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Students and faculty reflect on what it means to come out in 2015

If you opened your Facebook timeline on October 11, you were probably greeted by a series of statuses celebrating National Coming Out Day, an informal “holiday” observed annually by the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual) community.

Established in 1988 by psychologist Robert Eichberg and openly gay activist Jean O’Leary, National Coming Out Day encourages those who are closeted to “come out” to friends and family, and by the same token, encourages those who are already out to continue living openly and without shame.

In recent years, National Coming Out Day has become more of a social media event than an occasion that is formally commemorated by the LGBTQIA community. This evolution reflects a larger ongoing conversation regarding the importance of coming out in an era that has seen so much progress in the sphere of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.

While coming out used to mean the end of a public figure’s career (see Ellen DeGeneres in 1997), in 2015 it seems to have become somewhat routine. Aside from a headline in the Huffington Post, public figures deciding to come out are met with relatively little fanfare. Celebrities disclosing their sexual orientations used to be so rare that it was a public event by default; today those who choose a more public forum for coming out have been criticized as self-congratulatory.

After actress Ellen Page came out in February of 2014, Time magazine published an op-ed questioning whether or not Page should be praised as “brave” for coming out “to a room full of LGBT youth, at an event sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign.” While the article acknowledged Page’s “authenticity,” it asserted that an actress coming out in the year 2014 risked very little professionally, and challenged the notion that coming out is inherently courageous.

Since the recent – and long overdue – cultural shift to focus on the overwhelming obstacles still faced by the transgender community, some have questioned whether those who come out as lesbian, gay and bisexual are risking as much as their transgender peers.

Skylar Crownover, a Mills senior and transgender man, emphasized the important role that coming out plays in providing role models for transgender youth who may not see themselves represented in mainstream media.

“I think, while there has been a lot of progress…there’s still a lot of violence and homophobia and transphobia that happens. So, I think in terms of [coming out’s] importance, at least for me, it’s about having role models,” Crownover said. “You hear a lot about people who are victims of hate crimes…so I think it’s important that if you’re in a space where you can be out and be a role model to say, ‘Hey, it’s not all violence. You can be out and it can be okay.”

Still, Crownover believes that it is important to be aware of the epidemic of violence affecting the transgender community, particularly transgender women of color. The numbers are staggering; seven trans women of color were murdered within the first two months of this year alone, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

A recent study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that unemployment among transgender people of color is four times the national average. At a time when the oppression of the transgender community is so visible and so dire, positive role models—and, by extension, coming out—may be more important than ever.

National Coming Out Day is often criticized for pressuring closeted LGBTQIA+ people to come out who may not be ready or able to do so. Sophie McArthur, a senior who identifies as lesbian, feels that National Coming Out Day prioritizes members of the LGBTQIA+ community who are able to come out.

“[National Coming Out Day] creates a weird hierarchy in the LGBTQ+ community. No one should feel like they have to come out or that they are less for staying in the closet. Coming out is a deeply personal decision and often, sadly, coming out of the closet is really dangerous,” McArthur said in an email.

Others feel that National Coming Out Day is valuable simply because it gives closeted members of the community an opportunity to come out. Phaeton Gordon, junior transfer student and transgender man, personally values National Coming Out Day because it gives him an annual window to be open about his identity.

“I come out every National Coming Out Day because there’s always something different with me, I’ve found. Anybody can come out if they want to, [and] I don’t think it’s right to force anyone to come out on National Coming Out Day. My personal feeling on National Coming Out Day is that it’s good for me, but I know that for other people it may not be,” Gordon said.

Criticisms of National Coming Out Day as exclusionary and even irrelevant certainly aren’t baseless. However, there seems to be a generational divide of opinion regarding the relevance of coming out in 2015. Neil Virtue, head coach of the Cyclones swimming team and member of the student outreach-focused Bridge Advocacy Team, feels that coming out is a personal process that takes place day after day.

“On one level, I think it’s kind of amazing and refreshing to hear younger people and students saying that [coming out] is kind of an irrelevant process. But I still think that there are a lot of people that aren’t okay with telling the world about that part of themselves,” Virtue said. “For me, personally, coming out never ends. There’s always situations I’m in where I’m choosing to or not to [come out.]”

Coming out is a deeply personal event and there is no “one size fits all” coming out process. Respect for those who are unable to come out or don’t feel prepared to do so is a top priority for those who criticize National Coming Out Day as well as those who embrace it. In any case, the cultural relevancy of coming out seems unimportant when one considers the life-changing effects it can have for those who are tired of being closeted.

As Ellen Page said in a recent interview, “I will talk about being gay so happily and so gratefully all day long every day over how I felt when I was closeted.”