Coming Out Day: progressive or purposeless?

Coming Out Day: progressive or purposeless?

Grant Spicer

On Oct. 11 every year, the Human Rights Campaign hosts the U.S. national Coming Out Day event, a day to promote a safe world for people a part of the LGBTQIA* community. According to the Human Rights Campaign, the holiday was created by Dr. Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary, former head of National Gay Rights Advocates. The date of October 11 was selected to celebrate the day in which half a million people marched in Washington D.C. for political action towards LGBTQIA* rights.

The practice of coming out is one that many people in the LGBTQIA* community know even from a young age. Additionally, coming out has become a rite of passage for many; representing the shift between a quieter, perhaps darker, phase in one’s life to a new period of liberation and love for oneself. However, the practice of coming out (and even the term itself) has also garnered criticisms over time.

“To be out, in common gay parlance, is precisely to be no longer out; to be out is to be finally outside of exteriority and all the exclusions and deprivations such outsiderhood imposes,” said Diana Fuss, editor of the book Inside/Outside: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (1991). “... put another way, to be out is really to be in — inside the realm of the visible, the speakable, the culturally intelligible.”

Granted, can I count the practice of coming out as a problem? In comparison to the rest of my problems as a gay man, no. I had the privilege of coming out on my own terms and not having to deal with other major issues because of the positive environment that I was in. However, this is not to say the idea of coming out is perfect either. Because it feels so common, the idea of coming out is seen by many people as a requirement. Not coming out is perceived as a rarity, or worse, like you are not really authentically part of the LGBTQIA* community.

Further exploring the cons, it is important to understand the origin of coming out — before the pride parades. Not even thirty years ago, the traditional method of people knowing you as “Sarah, my gay coworker” or “Brady, my gay best friend” was that you had to go through the constant stress of being associated as straight. In order to alleviate this mental pressure, you corrected people once and for all and told them “the big news” about your sexual or gender identity. This has not gone away, but it is now more common to be met with pure love and acceptance than it was in the past.

Coming out was, in itself, another mental pressure. Your life at that point onwards was uprooted to some degree, whether your family just now knew you as your sexuality or you lost your job. It became common to have to come out to people because it was traditionally seen as going against what was normal. Being straight was the default of the status-quo then, but the culture of the status-quo now has reflectedthat history. Currently, there is a strong movement to avoid verbally coming out in favor of just being out by people seeing you with your romantic partner. I was part of this movement when I first understood where I fell in the LGBTQIA* community.

This concept of straight being the norm was developed through the conscience of heteronormativity. The Oxford Dictionary provides the most clear definition: “denoting or relating to a worldview that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.” It was because being straight was perceived as the norm that I had to come out ... that my friends had to come out. We had to work against the grain to then fall back into the grain.

This issue is broken down further by Michel Foucault, a French social philosopher who contributed greatly to the study of sexuality. Foucault’s perhaps greatest argument is that sexuality, in general, is a social construct in order to control another individual or even a group of people. This is called biopower, but perhaps that will be saved for another article. The hetero-patriarchal system is in power because these people defined the normality as being straight; hence why straight people do not declare their sexuality.

In contrast, many members of the LGBTQIA* community see coming out as the first step in celebrating who they are. It is the origin of their pride. Understanding when and where someone came out can also say a lot about that person.

Also, when more people come out, it is creating an environment in which people see positive examples of LGBTQIA* people being normalized. This can resolve the issue of heteronormativity.