Today is National Coming Out Day. An event celebrated by LGBT people and our friends and allies since 1988. NCOD was started after the second march on Washington for LGBT rights in 1987.
The purpose of NCOD is for people of all sexual orientations to “take their next step” to empower themselves and make the world a safer, more inclusive and just place for all, with a particular focus on LGBT folks. This year NCOD takes on added significant in light of the recent rash of bully-assisted suicides of young gay men, the brutal violent attacks on three gay men in NYC, and the shameless and inexcusable harassment of a gay student government association president at the University of Michigan by an assistant district attorney in that state. These are only the events that have received national attention. Events like these occur in communities every day without the spotlight of the news media to call them to our attention.
These events are important reminders, especially for those of us who live in relative safety in states where our civil rights are protected, that we still have a long way to go. None of us can truly afford to feel safe as long as the events of the last few weeks are happening to young people all across the country. If we broaden our perspective to account for the international status of LGBT people, we recognize that for LGBT people in some countries, living openly risks a death sentence sanctioned by the state in addition to being targeted by violence from community members or families.
NCOD is a reminder that coming out is a multi-faceted process , not a single event. Coming out involves many stages and not everyone is in a position to come out publicly. Coming out means many things: We come out to ourselves, our trusted friends, our families, our co-workers and classmates. Some of us leap out of the closet with bold public announcements while others inch the closet door open step by carefully considered step. Both are important and life-changing.
Coming out takes on added risk when we factor in money. Can I afford to lose my job? Can I risk being kicked out of my home and losing my parents financial support? Will I be ostracized and bullied at school? Coming out for LGBT people of color is often complicated by racism and the added burden of dealing with homophobia and racism. Parents with children must consider custody issues and how best to protect their children in a world where LGBT parents’ rights are not universally protected. Real threats of violence, discrimination and isolation keep the closet door closed for many LGBT folks, both young and old.
Research does tell us that straight people who know openly LGBT people (family members, friends, colleagues, classmates, teammates, neighbors) are more likely to be allies who support LGBT rights. We also know that coming out enables LGBT people to live our truth, to be authentic in our relationships with the people we care about and interact with every day. Most LGBT people I know do not regret the decision to be more open about who they are. A few friends, even family members, are sometimes lost, discrimination might be an issue, but even in these situations, feeling the integrity and honesty of owning our truth is worth the rough patches that we sometimes must get through after coming out. I’ve never met an LGBT person who said he or she would rather be back in the closet after coming out.
NCOD is not just for LGBT people. Perhaps even more importantly it is a day for heterosexual allies to be more public about their support for LGBT people in their lives and for LGBT rights more broadly. NCOD is a time for heterosexual allies to ponder the importance of speaking out publicly – in your family, in your workplace, at your school, on your team, in your place of worship- about your support for LGBT people and our rights. For the LGBT people for whom coming out is too much of risk right now or for those who are still struggling with who they are, the visibility and public support of heterosexual allies is essential.
I don’t want to sound too dramatic here, and the recent spade of suicides, violence and harassment certainly help to drive this point home, but the decision to be a more vocal heterosexual ally is a life-saving decision. Private support of LGBT family members, friends and colleagues is fine and appreciated, but when heterosexual allies choose to stand up and speak out publicly, in their schools, families, workplaces, places of worship, communities, we can begin to change the world. No movement for social justice has ever achieved success only through the efforts of the people who are targeted by the injustice. NCOD is a day for LGBT people to take our next steps, but it is equally a day for our heterosexual allies to take theirs. We are all in this together and we all must take the opportunities we have to stand up and speak out. What are you planning to do today?
What are you planning to do tomorrow to make this world a safer, more loving, more life-affirming place for everyone, including LGBT people?