I have now identified a struggle within the AIDS community during the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Our country was in a period in which religious influence had a strong impact not only on our society but within the walls of the White House. From President Reagan’s administration taking little action towards stopping the AIDS epidemic, to the attitudes which people held towards individuals with AIDS, activism played a central role in reducing stigma and bringing awareness to communities in America. However, as the AIDS awareness movement was finding momentum, there was another movement on the rise as well, and no panel tells the story of the LGBT empowerment movement better than the panel of Dr. Rob Eichberg.
Rob Eichberg Takes on a Battle
A group that was also fighting for public acceptance during the late 1990’s was the gay community. The opposition facing the gay community at the time was intense. With a religious right growing in influence, the gay community was condemned for living a life of so-called “sin”. It was this opposing force that Dr. Rob Eichberg courageously took on.
According to the New York Times, “Dr. Eichberg was born in Brooklyn but lived most of his life in Los Angeles.” In addition, his panel states that Eichberg lived between 1945-1995. With this context, we can assume that Eichberg’s work took place around the same time as Feinberg’s.
While our government’s inaction towards AIDS was evident, the sheer hate towards homosexuals was clear as well. According to the Atlantic, “Bill Clinton had in 1997 nominated James C. Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. But his nomination as the first openly gay U.S. ambassador stalled the following summer.” Hormel was shunned by government and Senators did not welcome him as he entered the confirmation process and condemned him openly. The opposition Senators expressed was nothing short of dehumanizing. The Atlantic recounts this time period reporting that “Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi on June 15, 1998, added fuel to the fire, comparing being gay to a condition “just like alcohol…or sex addiction…or kleptomania” — a pathology in need of treatment. House Majority Leader Dick Armey chimed in to support Lott, affirming, “The Bible is very clear on this.” The religious fundamentalism was growing not only in America but in our governing bodies as well. Christianity was being used as a ground to demean gay individuals and as a platform for prejudice.
In addition, a Gallup News Poll illustrates the disapproval of gay and lesbian relationships during the 1980’s. This poll is relevant because it illustrates the attitudes towards gay individuals during the time in which Dr. Eichberg was conducting the majority of his work.
It is clear that Rob Eichberg was up against a wave of disapproval. As a gay man himself, Rob Eichberg was experiencing discriminatory attitudes first hands. However, what he chose to do about it is what his panel is all about.
I was truly astonished when I found out that Dr. Rob Eichberg was one of the widely recognized co-founders of National Coming Out Day. His panel had illustrated his part in co-founding National Coming out Day, but I wanted to explore the impact Eichberg’s movement had.
For those who do not know, National Coming Out Day was founded in the late 1980’s. National Coming Out Day remains extremely relevant today, as each year many LGBTQ individuals express to the world who they truly are on this day. While this day is seen today as a modern statement of empowerment, National Coming Out has roots that started back in the 1980’s.
According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), “On Oct. 11, 1987, half a million people participated in the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It was the second such demonstration in our nation’s capital and resulted in the founding of a number of LGBTQ organizations, including the National Latino/a Gay & Lesbian Organization (LLEGÓ) and AT&T’s LGBTQ employee group, LEAGUE.” (HRC) It is important to note that the struggle for LGBT acceptance is illustrated by the origins of Nation Coming Out Day. Before the day even existed, many LGBT individuals felt ignored, unwanted, and frankly invisible. It was the March on Washington that sparked a movement. The HRC’s explanation of the March on Washington illustrate a movement beginning.
However, the movement sparked by D.C protest didn’t end there, it would go on to grow. According to the HRC, “The momentum continued four months after this extraordinary march as more than 100 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer activists from around the country gathered in Manassas, Va., about 25 miles outside Washington, D.C. Recognizing that the LGBTQ community often reacted defensively to anti-LGBTQ actions, they came up with the idea of a national day to celebrate coming out and chose the anniversary of that second march on Washington to mark it. The originators of the idea were Rob Eichberg, a founder of the personal growth workshop, The Experience, and Jean O’Leary, then head of National Gay Rights Advocates. From this idea, the National Coming Out Day was born.” Dr. Rob Eichberg was now without a doubt the co-found a movement for social change.
The day of October 11th is a symbol of courage, empowerment, and recognition. The attitudes in our government, society, and churches were extremely demeaning towards gay individuals. However, Echberg didn’t speak out against hate but instead spoke up.
Eichberg encouraged the gay man who was questioning his sexuality to speak out. Eichberg encouraged the young teen who was born and raised in a Christain household to speak out. Eichberg encouraged members of his community to use their voice to speak out. Most importantly, Rob told gay individuals that the time was now to come out of hiding.
What makes National Coming Out Day so vital to the push towards LGBT acceptance is the success of empowering a community through a channel of a single message of acceptance.
For instance, take Ellen DeGeneres.
Ellen DeGeneres is a television icon. From her role as Dory in Finding Nemo to her successful talk show, Ellen is a household name in America. However. she is all a member of the LGBT community. As TIME Magazine recalls, “on the April 14, 1997, cover of TIME magazine that Ellen DeGeneres, then the star of the sitcom Ellen, confirmed something she’d been building up to for decades: “Yep,” as the cover put it, “I’m gay.” DeGeneres’s interview with TIMES was monumental in the sense she herself was coming out to the world. In a time when being gay wasn’t the normal, DeGeneres simple response to coming out was a bold statement. DeGeneres was unapologetically asserting her identity.
It had been two years since Eichberg’s passing from AIDS that Ellen DeGeneres shared her identity with America. However, hateful attitudes reared their heads. TIME explains that at the time “some sponsors announced they would pull ads from the show — including J.C. Penney, ironically, as that company would later hire DeGeneres for an ad campaign that would in turn draw its own controversy — and the nation debated whether the show would “legitimize” a facet of life that was still marginalized, or if it merely proved that homosexuality was already accepted by enough of the population that such a plot twist was possible. The values J.C. Penney held in 1997 are drastically different in comparison to the attitudes they would later have. J.C. Penney is just one example of a shift in attitudes towards the LGBT community.
Why does Ellen’s story matter? It is because of individuals such as Rob Eichberg spreading a message of love, that individuals such as Ellen were able to speak out and find pride in who they were. Eichberg’s message not only was one that was impactful but one that lead to a ripple of empowerment.
“And all we have to give and receive is love”
Eichberg was more than an activist, he was an embodiment of courage. He faced hateful opposition and a wave of demeaning public attitudes. However, he never let the fear of what others thought about him stop him from spreading his message. Eichberg’s message of empowerment would go on to play a role the increased acceptance towards the LGBT community during the 21st century.
The quote on Eichberg’s panel is what represents his legacy best. The idea of “and all we have to give and receive is love” is a message that illustrates the core of his work. Eichberg’s message is one that wrote the narrative for the future. Activism is not something that changes things overnight. but in the long run, it can change the heart of a country.
Thank you, Dr. Eichberg.