By Lindsey Danis
For National Coming Out Day, Bold Culture interviewed several people about the value the day holds for them.
October 11 is National Coming Out Day, a day when LGBTQIA+ people are encouraged to celebrate their sexuality through a public coming out ritual of their choice. In a world where expansive gender and sexuality options are not only tolerated, but celebrated, does National Coming Out Day still matter?
National Coming Out Day started in 1988. This was the height of the AIDS epidemic, when many LGBTQIA+ people were ashamed of their sexuality because HIV/AIDS was thought to be a gay men’s disease. Coming out was almost unthinkable due to social stigma and the lack of legal protection for queer individuals. If people realized they knew someone who was LGBTQIA+, they wouldn’t hate and oppress queer people, believed Robert Eichsberg, the event’s co-founder.
In most places, it’s no longer a big deal to be queer. LGBTQIA+ adults make up 5.6 percent of the US population, a figure that’s sure to climb as Gen Z comes of age. Things aren’t perfect but, in the U.S., LGBTQIA+ people have a lot more legal rights than in previous years.
While it’s meant to destigmatize the varied identities within the community, critics say National Coming Out Day reinforces LGBTQIA+ marginalization. People come out as LGBTQIA+ but never as straight or cisgender because those identities are considered normal. On a practical level, condensing coming out to a single day obscures our lived realities—it isn’t something that happens once. Most of us come out again and again and again, unless we’re read as queer, by reductionist stereotypes like “looking” butch or “sounding” gay.
National Coming Out Day turns 33 this year and despite occasional calls to end it, the day still matters. There is valuable personal power when queer people define themselves on their terms and demand acceptance, full stop. Writer Jenny Pritchett vowed to come out annually after she saw Chaz Bono come out on National Coming Out Day in the 1990s. As a bisexual woman in a heterosexual marriage, Pritchett regularly experiences bi erasure. Pritchett says she’s presumed as straight, and “unless I make an effort, I don’t feel like part of the queer community.” Pritchett recently got a “lesbian haircut,” changing her external appearance in the hopes of queering her identity.
Lina Mafi, a queer, multiracial Latinx and Pacific Islander, feels similarly. While some were supportive, Mafi experienced others’ “confusion, invalidation, and disbelief” when they came out as bisexual. Mafi says that bierasure and biphobia distance her from the broader LGBTQIA+ community. On National Coming Out Day, Mafi finds community with other bi folks, celebrating a shared experience.
The holiday is not just limited to sexuality, but includes gender as well. Taj M. Smith, a Black queer transgender man, recalls learning homophobia from his Christian faith. However, after a friend came out to Smith on National Coming Out Day, his opinion on LGBTQIA+ people began to shift. Smith now works as a spiritual leadership and development coach, helping people deconstruct religious beliefs that may have caused shame. He believes National Coming Out Day will matter as long as “the dominant religious tradition in this country teaches and preaches a doctrine that condemns LGBTQIA+ people.”
Despite widespread acceptance of LGBTQIA+ identities, openly queer therapist and coach John Sovec in Pasadena, California, says that “most kids still find coming out a painful and challenging process.” Even if they believe their family will accept them, teens want to fit in. “Fear of rejection is part of the social narrative…you don’t want to be the different kid,” Sovec adds.
National Coming Out Day can be a therapeutic tool for teens grappling with when—and to whom—to come out. Using the day as a benchmark, Sovec works backwards with clients to make a plan: who do they want to come out to, and how can they feel safe doing so? They also role play to build confidence. Afterwards, they’ll process the emotional experience. If a celebrity comes out on National Coming Out Day, it can be a teaching tool to help those who have not yet envisioned a day when they’ll feel confident to express their truth.
Coming out can be hard, at any age and in any era. As long as National Coming Out Day makes it easier for LGBTQIA+ people to express their authentic selves, it deserves to be celebrated.
Lindsey Danis is a freelance writer specializing in food, travel, personal finance, and LGBTQIA+ topics. Her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, AFAR, and Fodor’s, and received notable mention in Best American Travel Writing.