October 11, 1988 in the United States: National Coming Out Day is initiated! As we approach the 29th anniversary of Coming Out Day, many remain unaware of it’s very existence.
So, what is it, why, and why host a Coming Out Day Meet & Greet in 2017?
Coming Out Day is recognized as a product of the feminist and gay liberation movements of the 1960’s and the belief that “the personal is political’. Coming Out Day was created with the intention of encouraging “coming out” to one’s personal and professional circle as both an act of social activism and a vital step toward living life openly as an LGBTTIQA2S person. (Note that in 1988, Coming Out Day addressed the Lesbian and Gay community. Today, “coming out” and the concept of community has broadened to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning, queer and Two-Spirited peoples.)
The basic premise behind Coming Out Day was that homophobia, internalized homophobia, shame and stigma thrive in a state of silence, shame, ignorance and fear. And that systems of oppression support and perpetuate the persecution and promote “closeting” of the community. The belief was that if all “came out”, the power of oppression would be neutralized. And that in learning that a friend, colleague or loved one was LBGTTIQA2S, homophobia and oppression would likely decrease. (In fact, research in more recent years shows that knowing an LGBTTIQA2S person is more effective than education in reducing homophobia and heterosexism.)
To best understand the “why” of the creation of Coming Out Day, one must understand the history and social context in which the LGBTTIQA2S community existed in North America.
In the late 1950’s, homosexual political and activist groups began to form, i.e. The Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, beginning to address the need for social recognition, inclusion and address of discrimination, violence and oppression. At that time, “The Life” for many involved secrecy, shame, fear, violence, repression, house parties versus public socialization to have the safety and freedom to be oneself and with one’s partner and friends, furtive public bathroom or alley encounters, heterosexual marriage for protection and normalization. Dress codes in bars, Mafia connections, police payoffs for protection prevailed. Despite this, police raids and brutality were common. People arrested were “outed” in newspapers. Street violence as well prevailed.
The Stonewall Riots of June 1969 in New York City, are recognized for revolutionizing the Gay Pride Movement. During a police bust of the Stonewall Inn and arrests of patrons, drag queens, transgender people, sex trade workers, street kids, many being People of Colour, revolted when being forced into paddy wagons. Tired of the violence and chronic harassment, people resisted arrest, stood up and fought back. Riots ensured through the night and reportedly over three nights. The Gay Rights movement was ignited.
An explosion in the number of groups followed. Gay Pride events began in the following years. Gay/Lesbian culture began to grow and thrive.
Simultaneously however, homosexuality continued to be pathologized by the American Psychiatric Association, deemed a mental disorder. (This would only be reversed in the 1970’s). Social policies, laws and institutions marginalized, criminalized and penalized same-sex identity, love, sex, relationships and community. Homophobia was not yet a widely recognized social issue. Nor was the concept of internalized homophobia. Looking forward to the 1980’s, the Religious Right reacted to denigrate and persecute as the LGBTTIQA2S community faced the ravages of the AIDS epidemic.
Our community was historically acutely aware of the dangers, threat and devastating reality of the constructs in which we existed. Fear of being outed. Fear of “coming out”. Fear of losing one’s loved ones if outed by self or other. Fear of job loss, housing loss or barriers, fear of arrest or violence at the hands of police and by citizens. Fear of “gay bashers”. A colleague of mine was “gay bashed” and ended up in a coma- a beautiful, vibrant loving man, 26 years old. Fear of the all then too common experience of being estranged from one’s partner by biological family in the event of serious illness, terminal illness, the need for medical intervention or death. Of family removing beloved possessions of a deceased partner with no grounds to oppose, as one’s relationship was not socially or legally validated. Fear of the reality of a pervasive lack of society recognition, validation and protection due to systemic homophobia and heterosexism was a reality.
So, Coming Out Day was forged of the idea that if every LBGTTIQA2S person “came out” everything would change. The powers of persecution would disappear as we “came out” and in numbers. One would no longer hide, no longer need to live in fear, “closeted”, suffering, as shame and stigma were erased with the act of “coming out’ on a widespread level. A new reality for existence as individuals and a community was imagined.
In 1988, the movie “Torch Song Trilogy”, starring Harvey Fierstein, Ann Bancroft and Matthew Broderick was released. In my opinion, elements of the storyline exemplify the era in many ways. I offer the following as an example of a mother-son conflict in the aftermath of the “gay bashing” murder of the son Arnold’s beloved partner, younger in age:
Ma: What loss did you have? You fooled around with some boy. Where do you compare that with a marriage of forty years? Come on. I'm not one of your pals
Arnold: I lost someone I loved.
Ma: So you felt bad. Maybe you cried. Forty years I lived with this man. He got sick, I took him to the hospital. I gave them a man. They gave me a place to visit on holy days. How could you know how I felt? It took two months before I slept in our bed. It took a year before I could say "I" instead of "we." How dare you?!
Arnold: You're right. How dare I? I couldn't know how it feels to put someone's things in plastic bags and watch garbage men take them away. Or how it feels when you forget and set his place at the table. The food that rots because you forgot how to shop for one. You had it easy! You had your friends and relatives! I had me. My friends said "At least you had a lover." You lost your husband in a clean hospital. I lost mine on the street! They killed him in the street! Twenty years old, laying dead, killed by kids with baseball bats! That's right, Ma, killed by children! Children taught by people like you that queers don't matter! Queers don't love! And those that do deserve what they get!!
I remember when Coming Out Day started in 1988. Today it may be difficult for many to imagine or recall what those times were like!
Twenty-nine years after it’s inception, much social and legal change has transpired. Much work remains to be done. And much is at risk.
Coming Out Day is still relevant. Personally and professionally I know LGBTTIQA2S people who remain “closeted” out of fear, fear of homophobia or due to internalized homophobia.
When I “came out” thirty years ago, I felt I had finally found myself. Stepped into my authenticity. Found a community. Found the potential for joy.
It’s been said that “coming out is a continual process”. It truly is. It’s a process of “coming out” first to oneself. Typically, next to closest friends. And if one chooses, perhaps then to family, extended family, co-workers, bosses, acquaintances, medical professionals, etc.
Some may choose to not “come out” in certain realms, i.e. professionally or to family. I once met a woman on Pride Day who told me with great sadness that she’d lived with her partner for many years yet could not answer the phone in her own home as her partner, a 50-year-old woman, was not “out” to her family. She, and the true nature of the relationship, was a secret to be guarded. Imagine being in a heterosexual relationship and living in this manner, with that secrecy, fear, shame, unable to live an authentic and full life. Unable to have your loved ones truly know you. Such an important part of you. No recognition by society for you and your most intimate relationships.
I’ve long been out in all areas of my life. My process of “coming out” continues, however, as I establish myself professionally in Port Credit/Peel, attend Port Credit BIA meetings, connect with other providers, politicians, etc. I’m out. I’m proud. I speak. I’m visible.
I do it for my “tribe” members who can’t, or not yet. I do it for myself because I’m proud, proud of the challenges I’ve faced and overcome, proud of the challenges my community has faced, overcome and continues to struggle to overcome. We are strong and loving people in my experience.
I’m “out” always because I never know who may need my visibility, my voice to validate their experience, to encourage them toward their own “coming out” to self and others. To stepping into esteem, pride and growing happiness! Others being “out” helped me find myself. I pay it forward.
I was born and raised in Mississauga. I love living and working in Port Credit. I love being back home after decades away. This community at large vibrates with great diversity and the vitality diversity brings. I encounter energetic, creative, dynamic people everywhere it seems. My wife and I have experienced first-hand the sensitive, supportive and most serious address of racial bias by Peel Police Hate Crimes Division, totally intolerant of racism and/or potential homophobia in Peel. Local politicians are in my experience strong and dedicated advocates and are action-oriented toward the needs of our LGBTTIQA2S community.
Hosting this Coming Out Day Meet & Greet came from a deep desire to address and I hope redress the sense of isolation and lack of community I experience and many others have expressed to me. In a city of 800,000 I know I’m not alone in my identity and orientation.
Whether one is “out”, in the process, questioning or an ally, all are welcome. Let’s meet, make connections, build our sense of LGBTTIQA2S presence and vitality in the 905. It’s what motivates me, professionally and personally…#PromotingPrideInThe905!
LGBTTIQA2S: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgendered, Intersex, Queer, Asexual or Ally, 2-Spirited
Jo-Anne Beggs, C.S.W., R.S.W., LCSW-R
Member, EMDR Canada & EMDRIA
Jo-Anne Beggs, MSW, RSW, Counseling & Clinical Services
(Providing Psychotherapy; Offices in Toronto and Mississauga, ON)