For every 12-year-old who can say “I knew I was a girl from the time I was a toddler, and my family always taught me that being transgender was OK and I should be proud of who I am,” there’s a gay twentysomething who, risking seemingly everything, finally opens up to his conservative father only to hear “We still love you. But please don’t tell your mother.”
National Coming Out Day — Friday, Oct. 11 — started 25 years ago. Rob Eichberg, who along with Jean O’Leary came up with the idea to have a day to celebrate people coming out and sharing coming out stories said, in 1993, “Most people think they don’t know anyone gay or lesbian, and in fact everybody does. It is imperative that we come out and let people know who we are and disabuse them of their fears and stereotypes.”
Two decades later, 92% of LGBT people surveyed by the Pew Research Center feel that society is more accepting than it was a decade ago. Though 39%, about four in 10 people, also said at that some point in their lives they’ve been rejected by a family member or close friend because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Statistics though, however useful, all but vanish the moment an 18-year-old (the median age for coming out in the States) takes a breath and opens up to his or her loved ones. I’ll never forget meeting a young man, just a year or two younger than myself, who came out to his parents over dinner and woke up the next morning to find that his father had packed him a suitcase. A car was waiting outside to take him to an ex-gay camp. He ended up running away. The stories go on and on.
If you look to Hollywood for an indication of whether or not it’s easier to come out now than ever before, you’ll find mixed messages. Prominent out gay celebrities glitter on screen, sometimes becoming advocates and role models, though just as often, insisting on being known as actors first and foremost. All the while, gay rumors continue to appear in newspaper blind items, nestled between gossip about drug addictions and torrid affairs with prostitutes. Though some might consider closeted actors to be selfish or cowardly, given our nation’s inability to ensure LGBT people in all states can’t be fired for being out, perhaps Hollywood’s celluloid closest isn’t all that unique after all.
In sports, the latest turf in the national conversation about coming out, the prospects are just as dicey. Jason Collins, the first out male NBA player, has yet to be signed to a team this season. Though this probably has more to do with his age and stats than any other factor, it is nonetheless off-putting to see the gay sports icon of 2013 on the sidelines. Similarly, Chris Kluwe and Brendan Ayanbadejo, the NFL’s two most vocal LGBT allies, are currently free agents, waiting to be signed. Remember when, just a few months ago, we were told that as many as four NFL players were considering coming out together? Perhaps they got lost on the way out, closets are after all notoriously tricky constructions. Maybe though, for the time being, NFL players still feel like coming out is still not worth the risk. The role offseason rumors may have played in Kerry Rhodes, an excellent safety, going unsigned this season should make fans and athletes alike uncomfortable. Soon, hopefully the success of out athletes like Brittney Griner and Robbie Rogers will be the rule rather than the exception.
At the end of the day, regardless of the industry or circumstances, a conversation about why or why not people remain in the closet should actually be a discussion about the circumstances that put them there in the first place. The closet, a metaphor which didn’t even come into use until the 1960s, is constructed not of wood and nails, but ideas, fears, and norms passed onto us by our families, communities and cultures.
I’m incredibly proud of the stories we will be sharing with you this week and encourage you to share your own. There are no roadmaps or how-to manuals for coming out, only shared stories and — hopefully — the compassion necessary however and whenever it is needed. In this regard, at least, there can be no in-between: Either we are each other’s closets or each other’s keys.