This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of National Coming Out Day – a tradition which began one year following the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights on October 11, 1987.
The march, which occurred during the height of the AIDS epidemic, remains one of the largest political rallies the LGBT community has ever ignited. Featuring prominent stunts and civil disobedience, those involved had a series of calls, including; the legal recognition of lesbian and gay relationships, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and an end to the discrimination faced by people with AIDS or HIV-positive status.
Something which made this march significant is that our entire community, at the time, was being decimated by a brutal and unforgiving plague. One which had reignited the flames of violent homophobia and shattered any remnant of the myth that the Western societies of the 1980s were becoming more tolerant of LGBT people.
Indeed, many of the marchers were living with AIDS; some will have been fired from their workplaces or disowned by their families; refused health insurance or isolated in separately quarantined, dingy hospital departments; attacked on the streets or vilified and ignored by politicians and national decision makers.
For some, their oldest companions will have refused to show human contact in the midst of misinformation and panic. Passion was denied – their love deemed fatal.
On those streets in Washington, the marchers gathered behind banners emblazoned with the words “Lesbian and Gay Rights”. With journalists and photographers nearby, some attendees will have taken a risk that day; to reveal their true selves not only to the nation, but to their families and their colleagues. They did it at a time when visible gay activism meant putting your livelihood, relationships and reputation on the line.
What united all of these marchers, irrefutably, was that they were out in the open. Together; valiantly fighting for a world in which they too were treated like equal human beings. They did it for themselves, and they did it for those of us who would find belonging in their community afterwards.
A year later, National Coming Out Day was established, to recognise the power which lies in visibility. Organisers understood a sentiment previously encouraged by Harvey Milk in 1978: that, if we are to win our rights and protections; if we are to be counted and validated; and if social attitudes are to change – then we must be visible.
“Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out… to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared,” Milk cried as he urged LGBT people to enter the mainstream in an effort to transform the world.
How things have changed since those days, now immortalised by grainy footage and black-and-white stills. Almost everywhere you look, we have visible LGBT people; from media and television, to national politics, to literature and video-games.
But what is visibility if we haven’t told our stories?
We can be out, we can be open – that will, hopefully, change the perspectives of those around us. When our families and our friends come to realise that someone they love is LGBT, then they might stand shoulder to shoulder with us. Your mum might come to Pride, and your uncle might send you pictures of every rainbow flag he sees on his way to work.
That was Milk’s vision. With your visibility and openness you can change the attitudes of those around you and, in turn, let them change the attitudes of others.
But if we tell our stories, we might just be able to change the attitudes of those who don’t know us and, crucially, help others who might be in our position.
When we started Time for Inclusive Education (TIE), we launched an appeal for LGBT people to write down their lived experiences and, with their permission, we published them into a booklet detailing tales of school life, coming out, and finding a place in the world.
We did this because we understood the power in personal experiences. We knew that when people heard how difficult being LGBT can often still be, we might be able to change a nation’s outlook and thus lay the foundations of a better pathway for those generations yet to come.
It was a spin on Milk’s epiphany back in 1978. He wanted you to come out, we wanted you to tell your stories.
I’ve told mine in the past, but I’ve often focussed less on actually coming out and more on navigating my own intrapersonal experiences upon realising, at 12 years old, that I am gay.
That realisation marks the beginning of my story. I remember the sense of impending dread which engulfed me throughout that period; the punching, catapulting knots which would wave throughout my chest as I fell deeper into my mind; the pain in the back of my head as anxiety induced stress creeped it’s way into my delicate psyche; the ultimate understanding that my realisation had quickly become my secret.
What if people found out?
It’s difficult to write about that chapter of my life because I’d spent my later teenage years subconsciously deploying many tactics to suppress it. Indeed, it’s only been in the last three years, since beginning my campaigning activities, that I’ve re-opened that box. I read recently that this is how our brains handle periods of trauma. Shadows are cast over the ugly parts in order to protect us.
The process of self-acceptance as I approached and began my teenage years was not easy. I had a terrible time because I was terrified of existing in this world as a gay man. I stumbled into a spiral which culminated with my darkest period; when I felt I’d found an easier, permanent option.
Until I found a little bit of light. Who knows why my outlook shifted, or how my perspective began to change. Perhaps it was my survival instinct kicking in. Some sort of psychological intervention.
I figured out that if I was going to be happy, then I had to accept myself. I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to get to that point alone – I’d spent too long inflicting damage upon and mentally wounding myself for me to pick up the pieces solo.
So, at 14 years old, I decided to come out. I would be lying if I said that it was easy or that the sky opened up and the rain washed away my fears.
At the time, my parents had recently booked a family holiday and a close friend of mine had been invited to join us. We had two weeks before we were due to leave the country and everything had been paid for.
So I struck. We rode our bikes to a nearby loch, and I sat her down. If she reacted badly, such was my train of thought at the time, then at least we would still have to go abroad together. At least I’d have a few more weeks of friendship.
“I need to tell you something,” I remember saying. Then came the tears. I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth, because I knew that if I told her I am gay – if I said those three words – then I could never take it back. I could never go back.
Eventually I did. She was crying too.
But everything immediately felt better. I had someone to talk to. Sometimes things are clichés because they are true. From there, a new prolonged and gradual process began. I’d accepted myself by coming out and now I had to find happiness.
I did that by connecting myself to our community’s history, by reading the words of people like Milk, by watching that grainy footage and looking at those stills from an era when hundreds of thousands of men and women just like me stood up, fought back, and celebrated who they are.
Those who came out, who marched, who died for us.
Where I once felt ashamed of who I am, I now feel pride to be part of a community with such culture, such resilience, such colour – and to be continuing their struggle today.
As I close this piece, I’m glancing at a photograph from the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It’s October 11th, 1987 and the delegation are holding a banner which reads: “For love and for life, we’re not going back.”
Indeed we are not.