“Letting In” Instead of “Coming Out” – Thoughts on National Coming Out Day

“Letting In” Instead of “Coming Out” – Thoughts on National Coming Out Day

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One of my friends told me about her wishes for a coming-out party when she was growing up. She dreamed of having her family and friends gathered in her bedroom while she hid in a literal closet, just she could dramatically fling the wooden doors wide open. Then she would proudly and fabulously strut out to the sound of “I am coming out” by Diana Ross. There would be cake, and everyone would dance to Ross’ voice. What a beautiful vision.  

October 11 is National Coming Out Day, a day that a lot of people will use to publicly announce their sexuality, gender identity, pronouns, sex, and other parts of themselves. It is a day offering a hashtag and a national stage. It is also a day that can be very painful for a lot of LGBTQIA+ people.  
 
I know firsthand how liberating and life-changing a coming out can feel. I also know the real fears and deep concerns many queer people share around it. Sharing these personal parts of our identity can be an extremely vulnerable act. We share with people parts of our most intimate selves. We open ourselves up to be more known and loved and also to rejection and hurt.  
Coming out can be difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible: For people who are part of families or cultural systems that emphasize a certain understanding of community, any questioning of family and reproductive structures can be perceived as disrespectful, challenging, or even as a threat to the whole.

Coming out can also expose people to violence in many forms, from being cut off from the community that may have nurtured them for years and losing financial and emotional support, to physical violence and death, coming out is not as easy for everyone as it may be implied by a day of celebration. Even though there are positive trends, a third of LGBTQ youth still say that their families are not accepting and almost 20% claim they are scared of possible harmful reactions if they come out, according to a study by the Human Rights Campaign.1  Many Christian-identified spaces in this country, among others, have been sites of such trauma for many: The narratives of queer youth fleeing or getting kicked out of their Christian homes and finding themselves homeless are plentiful and still a sad reality to this day.  
 
Yet, even when physical and psychological safety is ensured, LGBTQIA+ people can still struggle with the idea of coming out. We are used to the fact that our sexuality, our gender, our sex, and other parts of our identity are the object of public debate or intrusive curiosity. We know what it means to fight off wrong labels and expectations. At the same time, we can feel the pressure to squeeze ourselves into new labels. The queer community is not innocent in that regard. The desire to forcefully and narrowly categorize and define people is often persistent even within the LGBTQIA+ communities. This is often manifested or exacerbated by racism, ableism, and trans- and femmephobia. Some queer people find they have broken free of one label just to be constrained by another.  
 
Nevertheless, there is a powerful component to coming out. National Coming Out Day is rooted in a history of queer advocacy and AIDS activism: The day was started on the first anniversary of the second Gay and Lesbian March on Washington. This march, which took place in 1987 and was attended by hundreds of thousands of people, also became famous for the AIDS memorial quilt revealed that day: a piece of art and protest with individually designed patches of cloth honoring victims of the neglected AIDS pandemic.2  Thinking about these roots, the power of coming out, of unapologetic declarations and announcements becomes apparent: It can offer space to bring forth forgotten, suppressed, and neglected identities and stories. It can be a platform where people whom the world would rather silence can boldly and proudly proclaim who they are. When your voice is suppressed and neglected, it is an act of resistance and empowerment to name and define something or yourself.  
 
The strength of queer movements has always been this spirit of resistance, challenging the norm. In its best moments, the LGBTQIA+ community lives within these tensions and celebrates fluidity and freedom, eschewing neat categories and strict definitions. I hope that we will encounter this National Coming Out Day with a similar view:  That a declaration of who we are now is precisely that: a statement of who we are at this particular moment. None of us are not stagnant beings. We can change labels, and we can refuse them altogether. No one is obligated to share this information about their identity with anyone. Yet, each of us also deserves to be openly and proudly who we are if we choose to do so. And it is okay if that is not possible for various reasons. It is okay if we are not ready yet or do not want to share this part of us. We live in our bodies, and we get to prioritize what is most important to us now, including whether or not to share more about our personal identity.  
 
I hope these ideas also serve as guideposts for our churches and society at large. LGBTQIA+ are everywhere in the UCC. Some of them out, some of them not. Some are questioning, and some are certain of who they are. National Coming Out Day can grant visibility to people – also in our churches. It can also build up pressure on those who cannot or do not want to be seen in public. I hope our congregations can be places where people have time and a safe space to go through this process as they like or just be in a comfortable way.  
 
One step to work towards this may be starting to rethink “coming out” altogether. Some queer people prefer to talk about "letting in" instead of "coming out." It flips the societal script that we are responsible for changing other people’s concepts of us, that we owe others any definition or explanation of who we are. Instead, they reclaim the coming out process as a self-determined invitation: Because I want to, I let you into this complex world that is my sexuality, my gender, my sex, my body, and my reality. It might change every time you visit, but this is what I feel comfortable showing you right now. This space is not up to debate – you are a guest. I am letting you in, and I hope and trust that you reciprocate my invitation with kindness.  
Pondering this concept, I was thinking about the story from the beginning.

Even though my friend spoke about “a coming out party,” it felt more like a “letting in celebration” to me. Her daydreams were centered on her own agency, her own ideas, and her love of Diana Ross and cake. This dream allowed her to envision her “letting in” the way she liked it – whether it be a theatrical entrance or a quiet whisper. This is also my hope on this National Coming Out Day: As a church and society, we shift the narrative so that no one must “come out” anymore, but people can choose to let you in.  

1 Human Rights Campaign, National Coming Out Day Youth Report, accessed October 11, 2022, https://assets2.hrc.org/files/assets/resources/NCOD-Youth-Report.pdf?_ga=2.14050623.922499822.1596641953-478425994.1596641953
2 Kate Sosin, "The History of National Coming Out Day Contains Both Pride and Pain,“ Them, published October 8, 2021, https://www.them.us/story/the-history-of-national-coming-out-day-contains-both-pride-and-pain

Author

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Michael Streib

Michael is the Queer Justice Advocate for the Southern New England Conference UCC, and pastoral resident at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Somerville, MA

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