Twenty years ago, Barbara Muirhead of Fullerton felt she had to use a pseudonym when talking to a reporter about her life as a lesbian. Today, she is proud to see her name in print.
"We were scared back then," said Muirhead, director of the Federation, a union of lesbian, gay and AIDS support organizations in Orange County. "You had to cover up who you really were or risk losing everything."
Today, the Federation and several other organizations will sponsor a telephone support line in honor of National Coming Out Day. Anyone seeking information or support is invited to call (714) 534-3261 between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Last year, the first year the hot line was offered in Orange County, about 100 gay people and their families called, Muirhead said.
National Coming Out Day, Muirhead said, encourages people to come forward.
"There is still risk. People get fired from their jobs. Or they don't get promoted," she said. "But we've come a long way. There are churches advertising in gay newsletters and gay elected officials. That stuff didn't happen 20 years ago."
Muirhead, a retired high school teacher, lived in fear of being discovered throughout much of the 1970s. At the time, she said, a law that would ban homosexuals from teaching careers was gaining widespread support in the state.
"I'd have been accused of trying to recruit youngsters," she said. "For a teacher, not being able to teach is the worst possible thing."
A 1975 newspaper article describes a day with Muirhead and her former partner, Lynnette Brown, as they picnic in Irvine park, playing games with their three children and talking about their unconventional marriage. For Muirhead, now 60, that was a watershed year. It was the year she came out to her two sons and became a gay rights activist.
She will never forget, she said, the day she told her 10-year-old son, Lee.
On the eve of a camping trip to Lake Shasta, Muirhead sat her son down and told him that Brown would be coming with them. She explained that they loved each other just like any other couple. The boy burst into tears and Muirhead's heart sank. Then he asked her if it was all right if he still loved Brown too.
In the car the next day, she recalled, Lee burst into song.
"He starting singing about our car calling it 'Tin Lezzy' instead of 'Tin Lizzy.' I'm really lucky that my sons have never had a problem with my sexuality," she said. "But not everyone can count on their family, and that's why the support line is so important."
Pam Woody, co-president of the Orange County P-FLAG--Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays--said the issue still splits many families apart.
When Woody found out three years ago that her son, Mark, was gay, her first reaction was guilt. As a single mother, she feared she had done something wrong that made him homosexual. After joining P-FLAG and meeting other parents like herself, she let go of her long-held misconception.
"We all want the same things out of life," she said. "A lot of times when people make derogatory remarks about gays, they don't realize they're talking about someone's child."
On the other side, the Rev. Louis Sheldon said his Traditional Values Coalition will have a news conference in Washington today urging gays to abandon their lifestyles on what the organization is calling National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day. Speakers described as former homosexuals will urge others to stop being gay, he said.
Muirhead said she has no doubt that someday there will be no need for any kind of coming-out day.
"Every person who comes out today makes it a little easier for those tomorrow," she said.