On National Coming Out Day, Many Still Can’t Afford the Luxury

Today is National Coming Out Day, an event started in 1988 to urge gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to step out of the closet and publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation or gender identity. The day is important for raising the public visibility of our community, but sadly, not everyone can take advantage of it for a myriad of reasons.

As a young person, growing up in a small Southern town the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was convinced that I was the only lesbian in the world. I watched as all my friends began to form their boyfriend-girlfriend dyads in high school, and even took on a boyfriend of my own at the tender age of 13—a dashing, talented boy who was four years my senior. In fact, he was a senior—something that won me a bit of prestige among my sub-freshman classmates.

As girls are wont to do, they predicted great things for me and my beau. “I just know you’ll marry him one day,” a friend would say in that breathless, starry-eyed way teenage girls—who are not dating seniors—always seem to talk. In fact, my boyfriend and I had already mapped out our wedding day. We were to be married at home plate at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium where our beloved Atlanta Braves played. 

That dream imploded in the same way as that old stadium did when I hit my 16th birthday. I learned who I really was that year when a copy of Rolling Stone arrived in my mailbox. The cover story was about something called “lesbians,” featuring a fairly sexy pose of a woman on the front. I immediately ripped the cover off, lest my mother be clued in on my secret. 

I read the magazine with a primal hunger, savoring each morsel of detail about the lives of these exotic creatures called “lesbians.” I put the magazine down and said to myself, “So, that’s what I am.” I went to the mirror and tried on my new label. “I am a lezzz-be-yun,” I pronounced the new noun slowly, trying to wrap both my tongue and my mind around this strange word. 

I hated it. I still hate it. The word lesbian is so … clinical … bloodless … weak. To this day, if I feel I need a label for my sexuality, I still prefer “dyke” for its short, punchy and muscular feel. 

That article turned my life upside down. It finally explained to me why I felt this strange yearning for the long, leggy and gorgeous girlfriend of my boyfriend’s best friend. It explained why, as a first-grader on my first field trip, I have no memory of how they make cars, but I still remember having to hold Marie’s hand—all day—when we buddied-up to tour the car plant. It explained why I always preferred to play with the boys and felt like an alien when a gaggle of girls would try to get me to play with their Barbie dolls and makeup. 

Explaining my new-found identity to my boyfriend was, to say the least, a challenge. It led to years of estrangement between us, but in the intervening years we have reconnected and I am glad to report he has an amazing wife and two beautiful children.

Getting comfortable in my new skin entailed challenge after challenge, as anyone who has come to grips with their sexuality can tell you. The biggest challenge has always been the task of “coming out,” that moment where you reveal your true identity to a world that assumes everyone is straight until proven otherwise. 

I came out to my mother first—a good Southern Baptist preacher’s wife who took the news stoically, and advised me at 16 that, “It might be a phase. Don’t do anything about it right now.” At 18, when I met my first girlfriend, I told her, “Mom. It’s not a phase.” 

I was lucky in this coming out experience. My mother said, “I think it’s wrong, but I love you and you’ll always be welcome in my home.” She made good on those words, always treating my partners as members of the family—even if, at her heart, she believed I was outside God’s will for my life. (My journey to reconcile my sexuality and spirituality was a long process, but much of that journey can be found at my magazine Whosoever or my bookBulletproof Faith.)

Many LGBT people don’t experience such love and understanding when they come out. Instead, many are rejected by their parents, sent to “ex-gay” therapy if they are still under their parent’s control, kicked out of their houses, fired from jobs and shunned by friends and family. Coming out, as many LGBT people can testify, can be a brutal experience. 

I did lose friends along the way (and some of my family still disapproves), and I hid my sexuality when employed in small Georgia towns that I knew would not embrace me—and might even fire me—if they knew the truth. I fled to the relative safety of Atlanta and found jobs where my sexual orientation made no difference, and since then have been up-front, even in interviews, choosing to pass up jobs where I would not be both welcomed and affirmed. 

Again, many of us do not have that luxury. As Preston Mitchum writes in the Atlantic, the closet is often still the safest place for many LGBT people—something we out and proud folks need to respect.

Ultimately, coming out is important because it makes the LGBT community more visible, particularly for black LGBT individuals. But focusing so intensely on coming out places the burden on the individual to brave society rather than on society to secure the safety of the individual. In the name of “visibility,” the victims of repeated discrimination are forced to ensure they are seen.

Which is an excellent point, but brings up the chicken-and-egg nature of coming out. If we don’t come out, how can society ever be expected to secure our safety? This is where it becomes imperative for those who can come out to do so. People like me, who will not compromise our identity for anyone for any reason, must be on the forefront of creating a society—and a religious world—that will ensure the safety of those who feel, for whatever reason, that it is not safe for them to step beyond the closet door right now. 

The precariousness of coming out is highlighted in yet another great article from the latest issue of Rolling Stone, in which Alex Morris explores “The Hidden War Against Gay Teens,” chronicling the challenges faced by teenagers at private Christian schools (especially in the South) who can be kicked out for merely admitting they are gay or lesbian. 

Those interviewed for the piece recount the horror of being outed against their will and the terrible aftermath with which they had to deal. Others are forming “secret gay societies,” much like LGBT people did decades before when they were declared criminally mentally ill by law and society. Even in 2013, these kids are doing what they must to survive—to become who they know they are even in the face of religious and academic opposition. 

The piece ends on a bright note with the story of one student, Noah, who stayed in his conservative school, even after being outed. He wasn’t allowed to attend graduation ceremonies, but finally got to wear his cap and gown when he graduated from Mercer University this year. 

“I’m going to put on my robe, I’m going to wear my hat, I’m going to walk across the stage, and it’s going to be the most meaningful experience of my life,” he says. “And everyone I love is going to be there, and I’m completely honest about who I am, and everyone in that audience knows who I am. Everyone knows that I’m gay, and they’re all OK with it.”

Perhaps this latest issue of Rolling Stone will give another scared Southern teenager the permission and courage they need step out of the darkness of the closet and celebrate this as their first National Coming Out Day.