Today is National Coming Out Day. It is observed annually on October 11th; the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Today is the 25th anniversary.
‘Coming out’; acknowledging one’s sexual orientation, first to one’s self, and then to one or more of one’s acquaintances, friends and loved ones; is a rite of passage for LGBT people. In other communities; cultural, racial, ethic communities, and communities of faith; one is identified as a member of the group by association early on; often at birth. One learns over time what membership means; to one’s self and in society. I am Caucasian because my parents and ancestors were Caucasian. I’m a Protestant because my family was Protestant and they took me to church and taught me to be a Protestant as well. I am an American because I was born into a family that came to this country generations ago. These are all things I knew as a child; even if I would only later come to understand that those associations have larger meanings.
For LGBT people there is an additional variable. In most cases our parents are heterosexual. We are raised to think we are members of that community as well. Heterosexuality is the default paradigm in our society. It is only later, and usually quite alone, that we come to the realization we are different from that standard expectation.
Is coming out a political act? No, and Yes! Any LGBT person will tell you coming out is essentially a very personal journey of self-discovery. The first challenge, for many the hardest, is the process that takes place inside our heads before we ever think of talking to someone else.
Feminist writers of the 1970’s popularized the phrase; “The Personal is Political”. In this context I suggest that means coming out becomes political in the context of living in a society that stigmatizes LGBT people. It is act of self-empowerment; of asserting one’s own integrity; of choosing not to live one’s life as if one has something to hide or has something of which one should be ashamed. To those in our society who oppose equality and diversity that is a very political act indeed. Sitting down on a city bus wasn’t a political act until Rosa Parks did it and the larger society viewed it as confrontational. Society’s reaction to the perceived meaning of the act makes it political.
Coming out is not political in the partisan sense. Not all LGBT people are liberals or even Democrats. For many, if not most, our orientation is not the primary driver of how we vote. We struggle in the same economic climate as everyone else. We have jobs, have lost jobs, run businesses, pay taxes, and have mortgages. We have the same concerns about terrorism and crime. I live in an area where immigration is a very sensitive issues. There is no consensus in the LGBT community around that issue.
So, all that said, why is it important to come out? There are altruistic reasons. It is important because there are so many voices telling people struggling with their identity that they are vile, awful, evil people who are not loved; even by God him/herself. Other voices are needed assuring those struggling people that they are not alone. It is important because some people in our society see the extraordinarily high suicide rate among LGBT young people as “a good start”; a cause for celebration. Others need to be the voice of reason and compassion. It is important because coming out is hard and we who have dealt with it have the power to make it easier for those that follow.
There are also selfish reasons. Studies have shown the key driver of whether a voter casts their ballot in support of or in opposition to the interests of LGBT people is their own personal experience with us. If all the public sees are drag queens and men in leather on Fox News (of course, those are the only gay people who would ever be shown on Fox News) it is easier to see us only as people who are totally different from themselves; without seeing the ways we are alike. Those images are important parts of our history and community but if we allow those to be the only images seen, we fail to properly represent our community. When anyone I know hears “gay people”, I want the first image in their mind to be my partner and I; their neighbors; the guys out walking their dog at 5:30 AM. Then maybe they’ll understand that the people disrupting funerals by waiving their “God Hates Fags” picket signs in some grieving mother’s face are the ones they need to be worried about; not Harper’s two “Dads”.
“Come out to your relatives… come out to your friends… if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop… come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene.”
June 25, 1978