NATIONAL COMING OUT DAY (NCOD) has been celebrated on 11th October in the US and increasingly around the world, since 1988.
NCOD celebrates individuals who publicly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender (LGBT) and coming out about sexual orientation and/or gender identity as a cultural rite of passage for LGBT people. It marks the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, when more than half a million people participated in a rally for LGBT civil rights in the US capital. It has become known as ‘The Great March’ because of its unprecedented size, scope and success.
But why have a day to celebrate coming out? And if you’re not LGBT, why should it matter?
If our society were not so defined by labels for gender and sexuality, it would not be necessary to ‘come out’ at all. Most cultures are based on ‘heteronormativity’ – the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life, that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation, and that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between a man and a woman. A ‘heteronormative’ view aligns biological sex, sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles. Those among us who don’t conform to these narrow definitions are not what our society expects us to be.
In my experience, no LGBT person believes they have ‘chosen’ their sexual orientation or gender identity. Each one of us is born with a biological ‘sex’ (usually, but not always, female or male) and learns what it means in our society to be a girl or boy, woman or man (our gender identity), and how we may express that (feminine, masculine, androgynous). In the same way, each of us is born with a predisposition towards a particular sexual orientation, and we learn what it means to be bisexual, lesbian, gay or straight in a society where heterosexuality is the norm. To be anything ‘less’ than these norms is a challenge to identity, both of the individual who is ‘different’ and the community which defines what it is to be ‘normal.’ (For more on the differences between sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, check out The Genderbread Person.)
So we don’t choose these parts of our identity – we just become aware of what they mean to us, and how to express them (or not) as integral parts of ourselves. We could choose to conform to what is ‘normal’, and risk the harm that suppression of ourselves may cause to our own mental health and our relationships with others. Or we could choose to stand up and be counted as different from the norm, risking isolation, exclusion from our communities, and many negative consequences which keep people in fear of discovery of their ‘secret identity’.
Between that rock and this hard place is where many LGBT people find themselves – some may never reconcile the conflict or release the pressure this constraint brings. For the more fortunate, the conditions for growth are less rocky, more fertile, and we reach a point where remaining closed up to our true selves is no longer an option:
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anaïs Nin
If the coming out process is supported, it can be a life-affirming, transforming experience, in which the energy pent up in hiding our true selves is released in new and creative ways – a true blossoming.
I asked the young people in the LGBT youth group I run to say one word to sum up their feelings/experiences of coming out. Here is what they said (the more frequently a word was used, the larger it appears):
Notice the synonyms for fear: ‘petrified’, scared, terrified’, and other negative emotions: ‘anxious’, ‘distrust’, ‘depressed’, ‘stupid’. There are expressions of how they perceived the experience: ‘awkward’, ‘complicated’, ‘difficult’, and people’s reactions ‘angry’, ‘unfair’ – but these are not all bad. There are coping mechanisms, from ‘drunk’ to ‘safe space’. There is movement, from ‘crying’ to ‘unfazed’, ‘comfortable’, ‘natural’, ‘easy’, ‘relief’, ‘sound’ (slang for OK in Liverpool), ‘amicable’, ‘funny’, ‘proud’, ‘thrilled’, ‘riveting’, through to ‘complete’, ‘life-changing’, ‘truth’, and a resounding ‘re-birth’.
NCOD exists to promote a safe world for LGBT individuals to live truthfully and openly, to raise awareness of the risks involved and celebrate the resilience of those who achieve this rite of passage.
Why don’t we just keep it to ourselves and get on with our lives?
This is a question, often an accusation, levelled by people who have not understood our need to define ourselves, since we have learned not to expect society to do it constructively for us. Some people say what we ‘do’ in private is up to us, why parade it for all to see? All I can say is: imagine if the tables were turned. Imagine you were always on guard because of your appearance or voice, that you could not walk hand in hand with your partner for fear of verbal or physical assault. Imagine having to censor talk of your weekend plans, being unable to display a photo of yourself and your partner at work for fear of recrimination, even dismissal. Imagine being unable to marry the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, being asked to leave them on their deathbed because the hospital staff or their family do not recognise you as next of kin. Then tell me you would want us to ‘keep it quiet.’
This is just one example of the kind of questions people with a different sexual orientation have been asked by those who reserve the right to judge what is ‘normal’. US psychologist Martin Esslin reframed these into the ‘Heterosexual Questionnaire’, in which the word ‘homosexual’ is replace with ‘heterosexual’ so that the faulty logic underlying these questions is stripped bare. Ask yourself these questions and notice your reactions. Welcome to our world!
Why don’t we all just come out all at once?
NCOD is not about everyone all coming out at once. While some may use the day to take the opportunity to share with someone they trust, it is more about raising awareness of the issues and showing support for those affected by the social and mental distress that may accompany remaining ‘closeted’ (i.e. not ‘out’) about their sexual orientation and/pr gender identity.
If our society were not so rigidly defined by heterosexuality and traditional gender roles, we would not need to come out. We could just express our sexual orientation or gender identity freely. We would work it out openly in childhood and adolescence as others usually do. In my generation and earlier, it was common for people to come to terms with these aspects of themselves in adulthood, but this developmental delay, along with criminalisation, unequal ages of consent and other forms of discrimination, were factors leading to a greater risk of mental distress among LGBT people.
I was a late developer, not coming out until my late twenties, after experiencing clinical depression. I know many people who have come out even later, sometimes after a heterosexual marriage, an attempt to be seen as ‘normal’, has failed. For those who are transgender, the delay can be considerable – in the UK in 2009, the median age that trans people presented for treatment for gender dysphoria was 42, (GIRES 2009), even though many claim to have realised their difference as young as two. That’s a long time to pretend to be something you are not.
In the UK, due to improving awareness and advances in equality legislation, people are coming out earlier. In the youth group I run, we have seen an increase in enquiries from young people in secondary school, and we currently support around 25 13-16 year olds each week. While many face bullying and struggle to come out, others are able to be open with peers in school in a way that would have been impossible a generation ago. It Gets Better, say thousands of contributors to an online video campaign. In September 2010, US columnist and author Dan Savage and partner Terry Miller created a YouTube video to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied, they created a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that it does get better.
Here is the ‘It Gets Better’ film my youth group made:
The hope that it can and will get better is what we aim to give to all LGBT young people. But, as the anti-homophobia DVD resource pack my youth group produced asks: ‘Are We There Yet?’
In the UK, things are better now than they have ever been, but there is still work to be done, as the heated debate around marriage equality demonstrates. There is a momentum behind this campaign which is resonating across the western world, especially USA and Australia, but the battle is not won, and there is no cause for complacency. In some states in those countries, equality legislation has been passed and then repealed, leaving same-sex couples whose civil union or marriage was briefly recognised without protection for their legal rights. The day after NCOD is the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, a 21 year old university student who was tortured near Laramie, Wyoming, USA, on the night of October 6th, and died in hospital six days later from severe head injuries. In 2009 the US Government passed a Hate Crime Prevention Act in Matthew’s memory.
Worse still are those countries where the most basic freedoms are yet to be won – at least 76 countries have laws in effect that criminalise consensual relationships between adults of the same sex, and in at least seven countries, the death penalty can apply for homosexuality-related offences (ILGA 2012). Some people would literally take their life in their hands to come out – those of us who have won our freedom owe it to those who live in fear of discovery to stand in solidarity with them and campaign for understanding and justice everywhere.
The more people come out, here and around the world, the harder it will be for inequality and prejudice to remain unchallenged. It is easier for people to demonise something they don’t understand or recognise – when people realise that someone they care about is LGBT, holding onto hostility becomes much harder. Hearts and minds are changed when a friend, neighbour, child, sibling, or parent tells us they are not who we thought they were. One of the worst reactions I had was from my own brother, who held very negative views of what it meant to be gay, and did not believe it possible that I could be something so despicable. Although this strained our relationship for a time, we are now reconciled, and he spoke on behalf of my parents at our civil partnership reception earlier this year.
It’s also important to remember that coming out is not a one-time thing. In each new situation we find ourselves – a change of job, neighbourhood, social group, holiday destination – we need to risk-assess whether it is safe to reveal our true selves. Sometimes it may be irrelevant, in the same way that a straight person discussing their spouse and children may sometimes be inappropriate. But sometimes the ability to share this significant aspect of ourselves enables us to be more real, honest and open, promoting greater integrity and the potential for more authentic relationships.
I am fortunate that, for the last ten years, I have lived and worked in environments where pretty much everybody knows me as I am, not as I might once have pretended to be. For the past three years, most of my work has involved championing LGBT rights professionally. My personal experience gives me empathy for the plight of others who are going through the coming out process. My awareness of my own vulnerability, and my willingness to share that where appropriate, makes me passionate about what I do. To deny that would be a disservice to those I support. The more I have found openness and integrity, the more I have sought it, so much so that in the last year I left Catholicism*, the faith tradition I grew up with, as church was the only place where I felt I still had to hide, yet where I most wanted to be honest and authentic. Many people still feel they cannot be this open, sharing their full identity only with a select few, keeping other parts of their lives separate.
Coming out is life-long – some of the pioneers of LGBT equality in the 1960s and 1970s, who have lived openly for much of their lives are now in residential care, back in hiding for fear of discriminatory treatment by carers and other residents (Rainbow Lives Project). If we don’t respect the dignity of those who have gone before us and won for us our freedom, what hope is there for those who come out after us?
What if I am not LGBT?
Come out as an ally. Speak out against injustice wherever you find it, for equality where it is lacking. If you are concerned that someone may think you are LGBT, ask yourself why would that be such a bad thing? Use that insight to help you empathise, to challenge and change your own prejudice so you can recognise and confront it in others.
Ignorance leads to prejudice, but knowledge is power. Now you know what coming out means for us, be empowered to stand together with us, empower us to speak out when our voices may be unheard, our rights or even our lives at risk.
If we stand together to protect our shared rights and dignity, in the future we will not need half a million people to march for our voices to he heard.
* For a comment on the relationship between NCOD and the 50th anniversary of the start of Vatican II, the council which reformed the Catholic Church, read this New Ways Ministry blog post.