October is LGBT History Month, and October 11 is National Coming Out Day. But in spite of all the history made and all the progress achieved, a great deal of work is yet to be done. As long as, for example, I can be fired, or not hired, because I am lesbian, NCOD will be relevant.
Every October 11, since 1988, there have been NCOD celebrations. The improvements for the good of Queerdom in the intervening decades are obvious, but sometimes I think we, both LGBTs and allies, might take that progress for granted, along with the courage it took to achieve it. But the truth is, it still takes courage to “come out.”
In Washington, D.C., on the 11th of October, 1987, the second major LGBT demonstration occurred in the nation’s capital. Amazingly, a half a million people showed up. The energy from the “March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights” carried over, and four months later about 100 LGBT activists from around the nation met. The result was the decision to have a day that would celebrate “coming out.” One major reason for that decision, was a recognition that the LGBT community was frequently on the defensive. Why not turn that around? Rather than defending who we are, why not celebrate it?
The October 11th anniversary date of that 1987 March was chosen for NCOD. Since then NCOD celebrations have occurred around the nation. The need for coming out exists in a world that is quite different from that of 1987, but the need itself continues.
In some ways, coming out is as much a community as it is a personal process. As LGBTs became, and become, more visible and vocal, that makes it a bit easier for individuals to do the same. Coming out is very personal, very much an individual decision and experience, but it also has a community dimension.
We can look back at those who were at the March on Washington. Some can look back at themselves, as a part of that half million, or as someone who saw it on television or read about it in the paper. A kind of “critical mass” was reached, and the amazing numbers helped make it possible for others to take the step out of the closet. But all these years later, coming out remains an act of defiance. It still means being out of step with what much of mainstream America calls “normal.” And to a significant extent, that is descriptive of those who “come out” as allies, supporters, family and friends of LGBTs.
NCOD is the day that celebrates, and encourages, exiting those metaphorical closets of the “normal,” which have so many literal consequences. The “exiting” is an individual decision, to be respected, in terms of timing, place, extent and whatever else. But as much as we may wish our society had reached the “nobody cares if your LGBT” point, we haven’t. And so “coming out” is still necessary, is still a process that takes place, one person at a time, within a society that, while much closer than it was in 1987, still has a long way to go to being fully accepting, much less supportive. But coming out does have a much more visible community of family, friends and allies into which to take those first out of the closet steps, and that’s something to celebrate.