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National Coming Out Day: Does It Still Matter?

The answer is not as simple as it may seem.

Marilyn Drew Necci | October 11, 2017

I realized that it was National Coming Out Day this morning when I opened facebook and saw a status update of mine from one year ago today. “It’s National Coming Out Day,” I wrote. “Not that this should be news to anyone, but I’m a queer trans woman. Yay! And I’m also in a relationship with a woman. Double yay!”

I see facebook posts like these every year on National Coming Out Day. For many of us, making a display of our coming-out is just a minor detail. These days, if you’re a part of the LGBTQ community, most of the people in your social circle already know it. And part of this is because it’s not a big deal to most of us.

Indeed, in the 29 years since National Coming Out Day was introduced, American attitudes towards homosexuality have greatly progressed. In 1988, 57 percent of Americans polled by Gallup thought same-sex relationships between consenting adults should be against the law. Earlier this year, when that same question was asked, that number had dropped to 23 percent. By the same token, when Gallup began asking in 1996 whether same-sex marriages should be recognized by law as valid, 68 percent of respondents opposed this. Earlier this year, that number had dropped to 34 percent.

So as we can see, American attitudes towards relationships that fall under the LGBTQ umbrella have softened considerably. Today, a significant majority of Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage being legal, and even more consider same-sex relationships acceptable overall. This removes a great deal of the stigma gay, lesbian, and bisexual people once faced due to who they choose to love.

It’s this idea Ohio State University professor Matthew H. Birkhold zeroes in on in his piece for the Washington Post entitled “It’s time to end National Coming Out Day.” Birkhold argues that there’s nothing all that radical about declaring oneself gay anymore. “In the 1980s, when many people did not know any openly gay people, ignorance and silence allowed homophobia to persist. Coming out was a form of activism — a way to challenge conventional ideas and fears by showing that gays and lesbians were a part of everyday life. Since 1988, this day has fostered a safer world for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people by raising awareness of the community.”

Birkhold therefore argues that National Coming Out Day may have outlived its usefulness. “I realize I probably would not be able to make this argument without the existence of National Coming Out Day for the past 28 years,” he admits. “Nevertheless, we should question whether the benefits of National Coming Out Day still outweigh its harms.”

What harms? You might well ask. But rest assured, Birkhold has an answer for you. “‘Coming out’ implicitly announces — to LGBTQ individuals, allies and enemies — that gay people are aberrant,” he writes. “Our homosexuality is so different that we must proclaim it; heterosexuality, however, is normal and expected.”

True, as far as it goes. The struggle for LGBTQ civil rights won’t truly end until our sexualities are seen as such a minor detail that we don’t even have to attach a great deal of importance to our “coming out stories.” But the basic struggle of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to have their existences recognized and given basic respect has made a great deal of progress. For many, National Coming Out Day isn’t much more than a quick facebook status that gets a bunch of likes. Then the day continues as normal.

But to act as if no one within the LGBTQ community needs the basic struggle for acknowledgement and respect that National Coming Out Day seeks to achieve is a bit myopic. After all, those same Gallup poll questions I mentioned above have recently been paired with questions relating to transgender people; those questions reveal quite a different mindset than the questions about same-sex marriage mentioned above.

Gallup first asked about transgender bathroom use only one year ago; in 2016, 50 percent of respondents felt trans people should use the bathroom corresponding to their birth assignment, compared to only 40 percent supporting their right to use the correct bathroom. Earlier in 2017, that number dropped to 48, and those supporting the right of trans people to use the correct bathroom rose to 45. Still, in spite of slight positive shifts, the polls show that the nation is still deeply divided on the issue.

The 2015 US Transgender Survey found that out-and-out violence against trans people is still a big issue, with 10 percent of respondents facing violence from family members, and 8 percent losing housing  upon coming out. 17 percent were harassed so badly at school that they stopped attending. 30 percent were fired, denied a promotion, or otherwise harassed at work. 29 percent live in poverty. 40 percent had attempted suicide at some point in their lifetime.

Even the rest of the LGBTQ community is often unsupportive. In a USA Today column last year, Joseph R. Murray II, a former Pat Buchanan campaign official who also happens to be gay, took up the Milo Yiannopolous-touted demand that the gay community “Drop The T,” saying, “If the gay community allows the trans community to co-opt its success and redefine the movement as one seeking to upend the human experience, it does so at its own peril.”

It’s interesting to hear this argument made less than 50 years after members of the feminist movement, led by National Organization of Women president Betty Friedan, referred derisively to “the lavender menace” in her campaign to make the feminism a hetero-only movement. Today, this stands as one of the main black marks on Friedan’s legacy–and here we have conservative gay men jumping at the chance to replicate her mistake.

How does all this relate to National Coming Out Day? Simple–it shows that while coming out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual is safer now than it ever has been before, letting the world know that you’re transgender remains fraught with difficulty. Some choose to live “stealth,” moving to new towns after completing their transition and telling only those closest to them the truth of their gender identity. Others remain closeted, continuing to pretend that they are the gender they were assigned at birth, because they’re just too scared to face the very real dangers of living as an openly transgender person in America today.

Examples of both of these choices can be found within our recent Pride Guide piece, “The RVA Trans and Non-Binary Community Speaks.” Of the 12 respondents, four either remained anonymous or used pseudonyms. In order to further protect their safety, we chose to identify even those who were willing to go on record only by their first names. Compare this to the Summer 2017 Pride Guide piece, “Bisexual Pride,” which featured full names and pictures, as well as significant identifying details of the participants. The difference is obvious.

So, National Coming Out Day: is it truly relevant to the LGBTQ community in 2017? I think the answer depends on which one of those letters you most closely identify with. For those whose place in the community is defined primarily by who they love, it may not be all that big a deal anymore. But for people who are somewhere on the non-cisgender spectrum, both those that live openly and those that fear to tell their truth to the world, National Coming Out Day still means a lot.

So anyway, my name’s Marilyn Drew Necci (my friends and family call me Drew). I’m a trans woman. I have been out, and in support of all the other trans and non-binary people out there, both those who have come out as well and those who are still not ready, I will remain out.