National Coming Out Day is October 11, 2017.
For many LGBTQIA people, the issue of coming out is both loaded and complex. But on one day in October, we often attempt to make it more straight(pun intended)-forward. I’m referring, of course, to National Coming Out Day, which occurs on (or near) October 11 each year. Armed with the truth that closets can be extremely harmful and painful, National Coming Out Day (or NCOD) encourages us to live our lives out in the open. What if we all came out, each year, on the same day? It’s a beautiful idea, but the way that queer folks interact with the day, and the very concept of coming out in the first place, is of course more complicated than the surface veneer would make it seem.
Please note that in this piece I use the acronym “LGBTQIA” rather than “LGBT” whenever I’m not directly quoting another person or organization. That’s an intentional decision to include not only lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, but also queer, intersex and asexual folks. I also use the term “queer,” which has been used for decades as both a personal identity and an umbrella term for people who aren’t straight.
My own journey of coming out has been a long and complicated road, full of twists and turns. It started shortly after I turned 15, when I realized I had a crush on a female friend. Three days later I came out to my friends at school — as bisexual — even though I didn’t yet feel safe enough to be out at home. I wanted very badly to be completely out and had visions of a grand and dramatic pronouncement. Maybe I would throw a “coming out party” and send everyone fancy foil invitations. Instead, I came out to the people in my life more slowly. In my early 20s, I decided the word “gay” actually fit me a whole lot better than the word “bisexual,” and I came out all over again, finally coming out to my father. Later, I developed an affinity for the term “queer.” I didn’t learn about National Coming Out Day, however, until I joined Facebook in 2009. The deluge of social media posts makes the day difficult to miss.
The very first National Coming Out Day occurred on October 11, 1988, on the anniversary of the Second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. National Coming Out Day was founded by Robert Eichsberg and Jean O’Leary, and every year since it has been celebrated on (or very near) October 11. According to a write-up about the day on the George Mason University website, the point of NCOD is “to let people see us, who we are, people they already like, know, and respect — who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. That is our strongest tool in the movement toward full human rights.” The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) promotes NCOD annually and even assigns a theme each year, such as “Being Out Rocks!” (2002) and “Come Out To Congress” (1999). In 2016, the HRC released an emotional video for NCOD, which predominantly focused on famous people coming out and declared that “Coming out — whether it is as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or allied — STILL MATTERS. When people know someone who is LGBTQ, they are far more likely to support equality under the law. Beyond that, our stories can be powerful to each other.”
But coming out is more complicated than the promotions around the day can make it seem. There is no one right way, or one right time, to come out. When I asked friends about their experiences with coming out and NCOD, I found a very wide range of experiences.
Sarah came out to her father in the context of an argument about marriage equality. “I finally lost my temper and said, ‘Well, Dad, I’m bisexual, so if you don’t support marriage equality, there’s a 50% chance you’re preventing me from marrying the person I fall in love with.’” That led to Sarah coming out to the rest of her family fairly quickly. These days, she says “I re–come out every year on Coming Out Day, to make sure people aren’t assuming anything, intentionally or not.” She added, “Which is especially important to me being on the asexuality spectrum… Having a friend come out as asexual on Coming Out Day led to me researching and discovering my own place on that spectrum.”
My friend Alaina started coming out to close friends as queer at the age of 10. It led to a lot of bullying, and her middle and high school years were characterized by sometimes making a point to come out, and sometimes staying closeted for safety. She shared with me, “It wasn’t until I was a sophomore, and started having feelings for my best friend, that I made the slow journey to coming out one final time — a coming out that included my friends and my extended family and led to me being the 100% openly queer person I am today.” National Coming Out Day didn’t factor into Alaina’s coming out story until a few years back. “I actually came out as trans on Facebook on NCOD. It’s a decision I’m still unsure about and grappling with. I basically identify as nonbinary, and not cis, but at the time I was still working out what kind of social and/or medical transition I may or may not want to make. It was a weird time for me to make that knowledge public without having answers to any of the questions my friends inevitably had — but I just felt the urge to share myself on that day.”
Jacey, a transgender woman, found National Coming Out Day to be particularly useful. “I came out as trans on Facebook on National Coming Out Day, because it happened to line up fairly well with the life changes I was going through, and it gave me a cool-down period after coming out to my parents,” she said. “Weirdly enough, I was already ‘full-time’ by then, so NCOD was more of a capstone to my coming out than a start. When you’re trans, there’s a fairly concrete practical reason to come out, rather than just letting people catch on as they need to. I’m grateful there is a NCOD to help facilitate that.”
NCOD has definitely seen its share of criticism, and not only from those who would prefer that queer people stay in our closets (or not exist at all). Back in 2013, The Atlantic ran a piece by Preston Mitchum titled On National Coming Out Day, Don’t Disparage the Closet. Mitchum states: “The last thing a closeted LGBT individual needs, faced with a hostile social environment, is to feel like those individuals most accepting of his or her identity won’t support him or her unless that identity is publicly proclaimed.” The reality is that LGBTQIA people are often marginalized for more than one thing — such as because of their race, class or dis/ability status — and each person’s ability to safely be out can vary widely.
For me personally, this strikes a chord. As a teen in the early 2000s, I did feel that it was extremely politically important to be out. I felt that the days of people remaining closeted well into adulthood were behind us, and that my generation would be able to skip a lot of the shame and heartbreak that older queer people had faced for, well, being out. At the same time, as a minor in a fairly conservative family in the Midwest, I was acutely aware that being totally out wasn’t my safest option. The result of all that pressure was a lot of confusion and ultimately a lot of guilt over what felt like lying, even though I never claimed to be straight. To this day, I’m embarrassed when I admit I didn’t come out to my father until the age of 23.
Then there’s the ever-present issue of allyship. Several years ago I found myself looking at a truly massive number of NCOD posts on social media, way more than I expected to see. It wasn’t that I had more LGBTQIA friends than I’d ever dreamed of. It was that my straight friends were “coming out” as well — as allies. On the one hand, I could see that most of them were well-intentioned. And it’s probably a good thing, especially in very conservative communities, for homophobes to realize how many people think their bigotry is not OK. On the other hand, being an ally is something you do, not an identity. Many people love to call themselves allies and yet do little or nothing to actually support queer people or communities. And the centering of allies, especially on NCOD, can distract from the visibility of the queer people who desperately need both to be seen and to see each other.
So when that magical day in October comes around again, what will you do? Ultimately, it’s up to each and every LGBTQIA person to choose how to best utilize the day (if at all). As a queer woman who writes about her life publicly, the ritual of coming out can feel redundant and beside the point. Yet because I do believe visibility is important for those of us who can safely be out, I like to publicly state as much of my identity as possible on National Coming Out Day, just for good measure.
My name is Katherine Clover, and I’m a cisgender queer (homoromantic / homoflexible) polyamorous woman. If you are an LGBTQIA person who feels called to come out today, shout it as loud as you need to! If you aren’t ready to be out yet, know there’s no shame in that. And if you are a straight person looking for something to do for National Coming Out Day, I’d encourage you to take a good long look at how you’re supporting your LGBTQIA loved ones the other 364 days of the year.