30 years in, National Coming Out Day is as important as ever

Updated: May 23

A little over twenty years ago, I made a decision that changed, and likely saved, my life. I came out to my parents. I can still recall how my heart raced and my hands trembled as I shared with them a truth about myself that I knew they did not want to hear. I decided that I would no longer accept the idea that being gay was something that I should be ashamed of. By making that choice, I began a journey that has been shared by countless other LGBT people across time and place. Today those millions of collective moments across the LGBT community are worth celebrating.

The first National Coming Out Day was celebrated in 1988 to commemorate the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which had occurred the previous year. Specifically, on October 11, 1987, over 200,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., in a collective cry of outrage over the indifference of the federal government in the face of the devastating AIDS crisis. The march focused attention on the movement for LGBT equality, and our specific demands for action in response to the plague, as Larry Kramer called it, which was decimating our community. We were also there to denounce the recent Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, which rejected a constitutional challenge to Georgia’s sodomy law, dismissing out of hand even the suggestion that LGBT relationships were entitled to any constitutional protections.

Conceived as a way to build on one of the key messages of 1987’s Great March, National Coming Out Day celebrates the idea that while coming out is a deeply personal act, it is also a profound political act. Thirty years later, LGBT people around the world continue to celebrate and remember the March and the message that has infused National Coming Out Day ever since.

Thinking back to that dark time in LGBT history, we can — and should — celebrate the progress we have achieved. An HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, and people living with HIV are able to thrive. Same-sex couples can now enjoy the protections and benefits of marriage. Transgender people are serving proudly in the military. LGBT people can find support and affirmation in senior-living facilities, and trans kids are taking on leadership roles in schools in communities large and small. For over 45 years, Lambda Legal has been making the case for equality for LGBT people and everyone living with HIV, not only in the U.S. Supreme Court, but also in lower courts and legislatures across the country. What we do is possible only because we have clients willing to come forward to speak out and demand justice. In every case, the first steps toward a better, more equitable world involved the difficult and courageous decision to come out and tell the world who we are.

And yet, how many people still go for years, or lifetimes, without telling parents or siblings that they are LGBT, because their upbringing or cultural context has instilled in them a deep sense of shame over who they are? And how many parents still disown their own children, rather than risk the perceived public “disgrace” of telling their neighbors that their children are queer?

Every LGBT person who decides to come out and speak their truth makes a powerful decision to reject the shame that others would cast upon them, and in doing so, takes a step in the direction of justice and equality.

We know that it is hard to find hope in these times. But we want you to know that Lambda Legal is here, standing with you, and standing up for you. We will not submit and we will not be silent. We will stand up to those forces that are determined to put LGBT people back into the closet. We draw our strength from the courage of those who have come before us, and we will continue to foster bonds of solidarity with our social justice partners that will last the test of time.

On this day, take pride in all that you have experienced and overcome. Reflect on how much the LGBT community has been able to accomplish together, and know in your heart that every act of coming out has helped get us to where we are today.

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