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Coming Out Day: A nice idea with practical problems 

Queer & There

Today, Oct. 11, is National Coming Out Day. The holiday was established in 1988 to raise awareness about issues affecting members of the lesbian and gay community and increase their visibility within their communities.

Since the holiday’s inception the range of individuals and identities who participate has expanded to include the entire LGBTQIA+ acronym that we have today, and the dominant society’s acceptance of LGBTQ people has expanded as well. Millennials, when they aren’t killing chain restaurants and the mortgage industry, have been called “the gayest generation” after a Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 7 percent of people aged 18 to 35 identify as LGBTQ.
By most measurable standards, National Coming Out Day has accomplished its original mission. America knows queer people exist! Visibility is often the first step for any marginalized group, whether it is the LGBTQ community, people with autism, or the gluten intolerant. However, visibility is a double-edged sword, and the desire for “visibility” or “awareness” can often overshadow more important conversations.

Coming Out Day, which celebrates individuals who have publicly announced their LGBTQ status to the world, can be difficult for those still in the closet. Despite the relative awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ people today, many people choose not to come out, for a variety reasons. Concerns about employment security, even in a progressive state like Colorado; concerns about reactions from family members upon whom people may still be financially dependent; and concerns about harassment and violence cause many people to remain either fully or partially in the closet.

Louis Hines, a local 24-year-old transgender man, recently came out to his friends and immediate family. However, Hines is waiting to come out to his extended family because, “I know they will react negatively, and I may just not ever call them at all because being emotionally abused isn’t worth fighting for many relationships.”

The concept of “coming out” also is inherently problematic. When queer people come out we are coming out, largely, for the benefit of the straight, cisgender people in our lives. Long before it was used to demonize trans people and their use of public bathrooms, the “deceptive queer” trope was firmly established in popular culture.
1950s America was concerned about the prospect of straight-passing gay men infiltrating society and seducing otherwise upstanding citizens, and about aggressive, butch lesbians leading young women astray. Coming out began as less of a way for straight society to embrace LGBTQ people and more as a way to assuage straight anxiety over the prospect of queer people existing, under the radar, in their midst. It was a way of belling the cat. If there was an out gay man in the office you could rest easy because at least you knew who he was.

Coming out also became a part of respectability politics. The “good” queers were those who publicly announced their identity, adopted a same-sex version of the nuclear family, and had good, honest jobs. The “good” queers could point to the “bad” queers — those who didn’t want to disclose their orientation, who had non-monogamous or polyamorous relationships with multiple partners, and who engaged in sex work or lived Bohemian lifestyles — to prove how “normal” they were.

For many queer people, coming out is the first step to achieving a kind of marginal acceptance within a society that still harbors suspicions and biases against LGBTQ people.

Coming Out Day is itself a misnomer, since LGBTQ people spend much of their lives coming out. Every time we meet someone new, or have to correct someone’s assumptions about our spouses or partners, or have to explain to a medical professional or a government official why the names on our documents are different, we have to come out. In those moments, coming out is often a fraught, awkward experience in which we hold our breath and hope that this minor detail about our lives doesn’t affect our career or our access to health care or our child’s relationships with the other children in their class.

Having a national day to celebrate coming out is nice, but until we are ready as a society to analyze and correct why coming out is still necessary in 2017, it will be the kind of hollow holiday that makes allies feel good but has no real impact on the lives or experiences of LGBTQ people.

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