This week’s National Coming Out Day celebrated LGBTQ+ identities and the importance of living as your authentic self. The annual event has also sparked important inter-community conversations — most notably, questions about the assumption that “coming out” is a universal experience for all queer people. In an ever-more complex political landscape, the meaning and importance of “coming out” is evolving.
Lesbian and gay activists Jean O’Leary and Robert Eichberg first organized National Coming Out Day in 1988 in the context of the AIDS crisis under the Ronald Reagan administration. The premise of the event is that disclosing one’s queer identity to friends and family is a rite of passage, and that coming out helps normalize queer identities and fight homophobia.
Coming out is often presented as a courageous act of pride in one’s identity, while remaining “in the closet” is thought of as cowardly and shameful. But coming out is far from a universal experience for queer folks. Thirty-five years after the first National Coming Out Day, my generation has witnessed the national legalization of same-sex marriage, but also escalating far right backlash against LGBTQ+ communities. It’s time to complicate the meaning and centrality of coming out in queer identities today.
When I first encountered discourse around coming out, it was a popular YouTube trend for young LGBTQ+ creators in the 2010s. I watched heartfelt videos of gay and lesbian youth coming out to their friends and family and being showered with love and acceptance. These videos largely centered gay white men who were economically stable and who had accepting liberal families.
But for many LGBTQ+ people in the United States, coming out isn’t so simple. As we witness growing restrictions on LGBTQ+ life, especially for young people, it’s simply getting less safe to come out in many parts of the country. LGBTQ+ people are at higher risk of homelessness, violence and poor mental health outcomes, despite the civil rights and visibility we’ve gained in the past decade. Queer people of color may also face unique cultural points of tension and threats of exclusion from their ethnic/racial community.
As I came to understand my queer identity during the fight for marriage equality and increased LGBTQ+ representation, I don’t remember being ashamed of my identity, but I do remember feeling unsafe. I, like so many LGBTQ+ youth, was threatened with homelessness and financial abuse as a young person because of my queer identity.
Once I put the pieces together that I was queer at the age of 15, it was relatively easy for me to learn more and build a deep sense of pride and understanding of who I am. This is common among Gen Z, as more of us identify as LGBTQ+ than generations before. I was excited to come out to my friends and quickly became a staunch LGBTQ+ activist in high school, and later in college.
But there were still barriers to coming out at home. I decided to move out at right at 18 because of homophobia in my household. I struggled with housing insecurity for five years because of it. Before I disclosed my identity to my family, I had already won awards for my activism, written articles in major publications, spoken and amassed a social media following all centering on my queer experiences. I was far from ashamed. Coming out in my own context felt like I was confessing something I’d been hiding from my family. And that didn’t quite characterize my experience.
Yet, the framework of coming out also stresses this obligation that queer people must disclose their identities even if others haven’t done the work to receive it. I prefer the idea of “inviting in” trusted loved ones to your identity. This idea reframes the concept of disclosure in a way that centers the well-being of queer communities. Black LGBTQ+ communities have helped strengthen this approach, which accounts for the need for straight people to do work in challenging their homophobia, instead of feeling entitled to disclosure.
As a Black LGBTQ+ person, “inviting in” speaks to my own cultural experiences. I knew Black LGBTQ+ people in my family and community growing up, who more prudently chose to invite only certain people in. Even though most people assumed they were queer anyway, they felt no need to disclose their identity to those who were actively hostile. I disclosed my identity a few years ago, after significant distance from my family. My mother approached me and asked about my identity, and I trusted that she was ready to receive the information.
This doesn’t mean that “inviting in” should universally replace “coming out.” For many LGBTQ+ people, coming out makes perfect sense. There is a wide diversity of queer experiences that intersect with nuanced cultural contexts and issues of personal safety. Though we should remain vigilant and protect the importance of LGBTQ+ visibility and pride, I encourage queer communities to hold space for these diverse experiences and journeys. Instead of imposing a universal dichotomy between being out and being closeted, let’s look a little deeper into what that may mean for different people’s contexts.
Thirty-five years later, coming out isn’t a quintessential experience for all queer folks. LGBTQ+ youth have seen increased vital representation in the media, but continue to face harsh political repression. Issues of safety rather than pride remain paramount. Communities of color and diverse cultural contexts also add complexity to the centrality of coming out as a universal experience.
As LGBTQ+ communities continue to resist and adapt to an ever-changing political landscape, we must actively acknowledge experiences beyond “coming out.”
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