National Coming Out Day: Positive, Privileged or Problematic?
By: Brooke Jackson-Glidden
BOSTON – Members of the LGBT community knocked down the closet door on Oct. 11 for the 25th-annual National Coming Out Day. This holiday celebrates the individuals who publicly announced their sexualities in hope of moving the general public toward a more accepting and tolerant community. However, a growing population of activists are rejecting the idea of a “coming out day,” claiming the concept of coming out is exclusionary, unnecessary and potentially dangerous.
Twenty-five years ago, gay rights activists Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary founded Coming Out Day. To them, the day represented an important moment of unity within the LGBT community and its allies, but even more so, it represented a rejection of the “closet:” a painful, emotionally starved state of being, in which gay individuals cannot be honest with others (or themselves) about their true sexuality. The Human Rights Campaign, which now organizes the holiday, chose the theme “Coming Out Still Matters” for the 25th anniversary – as in, coming out still matters not only for the emotional benefit of the LGBT individual, but also for the benefit of overall society.
“Twenty-five years later, visibility is just as important,” said Candace Gingrich, associate director for youth and campus engagement at the Human Rights Campaign, in a phone interview. “We know that someone who knows someone who’s queer is more likely to understand the issues, to be supportive, that kind of stuff.”
But for the “queer” movement, the idea of visibility seems less than ideal, and the idea of coming out for the benefit of straight understanding seems just as oppressive as the metaphorical closet.
The term queer, which is a term used to describe anyone who identifies as “not straight” (gay, transgender, bisexual, etc.) arose as a way for certain members of the LGBT community to not classify their sexualities – in other words, to keep, in their eyes, a modicum of privacy regarding sexual preference. These queer-identified individuals saw the “closet” as not necessarily a prison, but rather a way to stay safe or stay private.
“There’s this sort of entitlement about knowing private things about others in our society,” said Daniela Amaya, a queer activist with Boston University’s Center for Gender, Sexuality and Activism. “People don’t get things like sexuality or gender are actually really private for some people.”
Beyond just personal preference, the pressure to come out can be dangerous for a large portion of the queer community, especially in less accepting and more violent areas. In the eyes of many queer activists, the pressure to “come out” for the benefit of overall society trivializes the danger many closeted individuals face.
“Fifty years ago, coming out almost anywhere was really frowned upon, more so in some places than others,” said Bridget Daley, vice president of the Feminist Collective at Boston University and a queer activist. “But now that it’s much more mainstream in America and the UK, it’s more divided from countries where, you know, you’re incapable of coming out altogether because of how your country deals with homosexuality or any other sexuality that differs from heterosexuality.”
The queer movement emerged around the time of National Coming Out Day’s founding, with a group of radical thinkers and academics (like former Boston University professor Eve Sedgwick) who believed that the mainstream gay movement preached “assimilation” into heterosexual society at the cost of queer culture and liberation.
“On my understanding of the difference between a queer activism and LGBT activism, a queer activist tries to destroy problematic institutions, while LGBT activists try to broaden institutions to include those they previously excluded,” said C.J. Queirolo, Editor-in-Chief of the Washington-based queer magazine Wetlands, in a phone interview.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is a classic example of a queer activist. A trans woman and author of several award-winning books, Sycamore rejects the idea that assimilation is a good thing for the queer community.
“The mainstream gay movement is fighting for the most privileged, so all the resources — by that I mean financial, intellectual, creative, and just the energy of the movement in general — have shifted away from those who need them the most,” Sycamore said in a phone interview.
Using the example of gay marriage, Sycamore argued that activists should not fight for the ability for gay couples to get married but rather fix the problems within the institution itself, for instance through the removal of privileges that married couples have legally or socially.
So how does this relate to National Coming Out Day? The queer movement argues that by urging queer individuals to come out, the mainstream gay movement is sacrificing the personal choices of queer individuals to improve, not fix, conditions within straight society – in other words, it’s ignoring the systemic problems (for instance, the idea that everyone is “assumed straight”) in favor of inclusion. For many queer activists, coming out should be in the hands of the individual, whether that person wants to stay private, come out for personal reasons or use coming out as a queer political tool.
“I think LGBT activists broadening these institutions to include marginalized groups is an admirable goal, but I think a more admirable goal would be to broaden these institutions not for the sake of assimilation into straight society but for the development of a more queer society,” Queirolo said.
The Human Rights Campaign still maintains that National Coming Out Day should be seen as an inclusive day for the entire queer community, and that closeted LGBT individuals should try to stay safe. Nonetheless, the organization insists that the solution to the problem of LGBT persecution is still exposure.
“Any time I talk about coming out, or any time HRC talks about coming out, we acknowledge that it’s still a risk,” Gingrich said. “Of course, the more people who know people who are queer, the further along we get in the work toward our equality, but we don’t want that to come at anyone’s expense. We want everyone to be able to be their authentic selves, in whatever state that they’re in, but we also recognize that that’s not always possible.”
For many activists, National Coming Out Day is not necessarily all good or bad – for some, it’s a question of definition.
“I think [National Coming Out Day] existing as a day intended to celebrate the people who have come out and celebrate their experience of being able to say who you are and speak openly about who you are, it’s fantastic,” said Krisitin Russo, award-winning LGBTQ advice blogger of Everyone Is Gay, in a phone interview. But she cautions, “I feel like its general interpretation in the world is as a day when you should come out (…) For some people who see that as a pressure, that’s not a good thing.”
Although the overall validity of National Coming Out Day is in question, for many queer youth, it is still a personal moment of positive reflection. Amaya celebrates National Coming Out Day as a moment of self-love.
“I know that for me, [NCOD is] a reminder of accepting myself and feeling comfortable and safe enough to share that with the people that I care about,” Amaya said.