On National Coming Out Day, Don't Disparage the Closet

"Coming out" is a brave but complicated act, and overemphasizing its importance may be unwise.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

It has been over five years since I logged onto Facebook and publicly announced my sexual orientation. “I can no longer stay silent, friends,” I wrote. “I am gay and have been for a lifetime. I recognize that this may be a shock to some of you but I would be remiss to only share half of me.” Coming out was both liberating and constricting, for me. It was beautiful although the consequences were occasionally ugly. I am glad I came out. But what about those people who aren’t? 

In October 1988, National Coming Out Day (NCOD) was founded to celebrate individuals who publicly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender. This October 11 will again be a day cheering authenticity and bravery. And it’s an event I have mixed feelings about.

On the one hand, it takes courage to publicly identify as LGBT. Who wouldn’t commend individuals who openly share their internal selves with the external world knowing they can receive backlash? But while I, too, applaud the authenticity inherent in the act of coming out, the experience is not for everyone. The danger in over-emphasizing coming out is that the act, at least in the short term, benefits the group sometimes more than the individual.

The coming out experience can be a precarious time in a person’s life, particularly when one belongs to multiple marginalized communities. Contrary to the mainstream depictions of an economically secure, predominately white community, LGBT people are racially and financially diverse. In a 2012 Gallup poll, for example, black Americans identified as the most likely group to identify as LGBT.

When making a public declaration about one’s sexual orientation and gender identity, some LGBT individuals receive an immediate celebration for displaying courage and strength. On the other hand, some testimonies are not warmly received, as illustrated by the countless stories highlighting workplace discrimination, family rejection leading to homelessness, physical violence (particularly against black trans women and gender-nonconforming men), and unfair criminalization of black LGBT youth.

Homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia are not new, but the animus has been alarming lately – in some instances even resulting in death. This May Mark Carson, a gay black man, was brutally killed because of his sexual orientation. Islan Nettles, a black trans woman, was taunted, beaten, and murdered in August after identifying as transgender. These are not isolated incidences.

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.

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Preston Mitchum is a policy analyst with the FIRE Initiative at the Center for American Progress, which works on social, economic, and health issues faced by LGBT people of color.

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