On Coming Out, Part One

This is the first in a series of blog posts I’ll be writing about coming out, from historical, political, and personal perspectives. This week I’m focusing on National Coming Out Day and some of the criticisms of it.

In the past few weeks, two of my friends who don’t know each other came out in very different ways. One is a longtime ally of the LGBTQ community who has questioned their own sexuality for years. They told me via text they had finally introduced themselves as queer in public, and my friends and I celebrated this news with joy. The other friend has struggled to reconcile their religion, which is homophobic, with the growing revelation that they might be gay. For this friend, the slow process of coming out was painful. It was a surprise to them. And although they have “come out” to me, they’re still very much in the closet around family, their church community, and colleagues.

I’ve been thinking about both of them this week as we celebrated National Coming Out Day. This – one of few queer-designated holidays – was first celebrated in 1988 at a time when HIV/AIDS was still ravaging the community. Coming out and living as an openly gay person was seen as a way to combat the stigmas against the AIDS epidemic and the gay and lesbian community. Today, its spirit is to be more inclusive of all sexualities and also trans and nonbinary people.

There’s been a lot of pushback against NCOD in my world, where folks overeducated on history and politics like to find everything “problematic” for the pleasure of cynicism. One of the critiques is that NCOD puts pressure on people to come out or be seen as hiding, cowardly, or ashamed of themselves. When I was in college, the straight allies in the LGBTQ group on campus borrowed a freestanding door and threshold from the theater department. They set it up in front of the student union, so queer people could walk through it on their way to lunch. If you walked through it, you “came out” of the closet, and everyone cheered. Everyone knew I identified as a lesbian. (Or maybe that was when I still called myself bisexual, which I did for a year as a way of easing into the community, but either way, I was out.) I was never closeted at school or anywhere. So when my ally friends saw me walking to lunch, they urged me to walk through the door to “come out.” I remember finding the whole thing dismissive of how painful the process of coming out can be and very pressuring. I was out. I didn’t need to walk through a stupid door to be recognized. And for others I knew on campus, a door in the middle of the sidewalk wasn’t going to solve the problem of their inability to come out safely and happily. I glared at my friends, refused, and went inside to eat lunch by myself.

Another criticism of NCOD is that it flattens coming out to a one-time event. Everyone who identifies as queer or trans or nonbinary knows this isn’t how it works. Every time you meet a new person, start a new job, go on a date, find a new therapist, sign your spouse up for your health insurance policy, do pretty much anything…you have to come out. Over and over and over again. As someone who is straight-passing in appearance (whatever that means), this is something I’ve grown accustomed to. I have to constant tell not only straight people that I’m gay but even my own community – who often look at me and see “ally” instead of “sister.” Coming out is a lifelong experience, so having one day in which we’re all supposed to come out, critics say, is reductive.

I understand these criticisms and share some of the concerns. The idea that if we were all out, we’d all be safe and better understood neglects the reality that for some people, announcing their sexuality or gender identity puts an actual target on their back. Hate crimes still exist. Violence against trans people is still a very real danger. Queer teens still get kicked out of their parents’ homes. It may be true that with greater numbers of us floating around the population, there would be more acceptance, but to get there means some people would be sacrificed along the way. And it’s not up to us to decide who we’re willing to martyr for the greater good. Everyone has to choose their own levels of comfort and safety based on their own experiences.

As for the flattening of the day into a one-time deal, well, sure. But Christians say things like “it’s Christmas every day” while still celebrating the actual holiday on December 25. My mother appreciates the flowers I send her on Mother’s Day, but if I never called or texted or showed any gratitude for her the rest of the year, I’d be a shitty daughter. There are lots of experiences in life we celebrate one day a year – a special day to honor those experiences. Having a National Coming Out Day doesn’t take away from a lifelong, daily coming out process. It just gives us a day to reflect more intentionally on it and for non-queers to be forced to think about it, too.

To everyone who has bravely come out at any point in their lives, congratulations! To everyone who isn’t there yet or can’t for safety reasons or isn’t yet sure what to come out as, that’s okay. There’s no rush. There’s no pressure. I hope you’re one day able to celebrate National Coming Out Day, but only in your own time. And to everyone who has come out once and had to come out again and again and again, I’m sorry this is the reality of our world, but I’m proud of your stamina.

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