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
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
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
• 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?