterparts who support anti-gay legislation while keeping a boy (or a girl) on the side.

So, instead of a politician for our cover, we chose a cheerfully androgynous creation (above) by the openly gay St. Petersburg art and design team Chad Mize and Phillip Clark of bluelucy, who are partners in life as well as work. Inside the issue, in addition to the Becker and Rice interview, we look at the organizations fighting Florida's anti-gay marriage amendment; trace the surprising success of GaYbor; profile a queer artist at the University of Tampa; offer a handy Za-Gay Guide to local bars and restaurants and a resource list for the lesbian community. Plus, you'll find a guide to what's happening during this year's St. Pete Pride celebration, including the parade, street festival, dance parties and more.

See you out there.

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