With well-known figures like Frank Ocean and Anderson Cooper coming out publicly, it’s easy to forget that average LGBT individuals face this challenge daily.
But those in the LGBT community will celebrate the experience Thursday during National Coming Out Day, which encourages LGBT individuals to officially “come out of the closet.” The day is also aimed at educating those outside the LGBT community about the significance of the coming-out experience.
The idea of coming out has a lot to do with the heteronormative nature of today’s society, or the belief that everyone is straight until stated otherwise, said Patty Stokes, a professor of women’s and gender studies
“There would be no coming-out process if people didn’t just assume, it’s assumed that people are straight and cisgendered,” Stokes said. “You base it off of your perception. It seems utopian, but if no one assumed, there would be no coming out.”
Ohio does not currently have an anti-discrimination law that protects LGBT people from being fired based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, which is another contributing factor of the fear of coming out, said Jason Armstrong, a Donkey Coffee and Espresso employee who identifies as queer both in gender and in sexuality.
“I’m lucky enough that they’re very open about protecting me and supporting me when it comes to my sexuality,” Armstrong said. “But others don’t have that luxury, and it may be a case of staying in the closet or losing their job.”
For Armstrong, that coming-out experience happened his freshman year of high school. He came out to his sister, who relayed the news to the rest of his conservative family, who were less accepting than his Donkey coworkers: They sent him to an exorcist, and then to conversion therapy.
Since coming to Ohio University, Armstrong said he has felt more accepted, and last year on Coming Out Day, he came out as gender binary as well as queer.
And while many tell their “coming-out story” about their first time coming out, it’s not simply a once-in-a-lifetime event for most LGBT individuals, said Hannah Dunn, a senior studying education and advocacy who identifies as queer. She added that people face the feat of coming out each day.
“It’s something LGBT persons have to do every day of their lives,” she said.
“Whenever you meet new people, take a new job, et cetera, you always have to decide whether or not it’s a safe space to come out in. We have to walk on eggshells 24/7.”
Dunn said that coming out was initially very intimidating for her because she grew up in a conservative and religious home where the idea that LGBT people go to hell was prevalent.
When she got to OU, however, she finally felt ready and safe to come out to her friends, but she said she didn’t come out to her family until her sophomore year.
“My friends supported me unconditionally,” she said. “But my family told me I was no longer their daughter and that I was going to hell. It hurt. Even though I don’t really have a biological family anymore, the family I’ve created with my friends and support persons is perfect. I couldn’t be happier.”
Being abandoned or cut off for being LGBT is an idea very well known to Caitlin Phillips, a freshman who identifies as pansexual, or being gender blind in sexuality. Although her mother and sister were both supportive when she came out at the age of 12, her grandparents were less so. They sent her to conversion therapy, which she said she agreed to because her mother was financially dependent on her grandparents.
Since sending her to therapy, her grandparents have changed their views and have done a “complete 180,” Phillips said. They apologized for sending her to therapy and are now working to be more emotionally supportive.
For Jamila Orso, a senior studying creative writing, though, the coming-out experience was a positive one. Orso, who identifies as a lesbian, came out to her sister initially but feared losing her father’s financial support if she came out to him.
“Once I came out to my dad, it was quick and easy,” Orso said. “I was afraidthe wrath would could come later, but it never did. He’s been supportive and still sees me as his little girl.”
Having a safe and supportive set of people who are receptive to learning is important, Orso said.
“Basically, just be open and willing to learn,” she said. “There are a lot of things that people don’t know; people aren’t aware of all of the terms and all of the things people identify with. The more the person is open and willing to learn, the more smoothly it will go.”