National Coming Out Day allows students across the country to celebrate their LGBTQ identities, share their stories, and teach others about LGBTQ activism.
“Coming out” continues to be an act of bravery because of the discrimination and ostracism LGBTQ people still face, despite advances toward equality. National Coming Out Day seeks to make it an opportunity for celebration, as well.
The History of National Coming Out Day
National Coming Out Day carries a legacy of LGBTQ activism that began before many current college students were born.
On October 11, 1987, half a million people marched on the nation’s capital to demand LGBTQ and civil rights in the form of legal recognition of same-sex relationships, the repeal of sodomy laws, a congressional civil rights bill for LGBTQ people, funding for AIDS/HIV research, reproductive justice, and an end to apartheid in South Africa.
In 1988, Rob Eichberg and Jean O’Leary celebrated the anniversary of the previous year’s march with the first National Coming Out Day, what has become an annual event to acknowledge the successes of the LGBTQ movement, and to recognize those who have had the courage to live openly as members of the LGBTQ community. That same year, artist Keith Haring donated his renowned print of a person dancing out of a closet to the National Coming Out Day project.
National Coming Out Day in the Present
The LGBTQ movement has made great strides since 1987, but the need to inspire and encourage LGBTQ students is as important today as it was 28 years ago.
There are still many battles to fight for LGBTQ equality and safety. More than 20 transgender people have been murdered this year alone, and most have been transgender women of color. Laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission do not protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Nonbinary people continue to struggle to have their identities acknowledged and affirmed. The LGBTQ community still suffers from increased risk of depression, anxiety, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases. And 40 percent of homeless youth — a disproportionately high number — identify as LGBTQ.
There are also a lot of reasons to celebrate National Coming Out Day this year, including the Supreme Court ruling that bans on marriage equality are unconstitutional. Transgender rights are now a part of mainstream conversations, thanks to activists and celebrities like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Caitlyn Jenner. And well-known women’s colleges Barnard, Smith, and Bryn Mawr now accept transgender students who identify as women to attend their institutions.
National Coming Out Day on Campus
College communities across the nation are demonstrating a commitment to their LGBTQ members by hosting educational forums and sponsoring activities in which students can showcase aspects of their identities that may be typically ignored or disrespected. The median age at which LGBTQ people come out for the first time is 20 — and for many students, National Coming Out Day is the first opportunity to celebrate their identities openly.
“National Coming Out Day is important to me because so many LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual) individuals live with a part of their identity that is far too often kept in secret when it shouldn’t be,” said Nicole Tyler, student and LGBTQIA Program Planner at Westminster College. “It’s a way to raise awareness about the community and how coming out can be such a difficult process.”
This year, Westminster College is celebrating National Coming Out Day by hosting a panel of LGBTQ campus community members who will discuss their own coming-out experiences. The panel’s goal is to expose attendees to narratives of the coming-out process from a variety of perspectives, and the panel will highlight those with intersecting identities who are often excluded from mainstream accounts of coming out. The discussion will also focus on the fact that for many, it is not always safe to declare sexual orientation openly.
At the University of Minnesota–Morris, National Coming Out Day is a chance for students to examine the needs of LGBTQ students on campus. The Morris Queer Student Initiative for Equality (MoQSIE) will host a weeklong series of events that focus on creating safe spaces and encouraging self-care, as well as an action planning meeting to address the specific needs of the LGBTQ student community.
Katelynn Eggler, a member of MoQSIE, is a peer counselor on campus who works with first-year students on issues like gender-inclusive housing. She says it’s important to recognize that coming out is a continuous process, rather than a one-time event: “Often times, we talk about coming out as a one-time experience. Yeah, it might be painful but it’s like ripping off a Band-Aid quickly to avoid pain, right? No. . . . Coming out happens over and over and over again.”
Florida State University will set up an actual doorway on a public part of campus, and students will be able to walk through the door as a performance of “coming out of the closet.”
According to Jade Reindl, vice president of Florida State University’s College Democrats and a member of Out Bi Women, celebrating National Coming Out Day during college is particularly noteworthy. “It’s a time when [young people’s] identities are being established, and they are vulnerable to negative influences and open to positive ones,” she said. “Creating an environment in which students are encouraged to learn and grow instead of being repressed is necessary for the LGBTQ community.”
Getting Involved on National Coming Out Day
For those who are looking to live openly and to create positive change, there are a number of resources available. Campuses that want to “come out” themselves as LGBTQ-friendly can do so by attending a Campus Pride National LGBTQ-Friendly College Fair — which are being held in cities across the country — or by hosting National Coming Out Day events of their own.
Coming out — on National Coming Out Day, or any other day — is an act of courage, and should be celebrated as such.
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Campus Pride freelance writer Allison Marie Turner, an alumna of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, contributed to this article. Follow her on Twitter @amturner1993.