Both groups have readily identifiable issues that, from a legal standpoint alone, has cast these two groups as being "controversial." The primary issues the public has connected to atheists are a collection of first-amendment and church/state separation issues such as prayer in public schools, and removing "in God we trust" on our currency and "under God" in the pledge. The homosexual issues revolve around family, such as gay marriage and adoption and their corresponding rights.
Despite having issues of greater personal severity, the gay community has gained some social acceptance in the last 30 years (although not much legally). In the 1978-2007 period, a series of Gallup polls showed that the percentage of Americans who would vote for a homosexual president rose from 26% to 55%. Atheist statistics remained fairly stagnant over the same period, growing from 40% to only 45%.
The atheist community should take note. We can learn from the gay rights movement -- as Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell realized when they started the brights movement. We can not only learn what to do as a community, but we can learn what the sense of community can mean to the individuals within it, and how it can help them. Atheists that are wanting to come out have a wealth of gay anecdotes that can tell them exactly what to expect. This is where the NYTimes article's parallels are most useful.
The article begins by introducing a younger Zach O'Connor, before he came out. Zach was afraid of discovery. He was in denial. He even asked girls on dates in order to convince others -- and himself -- that he was straight. Sound familiar? Many atheists feel the same way, before coming out. We are afraid of negative reactions from our family and friends. We might have trouble admitting atheism to ourselves long after we stop believing in God/Allah/etc. Some of us even still attend church in order to fit in and appear as theistic as most of our peers. Many of us shy away from the term 'atheist' despite being non-religious. For both groups, these feelings and questions create negative pressures on life. Zach began doing poorly in school, and was quick to lose his temper. He didn't have many friends.
What I found so inspiring about the article was the story of acceptance that followed. Zach finally admitted his homosexuality to himself, and told his parents. The fireworks he expected to follow were non-existent. Nobody else in his family was gay, but they still completely accepted Zach.
"With all our faults," Mr. O'Connor says, "we're in this together."Zach began meeting with a gay youth group. He was teased and mocked by some school bullies at first, but quickly gained ground socially. His grades improved and he made more friends -- even male friends. One classmate even used Zach as the subject of a class essay on heroes.
Atheists see many of the same social stigmas as homosexuals. The same school bullies that teased and mocked Zach would probably tease and mock an atheist. But Zach's classmate should not be the only one to view Zach as a hero. Atheists should feel the same way. Are you still in the closet, maybe even in denial to yourself? Are you afraid of what might happen if you came out? Zach's story is an inspiration to anybody that is afraid of discrimination.