Out of the Closets and Into the Streets!: National Coming Out Day
National Coming Out Day (NCOD) is celebrated every October 11th as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning (LGBTQ+) awareness day to support and empower anyone in the process of “coming out of the closet.” As LGBTQ+ people, sharing our authentic selves with others and inviting them in is not always easy. It is also not a one-day event, as we have to come out often during our daily lives. When possible, coming out can be a powerful key to breaking down the many barriers we face as LGBTQ+ people. We all deserve the right to live our lives genuinely and honestly, to love who we love, or to be who we are.
First celebrated in the United States during the 1980’s before spreading to additional countries, NCOD was created to ground the feminist and gay liberationist spirit of “the personal being political” within the context of one’s daily life. Coming out to family, friends, and colleagues as an openly queer person is a basic form of activism because it, historically, challenges the atmospheres of ignorance and silence where homophobia may thrive. During the 1980’s when the awareness day was developed, the HIV/AIDS crisis was affecting tens of thousands of individuals across the globe on a daily basis. The founders of the holiday believed that coming out had the power to force people to acknowledge that their oppressive homophobic views and actions cause serious real-world harm.
Robert Eichberg, a psychologist from New Mexico, and Jean O’Leary, an openly lesbian political leader and head of the National Gay Rights Advocates of Los Angeles, inaugurated the holiday in 1988, seven years prior to Eichberg’s own passing from complications of AIDS. LGBTQ+ rights leaders and activists across the country helped Eichberg and O’Leary establish NCOD as a celebratory holiday, maintaining the positive aspects of coming out and coming together. The holiday is celebrated on October 11th coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987. The holiday is still recognized to this day due to its continued social and political significance. Participants in the celebration often wear Pride symbols such as pink triangles and rainbow flags.
"...being your authentic self should be celebrated and deserves to be respected."
Coming out is a deeply personal and significant step in an individual's life, and discussing and outlining the positive and negative possibilities of coming out should not be misconstrued as a demand to “out” oneself or to stay “in the closet.” Thinking about some possible benefits and risks of such a choice can clarify an individual’s decision by helping them determine the appropriate time for coming out and preparing them for any possible reactions. While this can seem challenging and even daunting, there are numerous benefits to coming out that make it a transformative and empowering experience. Here are some of the key advantages:
Authenticity and Self-Acceptance: Coming out allows individuals to be their true selves and embrace their identity without hiding or pretending to be someone they are not. It fosters self-acceptance, leading to increased self-esteem and mental well-being.
Stronger Relationships: When someone comes out, they often find that their relationships with friends and family become stronger and more authentic. Open communication and honesty can lead to deeper connections with loved ones.
Reducing Mental Health Struggles: Keeping one's identity hidden or suppressing it can lead to mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Coming out can be a liberating experience that helps alleviate these struggles.
Building a Support System: Coming out can open the door to finding a supportive community of like-minded individuals. This can be especially important for LGBTQ+ individuals who may feel isolated or marginalized.
Empowerment and Confidence: Embracing one's true identity and sharing it with the world can boost self-confidence and empower individuals to advocate for themselves and others within the LGBTQ+ community.
Education and Awareness: By coming out, individuals contribute to increasing awareness and understanding of LGBTQ+ issues within society. Their stories can help dispel stereotypes and promote empathy and acceptance.
Legal and Social Progress: Publicly acknowledging one's identity can also contribute to broader social and legal change. Visibility and activism by LGBTQ+ individuals have played a crucial role in advancing LGBTQ+ rights worldwide.
Reducing Stigma: Each person who comes out challenges stereotypes and reduces the stigma associated with being LGBTQ+. This, in turn, makes it easier for others to come out in the future.
Role Modeling: By coming out, individuals become role models for others who are struggling with their own identities. They show that it is possible to lead fulfilling lives as LGBTQ+ individuals.
Additionally, in a study done by researchers affiliated with the University of Montreal, it was found that lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people who were out all had lower levels of stress biomarkers (cortisol, adrenaline, and blood pressure) than those who were still in the closet. Conversely, however, it has been shown that LGBT-identifying people experience other mental health disorders (like depression and generalized anxiety) disproportionately higher than the rest of the population. About one third of LGBTQ+ people also identify as having a disability. Conditions such as these can take a drastic, negative psychological toll on a person, worsened by the fact that receiving equitable health care may be more difficult for marginalized populations.
"Coming out experiences (and the stories we may tell about them) are deeply personal, and sometimes unpredictable."
As such, while coming out can be liberating and provide a sense of authenticity and self-acceptance, there are several risks and potential consequences that individuals should consider before coming out. It's important to note that these risks can vary depending on an individual's unique circumstances, including their location, family, cultural background, and social circle. Here are some of the risks associated with coming out:
Rejection: One of the most significant risks is the potential for rejection by family, friends, or peers. Some people may struggle to accept or understand someone's sexual orientation or gender identity, leading to strained relationships.
Discrimination: In many parts of the world, discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals remains a serious concern. Coming out can expose individuals to discrimination in areas such as employment, housing, healthcare, and education.
Bullying and Harassment: LGBTQ+ individuals may be at a higher risk of experiencing bullying or harassment, both online and in-person, when they come out. This can lead to emotional distress and, in some cases, physical harm.
Violence: In some cases, coming out may expose individuals to physical violence, particularly if they live in areas with high levels of prejudice or hate crimes.
Isolation: Coming out can result in social isolation if friends or family members distance themselves from the individual. This isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression.
Religious or Cultural Conflicts: In some cases, individuals may face conflicts with their religious or cultural communities upon coming out, as some belief systems or cultures may not be accepting of LGBTQ+ identities.
Loss of Support: Some LGBTQ+ individuals may rely on financial or emotional support from their families. Coming out can jeopardize this support, leaving individuals in difficult situations.
Legal Consequences: Depending on the region and the specific circumstances, coming out may have legal consequences, such as restrictions on custody rights, inheritance, employment or housing protections, or even imprisonment.
Privacy Concerns: Sharing one's identity can lead to a loss of privacy, as it may become a topic of discussion or gossip within one's social circle.
To mitigate these risks, individuals often carefully assess their situation and make decisions that are right for them. They may seek support from LGBTQ+ organizations, therapists, or support groups to navigate the occasionally-tricky coming-out process.
Paul Lavella, the Founder & Director of NJ Recovery & Wellness, has a personal relationship with this topic and welcomes you to hear his closing thoughts:
“Coming out experiences (and the stories we may tell about them) are deeply personal, and sometimes unpredictable. Coming out can evoke complicated emotions, including anxiety, fear, and even anger. Regardless of what your personal situation may be, I'd always advise to book-end yourself with support, which might include any combination of the following: supportive people - who get and love you, support groups and safe spaces where you can unload your stress, pets and other animals you feel comfortable with, enjoyable activities - solo or group based, or places in nature where you feel grounded and connected.
However, it's also not unheard of to turn the coming out conversation on its head. A person doesn't need to be prepared to make a big announcement in order to live life being true to who they are. Perhaps it's just as well to ditch the build up to a major disclosure and simply answer questions pertaining to romantic interests directly, or nonchalantly correcting others who mistakenly assume a person's orientation or gender identity.
Either way, being your authentic self should be celebrated and deserves to be respected.”
NJ Recovery & Wellness has clinicians who embrace the LGBTQ+ and Queer community and are here to provide guidance, care, and support to anyone who is currently navigating the coming out process or the complex emotions associated with understanding one’s identity.