October 11th was chosen as National Coming Out Day by its founders Richard Eichberg and Jean O’leary to mark the anniversary of the second major National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, in 1987.  It's since becoming a celebrated day around the world, including the UK.

It's now 2022 and still, coming out is not always safe, even within the LGBTQ+ community, but that doesn't mean we should discount the progress we've made. More people are able to come out than ever, and that is to be celebrated.

The question is, why do we come out? This might seem like an obvious question, but people's reasons for coming out are as varied and numerous as we are.

Do we come out to be seen as who we are? 

The perception of coming out is shifting from a one-off grand unveiling to that of a journey that never stops. Coming out doesn't happen just once: we're constantly faced with hetero and cis normativity, and in that way, we often find ourselves correcting assumptions made about our sexuality or gender. 

But often, the first coming out experience makes a difference. The people we interact with most regularly like our family, our friends, our colleagues, can see us clearly, and we can, to some extent, relax.

Do we come out as activism?

Is our aim in coming out to change people's perception of LGBTQ+ people? Are we making ourselves an avatar of queerness?

One famous example of a person trying to change perceptions is Harvey Milk. In 1978 California tried to vote in a law banning gays and lesbians from teaching in school. Milk encouraged others to come out as a way of supporting LGBTQ+ rights, of showing people how numerous, and normal we all are.

‘Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.’  

Sylvia Rae Rivera.jpg 

Does the same apply today? Is the act of coming out still revolutionary, and something that can change minds? 

The politics of sexuality has changed so dramatically since the time of Milk, but perhaps we can find that revolutionary power in the coming out stories of trans and gender nonconforming people. Disinformation and negative stereotypes are everywhere, and trans coming out story holds its own special power for people in that person's orbit.

Does coming out make us safer?

Coming out has never been free of risk. Sylvia Rivera, activist and American queer icon, reflected on how life became harder for her after coming out in her famous ‘Y’all Better Quiet Down’ speech in 1973. Much of the prejudice she faced was from within the lesbian and gay community. She said

‘You tell me to go and hide my tail between my legs. I will not put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all? Think about that!’

For some people, coming out still isn't possible. On National Coming Out Day it's worth remembering those who face environments far more hostile than our own, and their bravery, whether they choose to come out or not.

Does coming out still make a difference?

Many would argue that it does. By being out we can show that trans people and the rest of the community are members of society who can be trusted. We stop being a rare exotic creature and instead become a tangible person. 

But as we mentioned above, it's not without personal risk. We simultaneously make ourselves vulnerable, facing rejection and potentially losing jobs and homes. A study by AKT found that 24% of the homeless population aged 16 - 25 are LGBTQ+.

It is also important to come out when you are ready, so you feel in control of your coming out process. No one is obligated to come out and everyone's circumstances are unique.

Do we come out because it is our right to?

National Coming Out Day gives people the opportunity to come out in solidarity with others, and for people to reflect on their own coming out or remind people they are still proud and queer.

Some people feel it is their right not to come out, instead calling people into their trust and sharing their gender and sexuality with people close to them. There are no simple answers, and everyone has to make their own decision. We are all deserving of love, respect, and safety, whether we're out to everyone in our lives or not.

It is our right to feel as empowered in our gender and sexuality, and as comfortable in our relationships as cisgender, heterosexual people. For some choosing to come out gives us that equality.