Find Events Find People Find Jobs Find Sites Find Help Index


October 7, 2002

'Coming out' for everyone

Kathy McKee, training specialist in Human Resources, is chair of the President's Commission on LGBT Concerns

Fifteen years ago, half a million people marched on Washington in support of gay and lesbian equal rights. This colossal demonstration, held on Oct. 11, 1987, led to other actions and the formation of organizations that might bring the march’s objectives to fruition.

It also resulted in the establishment of National Coming Out Day, an annual occurrence generally recognized as an opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) individuals to take the next step in “coming out.” National Coming Out Day encourages tolerance and respect for individuals and promotes equal treatment of all persons regardless of their sexual or gender identity.

The concept of coming out can mean different things to different people. For LGBT individuals, it might mean identifying and admitting to themselves their sexual or gender identification. It might represent a sharing of that identity in some way with one or more other individuals, such as a friend, family member or co-worker. It might mean standing up as part of a group so that others who identify as you do—as well as “straight” or heterosexual people—can see and understand the numbers and diversity of people who identify as LGBT. For individuals who identify as straight, it might represent recognizing and sharing your support for LGBT individuals and issues that affect them.

For everyone, whether straight or LGBT, coming out can serve as a means of sharing something about yourself that you might not ordinarily share or that is not immediately apparent to others. It is a way to overcome the stereotypes we all encounter and reinforce, consciously or unconsciously, each day. These stereotypes may concern race, gender, age, class, sexuality, national origin, physical or mental ability or disability, gender identity, ethnicity, physical appearance, political affliation or many other factors. As humans, we tend to categorize each other and make judgments that discount the complexity and nuances of individuals.

At Emory, we will be celebrating National Coming Out Day in a variety of ways. On Oct. 8, The Emory Wheel will publish an ad with messages from LGBT individuals and their supporters. On Oct. 9, the Office of LGBT Life is sponsoring a band party from 4–6 p.m. in the Coca-Cola Commons. On Oct. 10, Emory Pride is holding a dance from 8 to midnight in the Faculty Dining Room, and finally, on Oct.11, Emory Pride will set up tables in the Dobbs Center for people to obtain information about National Coming Out Day and express their support.

Some people, including some who identify as LGBT, call into question the National Coming Out Day event and even the action of coming out itself. As one older heterosexual man said to me once, “I don’t want to know what you do in your bedroom.”

The problem with this perspective, as I see it, is that sexuality and gender are important aspects of life and a society’s treatment of individuals. I identify as a lesbian. This represents a myriad of things to me, the least of which is what I might do or want to do with another person in the bedroom.

At times in my life, I also have grappled with gender identity issues. I feel very privileged today to work in an environment that recognizes sexual orientation as a category deserving of equal opportunity protection. I also generally feel safe and comfortable in my personal surroundings in the Atlanta and Decatur areas. For example, when the circumstances arise, I share information about a woman I am dating, just as other women who are heterosexual or bisexual might talk about their boyfriends or husbands.

I have been out for most of my life, but I haven’t always felt comfortable with my environment or treatment. While in law school, I interviewed for a clerkship in Jacksonville, Fla. The interview went well; the partners were impressed with my academic credentials, and I went home with what seemed like a firm offer in hand.

A few days later, I received a call withdrawing the offer. Later I learned through a letter from one of the firm’s associates that I had been outed by a former college classmate—the wife of another associate—and the firm had decided I would not be an appropriate representative for its organizational values.

On another occasion, I was in a bookstore in a college town and was followed from the store for several blocks by a gang of students who taunted me and threatened to drag me down an alley and beat me. Fortunately, the students lost their nerve when we came upon a crowd of other people farther down the street.

I have been very lucky in my life; my experiences represent minor instances of discrimination and harassment in contrast to what many other people suffer on a daily basis and have suffered in the past. In many respects, times have changed, and our society is much more tolerant than it was.

However, many people may not realize the following:

• Fifteen states still have enforceable sodomy laws on the books (11 of which include opposite-sex sodomy).

• There is no federal protection against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

• A federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, limits the federal definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples, regardless of a state’s definition.

• Suicide has been reported as the leading cause of death among LGBT youth, with these youth being two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people.

In The Power of Now, a modern guide on meditation and the nature of enlightenment, author Eckhart Tolle states: “The present moment is all you’ll ever have.” I keep this thought in mind every day because I don’t want to waste a second of my life or any opportunity to be in authentic connection with other people.

That’s why, for me, “coming out” is a much broader concept than simply sexual or gender identity. It is a process of defining and sharing myself with other people. That includes all of the different parts of me, whether it’s my penchant for singing along with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (despite my singing ability, or lack thereof), my love of square dancing and two-stepping, my obsession with Scrabble, or my avocation as a playwright.

Coming out is a process of bringing myself into the open, of recognizing and celebrating my own likes, dislikes, traits and quirkiness, and allowing others to experience those things as well. It is not something that happens only one time a year, but rather is a daily endeavor.

Admittedly, sometimes this kind of sharing of yourself can be a risky thing, just as it often is uncomfortable or even dangerous to admit to others your sexual or gender identity. We may feel that if we keep parts of ourselves secret, then we will be safe. On the other hand, if we don’t share these parts of ourselves, what we really may be doing is preventing the very connections with other people that form the basis of real security, community and happiness.

In celebration of National Coming Out Day this week, I encourage each of you, no matter how you identify, to find a way to share a part or parts of yourself with another person. Reach out and say to someone: This is who I am; who are you?