The first National Coming Out Day in 1988 had eight events across the country. For this year’s observance on Wednesday, the number was easily in the thousands — from outdoor events to high-school celebrations to observances at Starbucks, say two activists from the Human Rights Campaign — but the point is still the power of visibility.
Candace Gingrich, the associate director of youth and campus engagement at HRC, said that the first Coming Out Day was a way to capitalize on the momentum from 1987’s gay and lesbian march on Washington, which drew hundreds of thousands of people.
The idea, Gingrich said, was to demonstrate the size of the community: “In order to gain support for LGBTQ people, they needed to know who we were. … Their friends, the family members, their neighbors, their co-workers, their teammates, their classmates.”
It’s hard to remember how things were in those days, but Ellen Kahn, director of HRC’s Children, Youth and Families division, said that coming out, and being out, was a risk: “You’d lose your job right away; you could potentially get beaten up just for walking out your front door.”
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Celebrations of the day still may feature people stepping to a microphone in front of a crowd of strangers and announcing their sexual orientation, but Kahn said it has evolved over the years into more of a celebration of the idea of coming out, as well as a chance for others in the community to show support: “Coming out as an ally, or coming out as a family member, of someone who’s LGBTQ — it’s not always easy to do that either.”
Kahn said the HRC observances of the day include a recap of high-profile people who came out over the past year. They’ve also recently held events with gay and gay-friendly celebrities such as “Star Trek” star George Takei, Ellen DeGeneres’ mother, Betty, and former NBA player Jason Collins. “It’s kind of a platform to tell stories,” she said.
Coming out and being openly LGBTQ may have gotten easier over the years, but “there’s still a lot at risk for young people,” Kahn said. “They can see themselves on TV; they can see themselves as CEO of Apple; they can see themselves as community leaders looking ahead, but in the moment their lives are quite challenging.”
Various surveys have found 20 to 50 percent of homeless young people are LGBTQ, and the main reason they’re on the streets is that their families have thrown them out. A 2012 HRC study found that only about half the 10,000 people surveyed were out to their immediate families, and only half felt their families were supportive of them.
“While the needle has continually moved toward a better place for young people, every family is different. Every community is different. Every parent reacts differently. Every school policy … varies,” Kahn said.
She added, “We work to balance the message of how liberating it is … with the reality that if you’re dependent on your family to house you and feed you, or pay your tuition, or take care of you, you have to really pay close attention to whether coming out puts that at risk.” Some young people may be out to a few friends or go to an LGBTQ community center, but don’t tell their parents about their orientation.
She advised that young people who don’t feel they can come out to their parents should find support from sympathetic counselors at school, a support group in the area or online. And to be patient: “If you can sort of manage to get by through high school, then the world can open up a little bit,” and at 18, you can find a new community or “family of choice.”
Kahn said she came out to her “very hip, very cool” aunt first, and that gave her a place to go to be herself and a backer in her dealings with the rest of her family. She advises others to follow that lead if it’s possible: “Come out to the one person you know is supportive — somebody you’re pretty darn sure [of], or maybe [you think] they already know. … Then you have that person as your ally.”
At any stage of life, Gingrich said, coming out is a personal decision: “No matter what age you are, it’s your decision when and if and where and how you’re going to come out. … This is your journey; you’re in the driver’s seat. There probably will come a time when it feels right, and you’re going to know when it is.”
And it doesn’t end after one day. Friends and family may know, but “You’re invited to the first Christmas party at work and you have to decide if you’re gonna show up with your partner,” Kahn gave as a common situation. “You may be coming out every day.”
Rick Massimo is a web editor for Washington radio station WTOP. This column originally appeared on WTOP’s website.