By Allison Hope
“Are you a lesbian?”
It was a little different than the “pass the salt,” that my father usually said to me at the dinner table.
“Um, maybe,” I said, even though I knew with every bone of my 17-year-old self that I was, in fact, a lesbian.
I eventually came out a few months later in 1998, the same year that two men approached 18-year-old Matthew Shepard at Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming, and offered him a ride home. Shepard was just starting his life as an out gay man, when those men detoured to a remote area to beat him and tie him to a fence. He was discovered some 18 hours later in a coma; he died six days later in the hospital.
It was the same time that Ellen DeGeneres found herself unemployed after television executives canceled her eponymous sitcom less than a year after she came out as a lesbian. It had been a big moment, complete with a Time cover and a storyline on her show about her character’s parallel sexuality. Still, that visibility came at a cost. "The biggest thing was that I lost my career. For three years, I couldn't work, and was not offered one thing. I was running out of money and didn't know if I was going to work again. I was 45 years old, and I was like, 'This doesn't look good,’” DeGeneres reflected in 2017. Still, her biggest regret isn’t that she came out publicly, but that she didn’t come out sooner.
The act of delivering what you know to be true about your sexual or gender identity to other people is known as coming out. It isn’t a one-size fits all act, nor is it ever a one-and-done announcement, since it is assumed people are straight until a person declares themselves otherwise. For many people, coming out is a continual process that starts the moment you tell the first person. The stakes of coming out are higher for those who inhabit other minority identities — if you’re transgender or gender nonbinary, if you’re a person of color, if you come from a small town or more rural area, or if your family or community is non-affirming. Sometimes, some people believe it’s safer to make other choices, or start new lives elsewhere. Some people never get to make that choice for themselves.
It’s not a given that you have to come out. It’s a highly personal decision that can vary based on so many variables, including where you are on your journey, your relationships with people, your safety and comfort level, and more.
I knew I was attracted to women for about a year and a half before telling them. I had been trying to hold off on telling my parents until I was as close as possible to leaving for college in the event that they kicked me out. The fear was founded: Twenty years ago, there were no out athletes, no out celebrities, no elected officials who publicly supported LGBTQ+ rights. Two decades ago, when I came out, LGBTQ+ people couldn’t get married. Lawmakers made their careers on trying to ban LGBTQ+ people from having kids or buying homes in suburban neighborhoods. Our lives weren’t normalized. I thought coming out meant a hard life, and possibly even a devastating one.
I was terrified.
So, when my parents guessed that I might be gay, which itself is a version of outing someone and taking away their agency in the process, I naturally feared that my world might come crashing down.
October 11 is Coming Out Day, a national day of LGBTQ+ awareness. Two activists, Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary, established it in 1988 to mark the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, when visibility was seen as a lifeline to many people who were exhausted by living in the shadows. Every year, people honor the day by wearing pink ribbons, sharing their own coming out stories, or even coming out if they decide it’s right for them. Social media has increased the exposure of the day, as people change their profile pictures to include rainbow frames and advocacy groups share content about the significance of coming out and creating greater LGBTQ+ awareness.
Now, years later, we’ve progressed from a slow trickle of people coming out in their everyday lives to a proliferation of LGBTQ+ pride. We’re finally seeing queer people win in ways I never could have fathomed: Movies and TV shows are beginning to get it right when it comes to representation (though there’s plenty of work to be done). More than one-third of Generation Z say they know someone who identifies as nonbinary, and are pushing for the rest of society to affirm identities outside of the male-female binary, too. More and more young people also identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community themselves. People can actually vote for an openly gay presidential hopeful in the Democratic primaries. A recent GLAAD and Harris poll also found that the vast majority of Americans support equal rights for LGBTQ+ people.
And Shepard’s death ignited a national movement and heightened awareness around the hate that LGBTQ+ people face, and sparked a conversation about what being out means and how we need to protect LGBTQ+ people from the harms they face when they come out. His death also culminated in the eventual passage of a federal hate crime legislation dubbed the Matthew Shepard Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009.
It is not likely the current administration will follow in those footsteps, which is a shame: Anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes are up year over year, nearly reaching levels we haven’t seen since I first came out 20 years ago. The Supreme Court also heard consolidated cases to decide whether LGBTQ+ people can be fired from their jobs or discriminated against simply for being who we are. Trans women of color also face an epidemic of violence and murder; at least 18 Black transgender women are known to have been killed this year so far in the U.S. alone.
I once believed I was destined to be someone’s old aunt but never a mom, and that I would always have to refer to my girlfriend as my roommate at family gatherings. Today, I am happily, legally married to an amazing woman and we have a beautiful son we’re raising in a lovely home in a welcoming community. And while I’ve fought against stigmas and a second-class citizenship status in plenty of ways, my family is, for the most part, supportive and loving and accepting.
I’m so happy I was wrong about how coming out would affect my future, but I also know I’m extraordinarily lucky. Young LGBTQ+ people face homelessness, bullying, rejection, depression, violence, and other health disparities at much higher rates than their straight and cisgender counterparts. Nearly half of all LGBTQ+ young people say they live in communities that are not supportive and 40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBTQ+. They are twice as likely as their peers to be physically assaulted, and 92 percent say they hear negative messages about being LGBTQ+. When it comes to accessing care and services, 1 in 5 transgender or gender non-conforming people report outright being refused care and nearly a third have been harassed in a healthcare setting.
And for many, the choice of coming out was not made for them. From McCarthyism to the Hollywood gossip machine, LGBTQ+ people have long been outed by others against their will and sometimes to their demise. In September, a classmate of 16-year-old Channing Smith outed him as bisexual on social media; the teenager from Manchester, Tennessee, later died by suicide. And some people may not feel they need to tell people about their sexual or gender identities at all — but if backed into a corner or asked a question like the one my father posed to me, they might feel obligated to respond before they are truly ready to do so.
“Everyone’s situation and environment is different, so it isn’t safe for everyone to come out as themselves,” Kevin Wong, head of communications for The Trevor Project, told MTV News. Resources like the Trevor Project Support Center and GLSEN offer services for LGBTQ+ youth, including suicide hotlines, support groups, and educational materials. Lambda Legal also lists resources for LGBTQ youth by state where young people can also seek in-person services.
Many young people who choose to come out now have more autonomy to choose when to come out and who to come out to, which means they have agency over their own narratives. In the past year alone, the NFL’s Ryan Russell, rapper Lil Nas X, The Bachelor’s Demi Burnett, and Disney star Joshua Rush have all made such a decision for themselves. And the more major networks and organizations support members of the LGBTQ+ community on their own terms, the more young people receive affirmation about their identities, whether or not they’re out.
“While the concept of coming out is a more mainstream topic of discussion these days, and there is more representation of LGBTQ+ people in media, the coming out process itself hasn’t changed all that drastically,” Brian Wenke, the executive director of the It Gets Better Project, told MTV News. “Coming out is a very personal experience. Whether or not to come out, and how to do so, is dictated by a number of factors, including someone’s environment, family and social circles, and personal process.”
We have an opportunity to flip the script. It’s due time we get to choose who we want to have the privilege of knowing that we’re LGBTQ+. And it’s due time that everyone understands that coming out isn’t a choice to be made for anyone else.
The bottom line is that there is no standard for how best to come out, or even when or how or why you should. Coming out has more than one answer, and a multitude of choices. One or none of them might be right for you. That should be up to you to decide.
We need this freedom now more than ever.
To learn more about issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community, head to lgbt.mtv.com.