Coming Out in 2010
If you're a bank or a school, today is Columbus Day, which celebrates the day hundreds of years ago when Christopher Columbus came across the American continent thinking it was India. For the rest of us, it's National Coming Out Day, a day dedicated to the living.
Although the phrase has been co-opted by puritans who loathe and fear sexuality, National Coming Out Day is very much about the right to life. It's a day whose purpose is entirely devoted to asserting that people have the right to be open and honest about their sexualities without being shamed, judged, or murdered. In the wake of the string of teen suicides that we've seen over this last month, National Coming Out Day takes on an extra level of poignancy. Thinking about the young people who killed themselves with guns, nooses, or jumping from bridges—not only in this last month but in countless years stretching back—reminds us of two things: first, of how lethal the isolation of a closet can be; and second, when someone does come out of that closet, there needs to be a community to hold their hand and help them to do it in their own time and in their own way. Tyler Clementi, a young college student, jumped from the George Washington bridge because he was sadistically shoved out of the closet by a pair of fellow students using a live internet feed.
For those of us who are dedicated to a vision of a sex-positive society (apologies for using a somewhat tired and vague phrase), National Coming Out Day is at the very core of what we're trying to do. Ultimately, the point of sites like CarnalNation is not to make it easier to find cool porn, or to show you where to buy the best sex toys, but to make it make it safer to step out into the world and speak honestly about what and who you desire without being punished for it.
The first National Coming Out Day was held on October 11, 1988, the brainchild of activists Rob Eichberg and Jean O'Leary, who had been inspired by the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights the year before. Things were very different then; the nascent gay rights movement was driven largely by the specter of gay men dying in swarms from AIDS, while the Reagan administration stood aside, actively trying to do as little as possible lest they offend the moral sensibilities of their base in the religious right. In 1986, the Supreme Court had handed down a decision in Bowers v. Hardwick declaring that it was perfectly constitutional for the government to outlaw "sodomy" between two consenting adults in a private home. It would be a long time before gay life would start to be a part of mainstream pop culture in television shows like Will and Grace (1998) and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003). Dialogue about sexuality was almost entirely confined to gay or lesbian vs. straight. The ever-expanding alphabet of alternative sexualities, now expressed as LGBTQI, was much shorter. Merely taking the step to say directly to your friends, family, employer, coworkers, that you were gay or lesbian was a radical step.
And unfortunately, it often still is. But in the last 22 years, we've had increasingly dynamic and sophisticated discussions about sexuality, and one of the things that we've learned is that there is more than one kind of closet. Everyone's closet looks different, and there are often closets within closets. Coming out is not a single step, but a constant process. In our society, we are mute about more kinds of desire than we are open about. There are closets not only for same-sex desire, but for BDSM, for polyamory, for swinging, for asexuality, for transgender people and for genderqueers who elect to adopt neither male nor female identities. There are closets for health issues like HIV or herpes; for body image issues like weight or sexual stamina; within gay or lesbian communities, people who desire both male and female partners still may find themselves isolated. BDSM communities will normalize some fetishes, such as flogging or piercing, and pathologize others, such as furries or balloon fetishes. Every time we're silent on one of these sexualities, every time we lean on the door of someone else's closet, we become that much poorer.
National Coming Out Day is not just about people coming out and declaring their sexual identities to the world; it's about the rest of us working to create spaces where they can do so. It's about creating a world where the closets become less and less necessary for survival. People do not keep their desires hidden arbitrarily, after all. Twenty-two years after the first National Coming Out Day, the closet is still often a matter of life or death. Look at the recent case in the Bronx, where nine men went on a rampage where they assaulted and raped three men they suspected of being gay. Or that just last week a gay man was beaten by two other men in the bathroom of the Stonewall Inn, where the modern gay rights movement was launched. Or the murder of Angie Zapata two years ago. Angie was a beautiful young transgender woman whose boyfriend, Allen Ray Andrade, beat her to death with a fire extinguisher after he learned that she was trans.
It is because these things happen that closets still exist; because if you step out of that closet at the wrong place to the wrong person, you may wind up dead.
At CarnalNation, we've made no secret of our love for the "It Gets Better" project. It was launched by Dan Savage and his husband, but the beauty of it is that it has long since expanded beyond him. All those videos that people are making say not only that it will get better, but that the abusers, shamers, and killers are not the only ones waiting outside the closet door. They say that there is also a large community of people out there, ready to take you by the hand and help you take those first steps out into the world beyond the closet. The past month has shown us what a dark world it can be, but we are also seeing what a much brighter world it can become.