One of the cornerstones of the queer experience is coming out. Coming out is that moment when you start to articulate your sexuality to others.
Coming Out is short for "coming out of the closet" – you’re no long hiding, no longer concealing yourself. You come out to your friends, your family, your co-workers, or just random people in the street. Coming out isn’t a one-time thing, throughout our lives we’re continually coming out – correcting assumptions, being authentic, being ourselves.
The concept or the process of Coming Out is something that generally only hits the headlines when it involves a celebrity or a famous sportsperson.
As a queer person, reading celebrity coming out stories is a bit weird. On one hand, it’s great that a famous person has felt comfortable enough to publicly discuss their sexuality. It’s great for visibility – it’s great for young queer kids to have role-models. On the other hand, we kind of wish for a world where coming out wasn’t such a big deal. It would be nice to live in a world where diversity of sexuality wasn’t headline news or presented as something surprising or notably out of the norm.
Also, if we’re honest, when we’re reading about a celebrity’s coming out story, it’s hard not to feel a bit of resentment. Why wasn’t my coming out experience headline news? Where was the gay parade when I found the courage to talk about my sexuality with the people that mattered in my life?
The history of Coming Out
The concept of coming out of the closet seems to have emerged in the early 70s – it was language that was part of the sexual liberation movement of the time, you were leaving the oppression of the closet, you were freeing your secrets which were your skeletons in the closet, and you were embracing the liberation and freedom of openly being yourself.
But there’s also a wider context than just what was going on in the 70s.
The power of disclosure has a longer history. In 1869, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs wrote about the importance of homosexual people revealing their same-sex attraction – it’s a theme that other writers have echoed across the subsequent centuries.
In the 1950s and 60s, as the equality movement began to gather momentum, there was a growing desire to increase the visibility of LGBTQ people, encouraging people to disclose their sexuality and publicly identify as homosexual.
During the 80s, outing someone as gay was used as a way to highlight hypocrisy – particularly to pressure conservative politicians who were voting against support for people living with HIV.
Today, in places such as the United States, we are in a different era. We have gay celebrities, gay sports stars, gay actors, gay musicians, gay politicians. We have gays in the military and we have Marriage Equality.
But things are far from perfect for LGBTQ people. Trans people are being targeted by conservative legislators. Systemic racism hits queer people of color hard. Economic inequality hits young LGBTQ people hard.
We need to be amplifying the stories of young queer kids. We need to be showing the messiness of queer life – the messiness of what happens after you come out. We need to be educating each other about our health and how to find the intimacy we need. We need to be equipping each other with the tools and the resilience to navigate a world defined by systemic racism and economic inequality.
The story of our LGBTQ community continues to be written, and we’ve all got a leading role to play.
When should I come out?
Coming out is an intrinsically personal moment.
There’s no right or wrong way to do it, and there’s no correct age at which to come out.
Just because someone has come out earlier than you or different than you doesn’t have any reflection on your personal journey.
Also, you don’t have to be specific or definitive in your coming out. If you’re still working through what your sexuality means to you, you can use fairly broad terminology if you need to let people know that you’re ‘not straight’ or that you're queer or experimenting.
Do I have to come out?
Don’t let anyone pressure you into coming out if it doesn’t feel right for you. Figuring out your identity – whatever your sexuality – is a uniquely personal journey. If it’s not something that you want to share with others or talk about publicly, then that’s totally cool. Your experience is still valid and your sexuality is still valid – even if you don’t want to put any labels on it.
You also need to be conscious of your surroundings. Is it safe for you to come out? If you live in a socially conservative community, or you’re worried how your family might react, or it’s illegal to be gay where you live, these factors all shape how you navigate that coming out journey.
The first step is to come out to yourself. Try and figure out how you describe your sexuality and what your sexuality means to you. Then you can think about where to go from there.
How do I come out?
There is no right or wrong answer with this. Once you’ve come out to yourself, it can be pretty empowering to tell other people. Maybe start with a close friend or family member. You can do it in person, or in an email, or a text. You could bake a cake or announce it on your Instagram. However you choose to express yourself is valid.
The reality is that coming out is an ongoing process. Saying it out loud for the first time is generally the hardest bit, but throughout your life you’re going to have to let people know that their assumptions about your sexuality might be incorrect. You’re going to get plenty of practice at coming out.
What is National Coming Out Day?
Yes, this is a thing. Since 1988, the queer community around the world has been marking National Coming Out Day on 11 October.
National Coming Out Day is a concept that was created by Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary. The idea draws inspiration from the principles of feminism and gay liberation that the personal is political. As queer people, the most basic form of activism we can take is to come out to family, friends, and colleagues – to live life openly as a member of the LGBTQ community.
Eighberg and O’Leary believed that homophobia thrives in an atmosphere of silence and ignorance, and that once people know that they have loved ones who are queer, then they are far less likely to maintain homophobic views.
How should I celebrate National Coming Out Day?
When it comes to celebrating National Coming Out Day, a pretty safe option is just to be as unreservedly queer as possible – whatever that means for you.
If you’ve already done the coming out thing, and everyone you know is tired of you telling them how queer-as-fuck you are, why not watch a queer movie? Or donate to an LGBTQ charity? Or support queer artists? Or troll homophobic politicians?
Just be gay, or queer, or whichever bit of the LGBTQ umbrella you most identify with. Just be you. That’s pretty powerful.