Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Harvey Milk's Guide to Coming Out: Is it the Right One for Students?

On Gay Freedom Day in 1978, Harvey Milk told the crowd in San Francisco:

Harvey Milk at the Gay Freedom Day Parade, June 25, 1978
"Gay brothers and sisters ...You must come out. 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! 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 ... 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..."

National Coming Out Day is coming up on Tuesday Oct. 11, and until this fall, I had thought of the day as a celebration of identity and a time to reflect about the power of coming out. I had thought of it in Harvey Milk terms: that we must come out and show our communities that LGBTQ people are not pedophiles, are not all white, are not sick, don't dress a certain way and that we are everywhere, in every community.

But lately I have been thinking about Coming Out Day events on college and university campuses and whether or not Milk's message needs some caveats.

Many students are financially and emotionally dependent on their parents. Many students have no way to predict their family and community's reaction to their queer identity. And as my colleagues at MIT have pointed out, it is a mistake to depict coming out as a one-time announcement. Coming out is a continual process, not only for the queer person, but for the queer person's family.

While positive and uplifting stories about coming out can be inspiring and empowering, we also have to be aware that especially for students, they can sometimes amount to a kind of peer pressure. Someone who has been out for 10 or 20 years may paint their experience as rosier or more simplistic than it was at the time.

I feel sad about these caveats. I wish that Coming Out Day could be mainly an expression of pride, but it is naive (especially as someone whose family has over time become extremely accepting and embracing of my sexuality) and potentially even dangerous to advocate for everyone everywhere to come out as soon as possible. Instead, we need to share all kinds of coming out stories--from my African American gay friend whose mom in Georgia was instantly accepting and told the family "nobody better have a problem with this" to my white lesbian friend who was kicked out of both her mother's and father's houses at age 17 in North Carolina after coming out, and had to fight to finish high school.

On Coming Out Day, we celebrate resilience, pride and the right to choose when to begin the coming out process.

Photo by Terry Schmidt, SF Chronicle

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