Why I struggled with National Coming Out Day
On October 11, 1987, hundreds of thousands of people participated in the Second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, to fight for the end of sexuality- and gender-based discrimination. Every year since, October 11 has been commemorated as National Coming Out Day, or a day during which LGBTQ+ people are encouraged to “come out” about their sexuality and/or gender to others.
When National Coming Out Day rolled around this year, I felt compelled to write about it. While staring at my blank screen, however, I felt at a loss for words. I have not yet come out to my family, and I began to wonder why I had to at all. Why is my identity one that has to be defined as “other” by our society? I thought back to an episode of The West Wing in which one character, Ainsley Hayes, opposes additional constitutional protections for women’s rights. Such protections would be insulting because they would suggest that women weren’t already equal under the law, she explains. While I find her argument problematic, I understand the sentiment behind it. It is saddening to think that I live in a society in which everyone is assumed heterosexual, and in one in which my opportunities might be limited by my sexuality.
Coming out withoutin causing oneself various forms of risk is also a great privilege. While I have not always been in such a privileged situation, I feel that I currently am. I am a first-year at Smith College, a historically women’s college with a large LGBTQ+ population in a very liberal part of Massachusetts. Many of my friends at Smith came out once they got on campus. But not everyone can find such a welcoming environment. Many people's jobs and relationships with friends and family could be in danger should they come out. Part of National Coming Out Day is acknowledging that people who are “out” or who can safely “come out” have privilege, and as such have a responsibility to their community to do work to change the culture that those who aren’t in good positions to come out can.
I recently talked to a fellow student at Smith College who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community about her thoughts on Coming Out Day. There wasn’t a singular moment that defined her sexuality — she rather slowly came to the realization that she might be gay after many personal experiences didn’t seem to add up. It’s important to recognize that everyone has different experiences when it comes to when and how they understand their own sexuality. As for the actual concept of “coming out,” she posed the question: “Why didn’t my brother have to come out as straight?” Lauren is not out to all of her family — not because she is not sure of her identity, but because she isn’t sure she is comfortable enough with her family to come out to them.
Although it is nice to be able to come out with the support of a great community, the bottom line is that not every member of the LGBTQ+ community is comfortable enough with or safe enough to come out. Coming out, whether on National Coming Out Day or any other day, is a personal choice. Rather than imply a mandate, National Coming Out Day should be seen as an opportunity to start conversations about sexuality, acceptance, and LGBTQ+ visibility in our society.
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