"Mom, I'm gay."
A hush fell over the room of about a hundred people. The speaker in the front, Keith Boykin, was telling his coming-out story. He had paused for effect after the recited pronouncement.
"And there was a pause just like that," he then added, to several chuckles in the audience.
As part of Northeastern Illinois University's (NEIU) celebration of National Coming Out Week, Boykin, gave a presentation Oct. 11. Boykin was a special assistant in Bill Clinton's White House administration, making him the highest ranking gay person in the executive branch at the time; he is also the host of "My 2 Cents" as well as an author. He recently edited a collection of essays entitled For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out, and Coming Home.
Boykin's address touched on a number of topics all around his own life experiences, coming out, and learning to do the right thing.
"Knowing the right thing to do is not the same thing as doing it," he told the crowd after an opening anecdote.
Boykin discussed his involvement in the Coalition for Civil Rights, a group of Harvard Law School students who sought to diversify the school's faculty in the late '80s and early '90s. The group filed a suit that went all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court before ultimately being dismissed.
It wasn't until Boykin's second year of law school that he said he began to reflect on his own sexual orientation. After the long pause, Boykin said the first thing his mother told him was, "I love you."
While sometimes casual and joking, he also stressed serious topics, such as the differences between identity, behavior and orientation. Discussions about sexual orientation, he said, require a level of nuance.
"We need to bring sophistication out of the closet," he said.
He also discussed the debates in the early '90s about gays in the military during the time he was working in the White House, when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was implemented. He compared the arguments against gays and lesbians serving in the military with those that justified racial segregation in the military. He also stressed that you can compare issues of race and sexual orientation without conflating or equating the two.
His latest book is intended to be a response to the series of suicides of young, LGBT youth in 2010, particularly those of young men of color that went unreported by the mainstream media.
Boykin also discussed the impact of Obama's support for gay marriage on the Black community. He said that Obama acted as an enabler of support, citing the NAACP, Colin Powel and Jay-Z as an institution and popular figures who've come out in support of gay marriage.
"We know the right thing to do, but it is not the same as doing it," he said.