On October 11, 1987, Washington, DC was filled with roughly half a million protesters rallying for LGBT rights. AIDS was rampant, and at the time had taken the lives of countless people, while the Reagan administration failed to even acknowledge the crisis, let alone adequately address the situation.
Just a year earlier, the Supreme Court had upheld Georgia’s sodomy law that declared oral and anal sex a criminal offence, arguing that “the Constitution does not confer a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy.”
People were fed up, and expressed their frustration in a week of rallies that culminated in the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The march was a huge success, with the AIDS Memorial Quilt being publicly displayed for the first time; a civil disobedience act at the Supreme Court following a few days after; and many new organizations on the local and national levels being established, such as BiNet USA or the National Latina/o Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Organization.
Finally, in 1988, National Coming Out Day was brought into being, in order to commemorate “The Great March” and celebrate queer and trans people’s visibility.
Flash forward almost three decades later, and coming out is still a big deal. My experience has been that when two or more queer people are getting to know each other, chances are pretty high that someone will throw in the question “So, what’s your coming out story?”
Coming out is usually not a one-time thing: you’ll have to do it over and over again, as long as our heteronormative society still just assumes that everyone is straight until otherwise specified.
The first time I came out, it was to a woman twice my age with whom I had been infatuated for the past three years. I was 17 and absolutely terrified. Terrified of what she would think, terrified of what my friends would think, terrified I would burn in hell for not being attracted to men, and most of all terrified that my parents would kick me out of the house.
In the beginning, I was dead sure that I would take this secret to my grave. But after a while, I started to think that I would eventually choke on it if I didn’t let it out soon. So I told the person I trusted most at the time that I was madly in love with her — of course, she didn’t reciprocate my feelings, but she was nevertheless flattered and generally made me feel like it was OK; like I wasn’t some weirdo teenager with totally inappropriate feelings. I still highly respect that about her and am so thankful that she made my first coming out such a memorable experience.
Coming out can definitely lift a huge weight off your chest. After that first time, it took me about two more years until I finally got the guts to come out to my Christian, and relatively conservative parents. Thank goodness they had already had a hunch for half a year, which made things a lot easier. Hiding your sexuality takes so much effort and energy, and coming out is the breath of fresh air that so many closeted queers hope for.
At the time, marriage equality was being heavily debated in the US. Whenever the topic would come up in my family, it would require extreme effort to not get too upset and blurt out anything that would blow my heterosexual cover.
Faking interest when friends would talk about guys eventually became exhausting. Hiding my disgust for the idea of marrying a man and settling down and having kids eventually became impossible. Hiding under the covers secretly watching snippets of The L Word on YouTube eventually became suspicious. I desperately needed to ditch the closet for my own sanity. I wanted to be out and be gay and be proud and wave rainbow flags around and go to Pride and kiss girls and not have to worry about what anybody thinks of me.
It took some time. But today, I don’t carefully sit people down anymore to have the typical “I have to tell you something, please still love me” talk. Straight people never have to do that, so I’ve given up on treating my sexuality like it’s something that I have to be ashamed of. If people are uncomfortable with it, that’s their problem and not mine.
Apart from the immense positive effects on your emotional well-being, coming out is also a highly political action. Yes, we have marriage equality in North America. But in some US states, queer and trans people can still legally be discriminated against on the basis of whom they love. In April, the Human Rights Campaign counted 80 active anti-LGBT bills in state governments.
The Pulse shooting in Orlando earlier this year as well as the ridiculous number of murdered trans people reminds us all that violence against queer and trans people is not a thing of the past. Even in Canada, the number of reported hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation was 186 three years ago.
Coming out has the power to reduce homo-, bi-, and transphobia by demonstrating that queer and trans people are human. Denying someone their rights becomes much harder when they become your daughter or son, a family member, a good neighbour, or a cherished friend. Coming out still matters. Expanding LGBT visibility is still as important as ever. National Coming Out Day is a vivid reminder of not only the past and ongoing struggles fought on the personal and political levels, but also the many victories that have been achieved since that historic march in 1987.