Some people really like to go for high impact when they come out. Air America Radio host Rachel Maddow settled on posting announcements inside all the bathroom stall doors in her dorm at Stanford.
“I guess I’m preternaturally confrontational or combative or attention-seeking or something,” Maddow said.
Now 33 years old, she has made a career of tackling important political issues and talking with guests as diverse as Al Gore, Lili Taylor and Pat Buchanan on her two-hour Rachel Maddow Show, which airs each weekday on Air America.
She also injects humor into her show, and probably into most anything she does. “It’s always important to have more fun than your enemy,” she pointed out. “In political circles, it’s always important to be a) the cute people, and b) the people who have better parties and more fun. You get more recruits.”
Perhaps that’s why she even employed humor when she was coming out in a surprisingly hostile environment. She said it amused her to know that because she had posted her coming-out statement in all the dorm bathrooms, within a day everyone would have to see it.
When she started college at Stanford, Maddow was surprised by the degree of homophobia on campus, particularly since it was thought of as a liberal California university. So she decided to shake things up a bit, letting her classmates know that there was an actual gay person in their lives, and that if they insulted gay people in the abstract, they were insulting her personally.
“It didn’t lead to any soul-searching conversations with previously homophobic people the way that with my 17-year-old mind I thought that it would,” Maddow said, but the results were mostly positive.
The only thing she regrets is not having come out to her parents before doing so to a newspaper reporter. The article noted that Maddow was one of only two openly gay freshmen on campus, and it mentioned that she was not yet out to her parents, even though the reporter had promised not to include that information. Then someone who had access to official Stanford letterhead — Maddow suspects her faculty advisor — mailed the article to her parents.
“That was not the kindest way to treat your parents,” Maddow said. Or your advisee, for that matter.
When asked whether the other gay freshman was her girlfriend, Maddow laughed and replied, “Funnily enough, only one other person was out, and she was not one of the many girls I was sleeping with.”
The other young woman was the daughter of a Liberian fundamentalist Christian minister who had moved to Texas. Maddow recalled thinking, “If she can be out, I can be out.”
By the time she was in college, Maddow had already become an activist. Since age 15 she was involved with “trying to generate some sort of public, evident response to the really overt racist stuff that was happening in my town.”
That town was in South Castro Valley, not far from San Francisco. “Everybody thinks of the Bay area as really liberal, but the place I grew up in was really homophobic and really racist,” she said. “It made me realize that that stuff is real. Talking about racism and homophobia and the threats to people who are different in America is not something that liberals make up to get sympathy. It’s real.”
From an early age, it was important to Maddow to not only recognize this but to do something about it. She wanted to make sure that hate crimes were confronted rather than written off as the work of a few bad seeds.
Maddow stressed that they can’t be seen as isolated incidents and that they affect the entire community: “When hate crimes happen in a town, and that definitely happened in Castro Valley when I was growing up, there are obviously direct victims of that, but the whole community is terrorized by that, in that it has an impact where it instills fear and it instills a sense of the social order for the whole community, that unless somebody else does something public to counteract that, the bad guys win. They win unless there’s some ostentatious public opposition to them.”
She came of age just outside San Francisco in the ’80s, as the AIDS epidemic was underway. “It was a life-or-death situation, so the AIDS movement at the time was really inspirational to me in terms of how to respond when you’re threatened,” she recalled. “It convinced me you had to step up, organize a response, have a movement to oppose what was going on.”
Maddow became a strong activist for issues related to HIV/AIDS and prisoners’ rights, and she also worked on labor rights and queer visibility. At Stanford she majored in public policy with a concentration in health policy and an honors program in ethics. She said that her whole academic orientation was an effort to get everything she could out of her education to make her a better AIDS activist.
She later became the first openly gay American Rhodes scholar and earned her doctorate in political science from Oxford University. Maddow made her way into broadcast journalism when friends convinced her to enter a radio contest for Holyoke, Mass., station WRNX, which was looking for a new on-air personality. Even though at that point her only radio experience consisted of being interviewed on air a couple of times, she was a natural and was hired immediately.