October 11th is National Coming Out Day – a day celebrated each year since the late 1980s by lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gay people, as well as their heterosexual allies. But, what does the expression “come out” mean?
“Coming Out Of The Closet,” Defined
To “come out of the closet,” as the imagery suggests, is to acknowledge an aspect of one’s self or one’s experiences that may have been previously kept secret or hidden. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, to “come out” means to acknowledge their sexual identity (or gender identity for transgender people) and, typically, to let others (e.g., family, friends, coworkers) know about their identity.
Who “Comes Out”?
Sexual identity differs from other identities like gender, race, and age in that there are few visible “clues” that exist. In fact, without actually knowing someone’s sexual identity, we often make assumptions about sexual identity based on gender expression. For example, a woman may be thought to be lesbian (or bisexual) if she is presumed to be masculine or less feminine than average; however, feminine women are usually assumed to be heterosexual without question.
For most people, the typical assumption is a heterosexual sexual identity so long as their gender expression matches cultural expectations regarding gender. (In sociology, women’s studies, and sexuality studies, we call this assumption “heterocentricism” – that everyone is heterosexual “until proven otherwise.”) This, then, explains why it is lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people who “come out,” publicly acknowledging their sexual (or gender) identities, but that heterosexual and cisgender people do not have to “come out.”
Do All LGBT People “Come Out”?
Even after sixty years of fierce activism, with obvious progress toward acceptance of LGBT people, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people today still face discrimination, prejudice, and even violence. In recent weeks, several same-sex attracted youths have taken their own lives due to bullying and harassment, prompting many celebrities, politicians, activists, and everyday LGBT people to encourage young LGBT people to be hopeful for better days and seek help if they are struggling.
For some, it is easier to remain “in the closet,” hiding their sexual or gender identity rather than facing these forms of anti-LGBT hostility. Others may come out just to family but not others, or just friends but not family, while others announce it to the world (sometimes literally). Regardless, coming out is a process, not a one-time event. That is, because of the common assumption that everyone is heterosexual (heterocentricism), LGBT people constantly have to let others know that they are not heterosexual or cisgender; everytime you meet a new person, you have to “come out” again (if you want that new person to know).
So, Why Do People Come Out?
Though there are a few reasons why people do not come out – fear of discrimination, violence, being disowned by family members, losing friends – there are many more why people choose to come out. Some are familial reasons, like to include family in one’s love/romantic life (e.g., get to know one’s partner, attend one’s wedding ceremony). Some are political, like reminding the world that not everyone is the same (i.e., heterosexual, cisgender), or serving as a role model for youths who may be struggling to accept their own LGBT identity. And, some are personal, namely freeing oneself from the burden of keeping hidden a core part of who one is.
No matter your reasons, or whether you’re transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, queer, or a heterosexual ally, make today a happy National Coming Out Day!