Does Coming Out Day Have The Same Significance As 30 Years Ago?

Oct 11, 2018
Originally published on October 11, 2018 6:53 pm
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Today marks the 30th anniversary of National Coming Out Day. It was created by gay and lesbian activists as a way to demand equality and win the hearts and minds of friends, family and the wider community. It was also a way to celebrate personal identity. Thirty years ago, coming out had a lot of political significance, but does it still have that same significance today? NPR's Sam Sanders is the host of the podcast and show It's Been A Minute, and he's been thinking a lot about this. In fact, he did a whole episode on all of this. Hey, Sam.


CHANG: So tell me more about the history of this day. How did it first happen?

SANDERS: So the first Coming Out Day was October 11, 1988. It actually marked the one-year anniversary of the second National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. And so Robert Eichberg and Jean O'Leary officially made the day in '88 just to make being LGBTQ a thing that you could declare affirmatively and proudly. You know, but 10 years before the first official Coming Out Day, coming out was really made a political action by Harvey Milk, a name I'm sure you know.

CHANG: Right, the first openly gay member - the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

SANDERS: Exactly. He was an icon for the community. And in this speech he gave in '78, he basically called on all of America to come out.


HARVEY MILK: And most importantly, most importantly, every gay person must come out.


MILK: As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell your...

SANDERS: So clearly, you know, you have Harvey Milk here staking this line in the sand. But if you really want to get to where the energy for the gay rights movement and coming out came from, you could track it all the way back to where the roots for the civil rights movement and gay rights movement and women's rights movement came from, which was post-World War II activism started by black soldiers.

CHANG: OK, so you're taking us all the way back down to the 1940s. Harvey Milk was this huge inspiration in the '70s. Then Coming Out Day gets formalized in the '80s. And just thinking about the '80s, I mean, this is - it gets formalized in this decade that was turbulent and scary and really heartbreaking for much of the gay community.

SANDERS: Yeah. In many ways, it was awful for the gay community. This community was in the throes of the AIDS crisis. You had this groundswell of activism from the LGBTQ community over the issue while the government was very silent. In the same decade in '86, you had the Supreme Court uphold a state law from Georgia against sodomy, which allowed gay sex to be treated as a felony. And so the thinking was if Coming Out Day was a thing that happened and it proved that people had gay and lesbian folks in their lives everywhere and you know them, some of the ways a law treated them or ignored them would have to change.

CHANG: It feels like a lot has changed. I mean, let me ask you. Is coming out the same kind of moment now? Does marking a coming out day feel as necessary?

SANDERS: Yeah. I think the answer depends on who you ask. But for me, it feels very, very different in large part because the language that we have around sexuality and gender is constantly evolving. You know, a thing that we talk about in the episode is how the increased prominence of queer identity, of trans identity, of people declaring themselves and their sexuality in these ways that are new to many people - that almost doesn't fit what you could call the old model of coming out. There's also, you know, this phenomenon. We go from Ellen coming out some 20 years ago to artists...

CHANG: Ellen DeGeneres.

SANDERS: Exactly - to artists like Frank Ocean who came out but didn't use the word gay or Janelle Monae who didn't come out as gay or lesbian or bi. She came out as pansexual. It's just a different language...

CHANG: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...And a different rubric almost. So of course that just changes what coming out is.

CHANG: So did you walk away from this forming an opinion about yourself?

SANDERS: I think it helped me in my own coming out story, to stop being angry about how long it took or feeling guilty about my path and my process and just feeling a bit more proud of who I am. And there's - I don't know. There was this feeling throughout the entire episode where the listeners we talked to - coming out is not just declaring yourself to the world. It is declaring yourself to every earlier version of yourself and telling that person they're cool, too.

CHANG: That's NPR's Sam Sanders. You can check out his whole episode on the history of coming out and what it means today by going to the podcast feed for It's Been A Minute or wherever you get your podcast. Thanks so much, Sam.

SANDERS: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.