By CALLIE JORDAN
National Coming Out Day was celebrated on Sunday, Oct. 11, marking the 32nd anniversary of its founding. The day originally began in 1988, started by Robert Eichsberg and Jean O’Leary during the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Since then, the day has grown to become more inclusive to other identities, but continued on in its tradition of breaking silence and confronting stigma in hopes to further normalize the existence and lived experiences of LGBTQ individuals.
Along with society at large, the UMW and the greater Fredericksburg Community have also grown to provide more support for the LGBTQ community in recent years.
According to their website, the mission statement of UMW’s LGBTQ campus wide program, Safe Zone, seeks to foster an environment which affirms an inclusive and supportive community for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) citizens and allies.
“Coming out is not one thing or one moment,” said Mindy Erchull, the Acting Director for the Safe Zone Program. “It’s a process of coming to accept one’s identity and then share that identity with others.”
In this way, the day can represent different things. Coming out may be the internal realization of a sexual identity. Alternatively, the day may act as an outlet for finally telling others.
“A big part of it for me was living my truth and being honest with myself about what I wanted,” said an unnamed student.
“People have to keep coming out again and again when they meet new people, change jobs, et cetera. People constantly have to evaluate how willing they are to share the information about their identity and how comfortable and safe it is to do so,” said Erchull.
“At school I have the space to be who I authentically am without restraints, but I come from a very unforgiving family and my life has to be split in two,” said the student.
For LGBTQ individuals, the day never stops. The decision to come out can be either a life long celebration or a source of apprehension.
“Coming out can be like our weapon and our tool,” said Meegana Henry, the Fredericksburg VAs LGBTQIA+ community group’s administration and group organizer.
No matter, according to Erchull, it is never okay to out someone.
“Everyone has to come out when they are ready – others shouldn’t push people to take this step, and they definitely shouldn’t ‘out’ someone who has not shared that information with others,” said Erchull.
Even now, despite forward moving policies like the 2015 federal marriage recognition ruling and the more recent 2020 workplace discrimitaion ruling, coming out can still have negative repercussions.
“There can be a loss of family and or friends to those who do not support or do not understand, some are kicked out of their homes, some are kicked out of their school, fired from jobs, not given the same treatment as heterosexual mainstream couples, name called, bullied, stereotyped, sexual assaulted and so much more,” said Henry.
No doubt, these actions disproportionately impact LGBTQ youth and students. The contemplative decision to come out is much more difficult, and even more so if individuals are people of color. In this case, multiple intersections of oppression may interact at once.
As the day has evolved, similar to the multiethnic and multiracial participation we observed in the mass protests this summer, heterosexual people also have a role to play in advancing a LGBTQ friendly agenda and uplifting individuals with an LGBTQ identity.
According to Erchull, it’s not up to us to determine that we are ‘allies;’ rather, we first must meet people where they are and offer support to their comfort.
“We must also recognize the domains in which we experience privilege and then use that privilege to help dismantle oppressive systems: being a good listener—in this way we can learn from others; taking action—if you see a problem, step up and try to fix it—if you can’t fix it on your own, try to find those who can and advocate for change; and keep learning more—we can’t wait for others to educate us—we need to constantly seek out information,” said Erchull.
To facilitate this, she says Safe Zone planned an online padlet wall with hopes that all members of the UMW community could post messages of support on the day.
“It’s been amazing to read the messages left by current students, alums, faculty, staff, families, et cetera. We’re not a perfect community, but it’s always wonderful to see the support and acceptance that we can provide for each other,” said Erchull.
The Fredericksburg VA LGBTQIA+ community group planned to celebrate by similarly getting the word out on their social media platforms and engaging in dialogue with friends and family.
“My plans are to simply admire coming out and the bravery it requires,” said the student who is not yet out. “I want to be free to be who I am too.”
The day also encouraged us to look ahead to the future.
“I personally hope to see a time when no assumptions are made about sexual orientation and gender identity. In that way, everyone will have to ‘come out’ to those around them, but it will also normalize the process since it will be a universal experience,” said Erchull.