Two years ago, on October 11, National Coming Out Day, I came out as nonbinary publicly on Facebook. It's been a series of ups and downs since then, but it helped me feel empowered about who I am. Two months later, on Christmas Day, I came out to my dad. He said, "I don't understand, but I want to," and told me that he loved me and just wanted me to be happy. I couldn't have asked for a much better response.
Oct. 11, 2020 will mark the 32nd National Coming Out Day, which is used by lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQ+ or LGBTQIA+) people to celebrate who they are and to raise awareness for their continued fight for equal rights and acceptance. LGBTQ+ people often host events and rallies on National Coming Out Day, but they also, well, come out — sometimes publicly via social media, to a few people in their lives, or maybe just to themselves.
Even if someone doesn't come out to you on October 11 (or any other day, for that matter) it's important to know how to support someone in case, one day, they do. So with that in mind, here's what you should know about National Coming Out Day, how you can create an environment of support and acceptance for those who choose to come out, and why coming out matters (but should never be forced on someone who isn't ready to).
What's the history of National Coming Out Day?
On Oct. 11, 1987, half a million people joined the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights to call on President Ronald Reagan to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which at the time had killed more than 40,000 people. A year later, on Oct. 11, 1988, Rob Eichberg, a psychologist and gay rights activist, and Jean O'Leary, the head of National Gay Rights Advocates at the time, created National Coming Out Day, according to the Human Rights Campaign. They wanted to "create a holiday that celebrated queer identities in order to decrease stigma and homophobia," The Advocate reported.
“Most people think they don’t know anyone gay or lesbian, and in fact everybody does,” Eichberg said in 1993, according to the New York Times. “It is imperative that we come out and let people know who we are and disabuse them of their fears and stereotypes.”
Why coming out matters.
The term "coming out" was historically used by gay men to describe their debut into the gay community and culture at drag balls, according to The Week and George Chauncey's Gay New York. The idea was borrowed from debutante balls, when young, wealthy women would make their first appearance into society. The term "coming out of the closet" wasn't really used until the '60s, The Week reported, and it was used to describe someone coming out of hiding to be who they are.
Aruna Rao, the founder of PFLAG's Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, an organization for South Asian immigrants with LGBTQ children, tells Woman's Day that the LGBTQ+ people she's spoken with have often thought very hard about coming out. "The journey towards coming out is very long, very arduous for most people, and so that act of coming out takes a lot of courage," she says.
Coming out, Rao says, allows LGBTQ+ people to define, or at least start to figure out, who they are in their own terms and with their own agency.
How to support someone who comes out.
When someone comes out to you — whether it's publicly via social media or personally in a one-on-one conversation — it's "an act of deep trust," Rao says. "It's an honor when someone comes out to you like that, and so your responsibility at that point is to essentially let them know how much you appreciate this gesture of trust and to ask how you can support."
Many times, especially when kids come out to their parents, the parents might feel shocked and wonder what to do, and Rao says the first thing you should say or do is affirm them. "It's really about just saying, 'I love you,' and not 'I love you in spite of you being LGBTQ,' it's just, 'I love you, and I'm happy for you,'" she says.
She discourages people from trying to predict someone's coming out by telling them "It's OK if you're gay," for example. You should also avoid telling someone you "knew they were gay all along." Rather, Rao says you could ask questions and "create an affirming atmosphere" that would make someone feel comfortable coming out.
It's important that someone is able to come out on their own time and in their own way. Even after someone comes out to you, you shouldn't out them to other friends, family, or anyone else. "We still obviously live in a world where there are a lot of consequences to being out, [from] personal attacks to hate crimes to workplace discrimination," Rao says. When you reveal someone's LGBTQ+ identity to someone else, even if you're well-intentioned, you could be creating a potentially dangerous situation for them, she says.
What to do if you have more questions.
After someone comes out to you, you might have more questions. But Rao says it's really important for people — parents, especially — to educate themselves outside of the relationship to that child or person. There are introductory resources, LGBTQ+ glossaries, and articles about other people's experiences easily accessible through Google.
Rao notes that PFLAG, an organization that supports the families, friends, and allies of LGBTQ+ people, has a lot of resources on its website. They also have more than 400 local chapters across the country with support groups (which are offering online meetings during the pandemic).
If you do have questions for someone who comes out, Rao says you should make sure that you articulate them in a way that isn't accusatory or that feels hostile. "You really want to make sure that you're not questioning their identity," she says.
Coming out is a process that's different for each person. If you're striving to be an ally, Rao says it's important for you to support anyone who comes out to you. "Cisgender, straight people never need to come out," she says. "We just live in a world where there's really like no grand revealing of, 'This is my true self.' ... Coming out takes a great deal of determination on the part of the individual that, no matter what the consequences, they are going to step forward."
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