CW: mention of a hate crime; mention of being outed
October 11th has been celebrated as National Coming Out Day (NCOD) in the United States since 1988. NCOD has also been adopted in several other nations to be recognised on the same day. This article will give a brief description of NCOD, the historical context, how and where it is celebrated, and a few reminders for those who are out and those who are private with their gender or sexual identity.
In the broadest terms, National Coming Out Day is a day to raise awareness of the queer community and to provide those who are closeted and wish to be out an opportunity to do so. The terminology of “coming out” has its roots as a queer phrase in the earliest drag balls, around the 1920s and 1930s, where a queer person would “come out” to the community, as a recognition of their membership and participation in queer society. This was both a mirror and a parody of the practice of a debutante “coming out” to society through a formal ball. These early drag balls were a way to legitimise their intrinsic identity as a queer person in their own community when they were unable to have the same experience as their peers in broader society. Through the middle of the 20th century, especially with the influence of the Second World War’s large population of queer military members and a growing push for queer rights, coming out evolved to reference being open about your identity outside of the community. Nowadays the term is used interchangeably for any situation in which a queer person shares their identity with someone for the first time.
Coming out can be a process done with one’s self, one’s family, one’s community, or even more broadly if one is a publicly known figure such as a politician, actor, athlete, or other influential member of society. I specify it as a process and not a one-time event because every queer person has many contexts and individuals with which they may choose to share this personal information about their identity. Coming out can look differently for every individual; some may specify their gender or sexual identity via specific labels, others may simply state that they are part of the community, and each person will share what they are comfortable with and in their own way.
National Coming Out Day was founded in 1988, choosing the date of the previous year’s March on Washington. The 1987 March is most well known for the unveiling of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Relatedly, October is celebrated as LGBTQ History Month because of NCOD’s observance on the 11th each year.
Originally, the impetus for NCOD was to show that everyone knows someone who is in the queer community, with a belief that more people “coming out of the closet” would be both a political and social statement: queer people are here and we’re everywhere. LGBTQIA+ people are neighbours, coworkers, and family members, present across all demographics and in all communities. At the time, it was a radical idea that people would “come out” either in their social circles or publicly, and the celebration of the first NCOD was intended as a direct political act.
Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary are credited with the founding of NCOD as a celebration of queer identity in the midst of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, when the President still refused to acknowledge the public health crisis that was decemating the queer community. Eichberg said in 1993 that, “It is imperative that we come out and let people know who we are and disabuse them of their fears and stereotypes.” In 1988 there were no legal protections for queer people. The protections we have now have been won by the literal blood, sweat, and tears of our elders, many of whom were lost during this time, and would not have been possible without the Civil Rights Movement and the work of other marginalised groups. A person coming out in 1988 was almost certain to have consequences- to lose their housing, their relationships, their employment, almost everything in their life. There was a sense of taking that power away from society at large, to say that the queer community was proud of who we were and would openly show that. While NCOD has evolved in many ways, that sense of pride and community remains. Coming out is also a coming in, into community and collaboration with other queer people, as well as a deeper appreciation of yourself.
There are many different ways to celebrate NCOD this year, if you wish to do so. The first, and perhaps most obvious way, is by coming out. This can be a coming out to yourself, to a loved one, to a friend, or to anyone at all (some people will come out online via anonymous usernames and find validation and community when they are unable to have it elsewhere). NCOD is an invitation to be more fully yourself if you are ready and safe to do so, and if not, to be honest with yourself about your identity and explore what it means for you to accept that part of who you are. I have listed a resource through the Trevor Project in the sources if you’re unsure how and/or when to come out.
If you are already out, you can celebrate NCOD by congratulating those who are also out, sending your support to those who are unable to be out, posting on social media to inform your followers about the day, and taking time to reflect on your own journey to where you are, and where you might still have to go.
Additionally, many LGBTQIA+ organisations will hold events or programming to celebrate the holiday. Some of these events will be educational, some will be celebratory, others will simply hold space for individuals to come out in a safe and supportive environment. If you’re interested, look at your local queer organisations and check out the Human Rights Campaign, the Trevor Project, GLAAD, GLSEN, and any other national/international LGBTQIA+ org that you know of. Engaging virtually is a great option, especially if you’re unable to attend in-person events for NCOD.
Allies can use NCOD as a reason to further educate themselves on the community, on current issues we are facing both locally and internationally, or to thank someone in their life who has come out to them for sharing that part of themself, acknowledging the path they are on and reaffirming your support. I’ve also included a link to Rainbow Railroad in the sources, an organisation that works to get queer people to safety if they are in danger due to their identity. No Stunts held an interview with Rainbow Railroad for the April 2023 issue if you’d like to learn more about their organisation, or if you’re considering donating in support of NCOD (interview also linked in the sources).
It’d be negligent to talk about National Coming Out Day without addressing the closet itself. I’ll offer a message for those who are not out: the closet is not a place of shame. If you are closeted, for any reason, that does not make you any less queer or any less integral a member of the community. Coming out is not compulsory for your queer identity. Whatever your reason for keeping your identity private- safety being the primary concern for many individuals- that reason is yours to know and share when you are ready. NCOD is not meant to shame you into coming out before you are ready. Coming out is a personal decision that should be made on your own time and when you are safe and ready. Only you will know when that is.
NCOD can also be a difficult day for many people. For example, I did not get the chance to come out because I was outed. At the time I had only come out to a select few individuals and was keeping my identity private for many reasons. I have never found out who or why as it was not any of the trusted friends I mentioned, but I lost my safety and many relationships because someone took that decision away from me. I am not alone in this experience. Many people have been outed without their consent or knowledge, and NCOD can be a reminder of that pain. To those of you with similar experiences: I see you, I love you, and I am sorry that was taken from you. You deserve a kinder world.
Similarly, there are people who have come out on their own terms but had a bad experience in one way or another. This very public reminder of coming out via NCOD can trigger latent memories or remind them of what has been lost. I urge everyone to remember this when talking with out queer people, that having acceptance or a good experience is not universal, not even within the same family or social group. When we come out, most of us hope for the best but plan for the worst. Hold space for those who experienced the latter, or even somewhere in the middle. NCOD may be difficult for them.
There are also queer community members who may approach the holiday with apprehension due to a pushback against compulsory heterosexuality (comphet) and how the desire to come out may feed into that directive. Comphet is a term that is credited to poet Adrienne Rich in a 1980 essay. I have a link to a source below if you’d like to learn more about comphet. In brief, comphet is the assumption that all people are heterosexual and only experience romantic and sexual attraction to the “opposite sex.” Examples of this include how bisexual women are often told that they are experimenting and not actually queer by people both in and out of the queer community, and how lesbians are sometimes told that they’re not actually a lesbian they just need to meet “the right man.” There are many other examples, but those are two that illustrate common occurrences of comphet.
Some members of the queer community see NCOD as reinforcing a comphet narrative because the idea that anyone should need to come out as “other than straight” implies that straight is the natural order. This is of course not the case, but many queer people will discuss a future time when coming out is no longer necessary because comphet will no longer exist.
However, many responses to this concern with NCOD point out that coming out is still necessary exactly because of the existence of comphet. It’s an act of resistance in many ways and in defiance of the assumption of straightness and cisgender identity to proudly declare oneself otherwise. Just one day after the ten year anniversary of NCOD, on October 12th, 1998, Matthew Shepard died as a result of injuries sustained from a hate crime (there is a link to the Matthew Shepard foundation in the sources if you’d like to learn more). Due to the publicity of the murder and the political action that followed his attack, many people will include a mention of Matthew and a tribute to his memory in their NCOD celebrations to acknowledge the tragedy of his loss and the courage he displayed in his life.
There is a tension to the conversation of comphet and coming out that I won’t be resolving with this article, but I have presented both viewpoints so that the reader can sit with the information and decide for themself. There is no consensus within the queer community, and choosing to either celebrate NCOD or to abstain does not fundamentally change your value to the community. If celebrating NCOD is what is right for you, I heartily encourage it. If not celebrating, for whatever reason, is what you choose, then I support you in that decision. It’s important to continue the dialogue around these concerns while recognizing that there may not be one correct answer.
I wish you all a very gay National Coming Out Day. I hope you are validated and supported on October 11th and always. Find strength in the queer community and reach out for support if you are in need. Even if the only person you come out to is yourself, congratulations on taking that step in your journey.