Today is the 25th anniversary of National Coming Out Day, and there are many reasons to celebrate. Across the nation, social acceptance for LGBT folks is growing, as are legal protections and civil rights. Here on Capitol Hill, we are not only in a state that has robust non-discrimination laws and where same-sex marriage has been legal for almost a year, but we also live and work in the gayest neighborhood of the city that this year the Advocate called the fifth gayest city in the country.
In light of that, it’s pretty easy to feel optimistic here. So when I recently heard an out transgender friend of mine say, “National Coming Out Day? What’s the point—is anyone still in the closet?” I understood the sentiment. She was saying it in a celebratory way, full of optimism. And yet I am not sure that I can join her in that optimism quite yet. I think it will be a wonderful day when there is no more need for a National Coming Out Day, but unlike my friend, I do still think there is a need for it. My counseling work with LGBT teens and young adults, and events in my personal life, have continued to convince me that for many people, the process of coming out is a lot more complicated than we realize—even here, even in 2013.
When we think of someone who struggles with coming out, we may imagine a scenario like this: a teenager comes out to homophobic parents and is rejected, possibly even kicked out on the street. We might also imagine this hypothetical family existing in a more conservative, less accepting community than our own. It is all too easy to forget that there may be kids and teens in our very own neighborhood, gay-friendly as it is, who are living in fear of bullying, judgment, and rejection that may follow coming out to family, friends, school, a religious group, or another community to which they belong.
It is also easy to forget about the less traditional stories. What about the woman who never seriously asked herself if she might be gay, who married a man, has several children, and is still not even out to herself that she is a lesbian? What about the people who thought they had worked out their sexual orientation only to be surprised to discover all is not as it once seemed—the gay man who falls in love with a woman, the bisexual woman who realizes that she has now lost all attraction to men? What about the people who have come out everywhere in their lives except to one circle—their family, or their church, or their job—and find themselves in a constant stressful dance in their public lives attempting to maintain privacy in one arena? What about those who have transitioned gender, but come to a new awareness about themselves which leads to detransition back to their birth sex?
This National Coming Out Day, I celebrate with all those who are fully aware of who they are, out and proud. But the people who are really on my mind today are not those for whom gender and sexual orientation are clear-cut. On my mind are those who are questioning, unsure, trying to make sense of who they are. On my mind are those who’ve come out as one sexual orientation or gender identity but are beginning to suspect they may be another, confused and afraid of rejection by their communities. On my mind are those who are not even out yet to themselves, still unsure why something just doesn’t feel right about their life even if it looks perfect on paper. On my mind are those who are out to almost everyone, but still living in fear of the consequences if that last holdout—extended family, or their job, or perhaps a faith community—were to find out. This day is not just for those who have it all figured out, or for whom coming out is simple. If you are one of these unsure people, this day is also for you. And whether or not you use it to come out to yourself, or to anyone else, today you are on my mind and heart, and I wish you clarity, self-compassion, and courage as you make your way along the path toward self-understanding and authentic living.