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Oct. 11 marks the 30th anniversary of the first National Coming Out Day. That first NCOD in 1988 is seared in my memory because Charlotte, Ginny, Rob and I painted The Flint Block with a giant pink triangle in a bit of small-scale renegade activism. My 24-year-old gay self felt like I was doing something to fight hometown homophobia.
NCOD was created by psychologist Robert Eichberg and activist Jean O’Leary to commemorate the first anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Publicity for the Day invited people to “Take Your Next Step.” In the years since, NCOD has been marked with mass coming out events, kiss-ins, Facebook announcements and celebrity reveals. The idea has been to encourage LGBTQ people and allies to be as open as possible about their lives.
The clarion call for visibility has been embraced by the Human Rights Campaign, which showcases NCOD as an annual collective action.
“Coming out – whether it is as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or allied – STILL MATTERS. When people know someone who is LGBTQ, they are far more likely to support equality under the law,” reads its website. “Beyond that, our stories can be powerful to each other.”
The imperative to go public dates back to the gay liberation movement, when militant activists proclaimed that visibility was key to social change. As historian John D’Emilio notes, prior to gay lib, coming out had meant coming out into the gay world. After gay lib, it came to mean coming out to everybody.
Harvey Milk famously told attendees of the 1978 Gay Freedom Day rally in San Francisco, “You must come out.” In background context, John Briggs wanted to ban homo teachers in California and Anita Bryant was crusading to defeat local gay rights measures in Florida, Kansas, Minnesota and Oregon. Milk’s sense of coming out was an out-to-everybody-you-know definition.
“Come out to your parents. I know that it is hard and will hurt them, but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth!” he said. “Come out to your relatives. Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop.”
Media scholar Mary Gray critiques the politics of visibility in “Out in the Country,” her 2009 study of queer Appalachian youth. For Gray, the obligation to be out may actually bring harm to rural populations of LGBTQ people.
In a similar vein, activist and writer Preston Mitchum wrote in The Atlantic on the 25th anniversary of NCOD in 2013 about having mixed feelings regarding the valorization of coming out. He cautioned that for some people revealing their sexual orientation or gender identity could be dangerous, “particularly when one belongs to multiple marginalized communities.”
Mitchum stressed that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia can bring real consequences, ranging from rejection by family to workplace discrimination to threat of bodily harm.
“Certainly no one should be forced to come out. Our personal journeys are just that: personal,” he said. “The last thing a closeted LGBT individual needs, faced with a hostile social environment, is to feel like those individuals most accepting of his or her identity won’t support him or her unless that identity is publicly proclaimed.”
But what about when people are no longer among the living? Must we respect their wishes? Shall they forever be kept in the closet?
I’m a historian, committed to understanding the past, especially the queer past, as best we are able. As such, I’d like to urge everyone who can (and who is willing) to bring out your dead.
Which raises two questions: Can you out the dead, and should you out the dead?
Public exposure was once a matter of scandal, and a ready tool of anti-queer institutions and individuals determined to us harm. Exposure served as tabloid fodder going back to Liberace, who sued the scandal magazine Confidential in 1957 over insinuations that he’d had a homosexual tryst with a young male press agent.
More consequentially, during the 1950s, in a witch hunt that targeted homosexuals in government, gay and lesbian federal employees were pressured to name names. The people questioned and those they named lost their jobs. The purges are the subject of the new documentary film “The Lavender Scare,” based on David K. Johnson’s 2004 book of the same name. Meanwhile, at Michigan State University police forced a student to name names of gay people he knew and where they met. Unless compelled, LGBTQ people protected each other’s secrets.
Jump ahead to the early 1990s, when some queer folk thought it okay to expose others. Michelangelo Signorile stirred considerable controversy in the pages of Outweek with peekaboo celebrity teasers in his column.
Meanwhile, guerilla artists plastered New York with broadsides of closeted celebs labeled with big letters “Absolutely Queer.” Take that Jodie Foster!
The Advocate on its cover outed Pete Williams, now a legal affairs correspondent for NBC News, who was then serving as Pentagon spokesperson under Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
Proponents of outing justified their actions as needed in order to expose the hypocrisy of anti-gay politicians and public figures amidst the ravages of AIDS and the venom of the Culture Wars.
Yet outing the dead is not the same as outing the living. Revealing someone’s sexuality or gender seems different when its post mortem. As a historian who focuses on mid-20th-century queer life, I am sensitive to the closet and believe it important to follow an ethic of self-disclosure, for those still alive to consent.
At the same time, as much as possible we need to know, and share, the real names of the real people with familiar faces and hidden lives whose discreet existence defined much of the pre-Stonewall era. Rather than outing the dead, we should think in terms of bringing them out. Consider it an act of sharing. How else to understand the realities, complexities and power of the closet?
Over the years, the LGBTQ community has collectively embraced the idea of bringing people out with the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and candlelight vigils for Transgender Day of Remembrance. Do we disclose only those who died in tragic circumstances?
From the beginning of Michigan LGBTQ Remember, I have included a spectrum of queer forebears for which, to quote the About page, “some were out during their lifetime, some were not.” I continue to believe that each person presented in the gallery “deserves to be remembered as part of the LGBTQ communities that came before us.”
So, for this year’s National Coming Out Day, bring out your dead.
If you have deceased LGBTQ friends or relatives who may not have been out during their lifetimes, bring them out, even in some small way. Help them take their next step.
Tell someone about them. Write up an account of their lives for some future reader (or perhaps a historian). Maybe, in the fashion of cemeteries planting American flags on veterans’ graves, place a rainbow flag at their final resting place.
Return again to Harvey Milk.
“Once and for all, break down the myths; destroy the lies and distortions for your own sake, for their sake, for the sake of the youngsters who are being terrified by the votes coming from Dade County and Eugene,” he said.
And, I might add, for the sake of remembering our LGBTQ pasts.
Tim Retzloff teaches history and LGBTQ studies at Michigan State University. This is reprinted from his blog Queer Remembering.