Shifting the power on National Coming Out Day Oct. 11

  • Courtesy of Kenneth Young Center

Updated 10/9/2021 8:12 PM

Spe­cial acknowledgments to the Q+ Crew for being bold bad­dies, our out­spo­ken allies for lift­ing us up, and any­one out there who has ever won­dered if there's any­one else out there.

This com­ing Mon­day, Oct. 11, marks 33 years of cel­e­brat­ing Nation­al Com­ing Out Day, a cel­e­bra­tion in which LGBTQ+ peo­ple are called on to "come out of the clos­et" in the name of advanc­ing vis­i­bil­i­ty. In hon­or of this ground­break­ing day for the com­mu­ni­ty and of the inno­v­a­tive strate­gies that Ken­neth Young Cen­ter implores in its advo­ca­cy for LGBTQ+ peo­ple, I ask you to pon­der this ques­tion: should "com­ing out" as LGBTQ+ still be the goal for achiev­ing equity?


I asked some LGBTQ+-identified friends (all of whom are under 30) the first words that came to their mind when they think of the action of "com­ing out." These are the words they used: scary, nervous, annoying, never-ending, heteronormative, stigma, vulnerable, privilege, change.

Some of you might be per­plexed by this, maybe because the nar­ra­tive has been that LGBTQ+ peo­ple must feel relieved, lib­er­at­ed, and empow­ered by the action of com­ing out. Of course, "the action" and "the result" are two sep­a­rate mat­ters; some­times, things don't feel good as we do them even though the con­se­quences ben­e­fit us (e.g.: why I turned off social media noti­fi­ca­tions). But why do we revere an action that elic­its such neg­a­tive emo­tions to the very peo­ple that it's meant to alle­vi­ate, and is there a bet­ter way? Per­haps, it's a mat­ter of words.

Com­ing Up with "Com­ing Out"

In the Unit­ed States, the phrase "com­ing out" dates back on record to the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry as a term orig­i­nal­ly used in the con­text of "a woman com­ing out as a debutante," mean­ing that she was old enough to be mar­ried. Fol­low­ing the blos­som­ing gay cul­ture of the exper­i­men­tal Roar­ing 20s, the depres­sive 30s brought about an era of intense anti-gay rhetoric and vio­lent oppres­sion. It was then that a 1931 Bal­ti­more news­pa­per referred to a gay gath­er­ing as a "Pan­sy Ball" fea­tur­ing "the com­ing out of new debu­tantes into homo­sex­u­al soci­ety," a play on words intend­ed to dis­grace men for act­ing like women.

By the 1960s and 70s, LGBT activists were reclaim­ing the phrase "com­ing out," using it as a code word to iden­ti­fy peo­ple "in the fam­i­ly," when for safe­ty rea­sons these things couldn't be open­ly dis­cussed. An orga­niz­er at the first gay lib­er­a­tion march in 1970 said "we'll nev­er have the free­dom and civ­il rights we deserve as humans unless we stop hid­ing in clos­ets and in the shel­ter of anonymi­ty." Thus, the link between com­ing out and hid­ing in the clos­et was explic­it­ly joined. By the end of the 70s, the two ideas became syn­ony­mous as evi­dent in Gay politi­cian Har­vey Milk's famous quote: "If a bul­let should enter my brain, let that bul­let destroy every clos­et door," (a pre­sen­ti­ment that would sad­ly come true in the fol­low­ing months).

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Know­ing this his­to­ry, it's obvi­ous that "com­ing out of the clos­et" is inher­ent­ly root­ed in the moral­is­tic idea that LGBTQ+ peo­ple who do not open­ly dis­close to their friends, rel­a­tives, and co-workers that they are LGBTQ+, are hid­ing some­thing, most like­ly out of shame and fear, and at the detri­ment to them­selves and oth­er LGBTQ+ peo­ple. It's a catch 22: if you come out, you'll like­ly face stig­ma and dis­crim­i­na­tion, and if you don't, you're fur­ther prov­ing that there is some­thing to be ashamed of.

Flip­ping the Switch

Let's explore the ques­tion of what we can do, or say, that advances the spir­it of Nation­al Com­ing Out Day while rec­og­niz­ing the unfair bur­den it places on LGBTQ+ people.

A few years ago while at a con­fer­ence, I met a group of LGBTQ-iden­ti­fied Mus­lim youth from a group called MAS­GD who pre­sent­ed a phrase which I actu­al­ly felt lib­er­at­ed by. The term they used was "invit­ing in," as in LGBTQ+ peo­ple have the auton­o­my to choose with whom in their life they invite in to know about their iden­ti­ties, remov­ing the pres­sure of pub­lic dis­clo­sure and feel­ings of being a "bad queer per­son" for not being "out" in every cir­cle. This word­ing changed my life. Even the imagery of the phrase gives me a vis­cer­al reac­tion: in one world view, I'm alone, in a cold, dark, crypt-like space, won­der­ing if it's worse to stay inside until the oxy­gen depletes or step into the blind­ing bright­ness to an unknown envi­ron­ment, over and over, every­where I go, for as long as I live. In the oth­er, I see myself in a cozy-lit room, very famil­iar to me, shar­ing some hot tea (both mean­ings) with friends, con­tent, safe, and every­where I go peo­ple knock on my door, but ulti­mate­ly I hold the pow­er to assess them through the peep­hole and decide if they are com­pa­ny worth keeping.

I asked my same friends from the begin­ning what they felt about the action of "invit­ing in," and this is what they shared:



"I like it"





"What does that mean?"

"Nev­er heard of it!"

Upon fur­ther expla­na­tion of the term, which is like­ly new to most, a friend told me "I've nev­er heard that ter­mi­nol­o­gy before, but I think the phrase itself makes me feel a lot less secre­tive ... Now that I think about it, years lat­er after com­ing out, I did feel like I was hid­ing this huge secret that I felt like I need­ed to share with every­one for their own com­fort ... when it should have been me wait­ing to tell who­ev­er I want­ed to tell for my own comfort."

What if, on this year's Nation­al Com­ing Out Day, we placed the account­abil­i­ty of "com­ing out" on our cis­gen­der and straight allies? Does the idea of hav­ing to vocal­ize to your friends and fam­i­ly that you sup­port LGBTQ+ peo­ple make you ner­vous, and if so, does it make you think twice about what actu­al LGBTQ+ peo­ple expe­ri­ence on a dai­ly basis? What would it do for queer peo­ple all over the world to see their neigh­bors, teach­ers, sib­lings, par­ents, boss­es, doc­tors, and lead­ers come out against the pho­bias and -isms that make us feel iso­lat­ed and invis­i­ble? How would it mobi­lize efforts for equi­ty if those with privilege said "I want to become some­one wor­thy of know­ing you, some­one whom you can lean on?"

We don't know what we stand to gain togeth­er until we're in this togeth­er, and I invite you to imag­ine the pos­si­bil­i­ties with me.

KYC's LGBTQ+ Resources

Ken­neth Young Cen­ter offers a range of sup­port­ive ser­vices to LGBTQ+ indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies. If you or some­one you know is look­ing for com­pas­sion­ate behav­ioral health sup­port, con­tact our team at (847) 524-8800.

We also offer our LGBTQ+ Youth and Young Adult Cen­ter, a resource for youth to explore their authen­tic iden­ti­ties and find com­mu­ni­ty. We offer a vari­ety of activ­i­ties and resources through­out the year. Visit to learn more about our LGBTQ+ Center.

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