On October 11, 1987, hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ individuals participated in the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The day soon became recognized as “National Coming Out Day” in honor of the fact that, as the Human Rights Campaign puts it, “one of our most basic tools is the power of coming out.”
But while coming out is certainly empowering, inspiring, and fulfilling for many, it can also be a complicated experience and concept for LGBTQ individuals. On National Coming Out Day, 11 young LGBTQ activists told MTV News about their own experiences as well as their thoughts and advice about coming out.
Riley J. Dennis — Intersectional Feminist, Activist, and Video Creator
Being out for me has been massively liberating. But coming out is a really scary and personal thing, and it's important to do it at your own time. We like to think that in 2017 we've come pretty far in regards to LGBT+ rights, and in some ways we have. But there are still people in extremely anti-queer environments who don’t feel safe enough to come out. For some people, coming out can mean being disowned, fired, beaten, ridiculed, or even killed.
I think people paint coming out as something that you have to do right now because living your truth is more important than any of the possible negative ramifications. But to all the closeted LGBT+ folks out there, keep in mind that your first priority should be safety. When you are safe, then you can weigh the pros and cons of coming out. Hopefully you'll find that the pros outweigh the cons at that point.
If you can't come out yet, know that we're all still rooting for you. These LGBT+ parades are for you. We love you, we support you, and when you can finally come out, we will cheer for you.
Joie Lou Shakur — LGBTQ+ Activist
The first time I ever admitted I was queer was after a medical service provider outed me to my chosen family at the time. I felt a deep loss of control over my story since I hadn't gotten a chance to decide what being queer meant to me yet.
I recently came out to my Jamaican family as transgender in the midst of filming a documentary about black trans people. It was a very liberating experience and it allowed me to reclaim my autonomy and tell my story the way I wanted it to be told. My family definitely had questions, but we were truly able to talk about them in an honest way. I'm glad I got the chance to share this part of myself with those I love and I'm especially glad to have their support during this process!
Sameer Jha — Teen LGBTQ+ Activist
Once I accepted my own identity, I decided to come out to my parents. My mom is a Pakistani Muslim and my dad is an Indian Hindu. Topics like gender and sexuality are taboo in both of their cultures. I really appreciated that they were willing to overcome their biases, ask me questions, and learn about my world. Unfortunately not everyone had the same reaction. My grandfather suggested conversion therapy and my grandmother stopped talking to my mom for months. My grandparents still love me and talk to me, but they struggle to accept me.
As a trans youth of color, I am living my best life and, even in the current political climate, feel optimistic. Unfortunately I also know how rare this is for most queer youth. Many of my friends remain closeted because coming out would carry immense emotional and physical consequences for them. When we celebrate National Coming Out Day, we celebrate the courage of those who were brave enough to speak out and stand up for their truth. We celebrate those who changed things for the better by being themselves and being open. But I also think it's important to recognize the bravery of young teens who are staying silent, because sometimes living in the closet can be a courageous choice too.
Rowan Hepps Keeney — Barnard College/Columbia University GLAAD Campus Ambassador
In high school, I spent a lot of time trying to find a label that fit. When I finally settled on the term "lesbian," I clung to it desperately because it meant I'd finally figured out who I was. Once I got to college and my partner told me they were non-binary, I was thrown for a loop. Was I still a lesbian? If not, who was I? I knew I liked girls but I also was clearly sexually and romantically attracted to non-binary people. This confusion only multiplied when I realized that I, myself, was trans. If I wasn't a girl and I didn't just like girls, then that definitely meant I wasn't a lesbian.
I was so concerned with categorizing myself that I didn't I realize that in doing so, I had actually constrained myself even more. I worried that, having already "come out" as one thing, people would reject, or not believe me, if I told them I was something else.
It's through learning from the people around me that I've come to accept the ambiguity, the in-between space, and be grateful for terms like "queer" that make it so I don't have to choose. Being a part of the queer community is the best thing that's ever happened to me. I now have the confidence to say proudly: I'm non-binary, I'm queer, and that's enough.
Leo Sheng — Trans Activist and Advocate
I think that, particularly over the last few years, a lot of value has been placed on the act of coming out — as if it is a necessary milestone for trans and queer folks. While many folks find that coming out helps lift a weight or allows them to live more authentically, whatever that means for them, there is just as much value in living your life without ever making an official announcement. Aside from the fact that it isn't safe for many trans and queer folks of color to be visible, there are also folks who just don't feel the need to come out. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It doesn't make that person's identity any less valid; it doesn't make them any less trans or queer.
Ella Dawson — Feminist Activist and Sex Writer
For years I’ve felt not queer enough to claim the label of “bi” because to do so felt like appropriating an identity I had no right to. I was raised to see men as romantic partners, and identifying as straight is easy, especially when older generations don’t even necessarily believe bisexuality is real.
I’ve had crushes on women all my life but never have the confidence to do anything about it, or perhaps to even let myself see it, when I’m sober. I doubted what I felt instead of exploring it. It’s only recently in the last year that I’ve begun to understand my feelings for women without liquid confidence. I’m one of what I’m sure are many thousands of young women who have discovered their queerness because of Gaby Dunn, and having lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and queer Internet and IRL friends gave me so many role models for how to live with the sexuality I’ve spent years neglecting. I don’t have to know who I am in order to be myself — my only responsibility is to be honest and open.
Alec Fischer — Founder of GenQ Media
The first time I came out to anyone was during my senior year of high school, in conjunction with a documentary I made about bullying and teen suicide. Before coming out publicly, I suffered from insomnia, depression, high levels of anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Though it sounds cliché, I felt a giant weight lifted from my shoulders after telling the world that I was gay.
My queerness now continues to define the advocacy and film work I do, solidifying itself as a core piece of my identity. I find myself continually coming out in new spaces I inhabit as an attempt to provide the visibility I never had for emerging generations of LGBTQ+ youth.
Since coming out in high school, I’ve learned accepting and embracing your own and queer identity doesn’t require pre-conceived boxes or an official “coming out” moment. Queerness isn’t and shouldn’t be solely defined by the white, cisgendered gay experience. Queerness is authenticity, self-love, and family within community. Together, we can build a more beautiful world by being true to ourselves.
Ramon Johnson — Morehouse College GLAAD Campus Ambassador
Everyday, my body is slowly teaching me to honor both the depth and divinity of my joy, my blackness, and my queerness. Five years ago, I struggled to do this while coming to terms with my truth. I experienced various forms of rejection from loved ones and the heaviness of this caused me to eventually suffer from depression and anxiety.
I would like to implore anyone coming to terms with their own gender and sexuality to remember this: do not internalize other people’s inability to understand who you are. Your depth and divinity are not mistakes and you certainly do not need to ask for permission to be your authentic self in the spaces you occupy.
Lindz Amer — Creator of Queer Kid Stuff
I had a kind of difficult, long coming out process. I come from a very liberal family but I still was very confused as a teenager. I didn’t really come out until after I met my first girlfriend in college – then I had an excuse to come out. Even then it was less that I “came out” and more that I decided to stop lying about it.
I wish we didn’t have to come out at all. I don’t think teenagers should have to be explicit about who they’re having sex with and who they’re attracted to when they’re still figuring themselves out. It’s important to come out now but hopefully one day it won’t be. I think [sexuality] is about living your life — how you want to live it and who you want to live it with. It shouldn’t matter what gender the person you want to be happy and build a family with is. You should be able to just live.
David Guirgis — LGBTQ+ Activist
Coming out is a great, big, wonderful, difficult thing. And yes, it may get better, but I don't know that it gets easier. For all the trauma of my in-closet experience, coming out — and being out — was hard in its own way. I'm trying to figure out my place as a scrawny, effeminate gay man of color in a community that emphasizes white masculinity — and that's fucking hard. And maybe, to a certain extent, we all are trying to figure out our places in this community, no matter how long we've been out.
Eva Reign Thomas — University of Missouri GLAAD Campus Ambassador
I want each young person out there struggling with their gender identity to know that everything you are feeling is more than valid. Try to understand where you fit in (or even outside of) the gender binary is a very confusing journey, but a beautiful one nonetheless. You must allow yourself to stumble while traveling down this road. You'll make mistakes, but you will learn from each one. Once you arrive at a place of comfort, more obstacles will be sure to arise, but you'll be more than ready to live freely and courageously in your truth when the time is right. You have such a rich and vibrant community that's just waiting to embrace you with warmth and light. I wish you the best of luck!
For more information and guidance on coming out, check out the Trevor Project’s Guide to ‘Coming Out As You.’