In the life of every gay man and woman, “coming out” is not a moment—something that happens and then it’s over.
Coming out is a continuous process. It might have a starting point, but like evolution, Pascal’s triangle or a Bruce Springsteen concert, it never really ends.
I came out for the first time late in the summer of 2009, to my closest and most trustworthy friends, who deserved to know I was gay and who also, I knew, would keep the subject under wraps until further notice.
I came out again the following year, on the sixth of June—D-Day, not coincidentally—in the form of switching the “Interested In” line on my Facebook profile from “Women” to “Men.” This meant that, at least in theory, practically everyone in my own little sphere of acquaintance was now privy to my most tender of secrets.
In the intervening time, I have more or less handled the matter on a need-to-know basis. I do not go out of my way to make my romantic inclinations known, but neither do I evade the issue when it comes up.
Until recently, however, I did have one outstanding, massive fact weighing uneasily on my mind: I still had not told Mom and Dad. Having run out of reasons to keep this secret from the two people most deserving to know it, I worked up the nerve and finally got the dreadful business out of the way this past September 19. Demolishing what remained of the closet door seemed a fine way to spend my birthday.
Today, October 11, is National Coming Out Day. It was created in 1988, on the one-year anniversary of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, and is now observed in all 50 states and numerous foreign countries.
In some ways, the very concept of a day to raise awareness of gay issues is becoming something of a relic. After all, the 1987 march was organized in reaction, first, to the Reagan administration’s piddling response to the AIDS crisis, and second, to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bowers v. Hardwick ruling, which upheld the constitutionality of anti-sodomy laws.
The world has changed dramatically since 1987. For my generation, AIDS is no longer ghettoized as a principally gay problem, and the Bowers decision was overturned in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003.
Further, when Lawrence was passed, zero states sanctioned same-sex marriage. Should a trio of ballot referenda pass voter muster next month (in Maryland, Maine and Washington), that number will climb to nine. Not even the gay rights movement’s most enthusiastic backers could have expected so much success in so little time.
If I began here by talking about me and have somehow wandered into politics, that is always how I have handled the gay question. Perhaps you are familiar with the old feminism adage, “The personal is political”? For me, the political is personal.
I cannot remember the exact moment I realized I was gay. However, I do know the moment I first wanted to come out: Seeing the movie Milk. Gus van Sant’s galvanizing biopic of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to citywide office, crystallized the idea that, for a politically-minded person such as me, being gay could be fun and exciting. It was, in a way, the one time in my life when I was compelled to identify as a member of a team.
Allow me to make one thing abundantly clear: I am a coward. Unlike Milk and his minions, I have never put myself at risk—physically or professionally—in defense of what I think or who I am. I have never needed to, because I had the tremendous good fortune to be born into an epoch in which the fight for civil equality has, in many ways, already been won. My existence was perfectly timed so I could reap the benefits while having done hardly any of the work.
This is not to say that the act of coming out has, itself, gotten any easier. There is a word for those who say being gay is “no big deal”: Heterosexual.
All I can suggest, as a means of solace, is that coming out will always be difficult, and it ought to be. If it were easy, it would not merit its own day, and it would not be something of which to be “proud.”
Coming out is a personal decision, and not something to be forced upon someone who might not be ready, although I cannot help but echo Rachel Maddow’s formulation, “It is better to be out than to be closeted […] the more people that come out, the better.”