Why We Need National Coming Out Day Now More Than Ever

by JR Thorpe

Every year, on Oct. 11, the world outside the closet becomes the place to be. National Coming Out Day, celebrated in the U.S. and mirrored in other events around the world, is a celebration of LGBTQ people's existence and their coming out to friends, family and those around them, living proudly and openly in a world that makes it very hard to do so. It's a very important day for LGBTQ people around the world, and now more so than ever. Bustle spoke with Nate Warden, founder of Coming Out, an open source platform for sharing stories about coming out, about the day's importance, and the complexities of honesty about LGBTQ identity in today's world.

Celebrations of Coming Out Day are widespread. Coming-out events occur across college campuses and LGBTQ spaces, with support, resources, aid and advice provided to people who have struggled with the coming-out process or their own identities. NewNowNext's campaign for Coming Out Day has luminaries like Sasha Velour and Melissa Etheridge writing letters to their younger queer selves. And these events acknowledge the truth of coming out: That it often can't be a glorious confetti-filled event of absolute acceptance, joy and love. For every loving embrace of LGBTQ people who come out, there are many who face discrimination, hatred, violence, doubt, and rejection. And, as any person who's out will tell you, coming out is a repetitive process: for work, for family, for friends, for every new acquaintance and connection, the process must be gone through again and again in a world that centers straight people. Having one day a year to focus on and commemorate what is, for many LGBTQ people, a very important series of events throughout their lives is a valuable recognition of the value and effort behind being honest.

"LGBTQ people have to first identify themselves privately in a world that continues to tell them that people like them are not welcome, are not equal, and then eventually try to work up the courage to announce themselves as being different," Warden tells Bustle. "Events like Coming Out Day and Pride are crucial in making this process easier because they are times when the LGBTQ community becomes visible — not just an idea, but a literally mass of people in the streets, or a collection of voices to be heard. We set an example for those who have yet to find and love themselves."

The History Of Coming Out Day

National Coming Out Day has been officially on the books since 1988, but its date commemorates an event from the year before: the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which occurred on Oct. 11, 1987. While it was technically the second march in the National Mall for LGBTQ rights in the US (the first was in 1979), it attracted a huge amount of attention, particularly because of its focus on the AIDS crisis across America. Over 500,000 people marched on Washington with the now-famous AIDS Memorial Quilt, featuring the names of 1,920 people who had died of HIV/AIDS and covering a space bigger than a football field. It's one of the most significant LGBTQ political marches ever performed worldwide.

The organisers of the March and many other activists wanted to carry on the momentum of the movement, and decided that on the anniversary of the March the following year, they'd institute the first National Coming Out Day, using one of the key slogans from the parade: "We are everywhere". The two most potent forces behind it were Dr. Robert Eichberg, a psychologist who died in 1995 at the age of 50, and lesbian rights activist Jean O'Leary, who passed away in 2005. The idea has only grown in strength since. Since 1999, the Human Rights Campaign has been involved, giving each year a new slogan, from "Talk About It" to "Coming Out For Equality." The narrative of Coming Out Day, Warden says, is "a way in which we can find members of our community — people who look, think, and feel like us — and bond with them over a shared experience, learn from them."

Why Does Coming Out Matter?

It may seem as if, in a world where RuPaul's Drag Race is top TV, gay marriage is legal, and Ellen Degeneres is the most beloved woman in entertainment, coming out no longer has much relevance. But it remains a deeply political act, and one carrying high risks. The world is still often a very dangerous place for LGBTQ people: a scan of the headlines will find everything from gay "purges" in Chechnya to waves of arrests and violence in Indonesia and Egypt. And that's just this year. And a survey of 96,000 people in 53 countries worldwide in 2016 found that two-thirds of adults said they'd be upset if their children were gay, and that 47 percent of survey participants in Africa and 42 percent in Asia thought being gay was a "Western phenomenon."

The LGBTQ community in the U.S. itself faces an uncertain future. The Trump White House has rolled back protections about work discrimination on the basis of sexual identity, said transgender people can't serve in the military, and a host of other actions that demote LGBTQ people to second-class citizens. "It's no secret that the current administration is not supportive of the rights of many historically marginalized groups," Warden tells Bustle. "Being part of the LGBTQ community is just one of many ways to experience that uncomfortable, if not terrifying truth."

Coming out continues to be a strongly symbolic act, even in environments when it's celebrated or viewed as a non-issue. It's a reminder that the LGBTQ world is a community, that it supports and protects its own, and that being outside the closet may be terrifying, but also worth it. "The day marks a special time during the year to make a public statement in support of ourselves and our community," says Warden. And that, for LGBTQ people, is an extremely valuable thing.