Sept 30, 2005
Volume 33
Issue 39

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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
What is the history of National Coming Out Day?
While annual Pride events each June commemorate the birth of the Gay liberation movement at the Stonewall Riots in 1969, a newer celebration - National Coming Out Day - encourages LGBT people to take personal action to advance their civil rights.

The first National Coming Out Day (NCOD) took place on Oct. 11, 1988, the anniversary of the March on Washington the previous year. While the initial Gay and Lesbian March on Washington in October 1979 was a festive affair, transpiring at the end of a decade that had seen great strides toward equal rights, the 1987 march took on a more somber tone, coming at the height of the AIDS crisis and a year after the Supreme Court's 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision upholding state sodomy laws.

The second march, attended by an estimated half a million people, demanded legal recognition of same-sex couples, more government funding for HIV/AIDS, and respect for sexual privacy. The weekend featured a mass same-sex wedding, the unveiling of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, and a demonstration outside the Supreme Court that ended with several hundred arrests.

The energy generated by the 1987 march gave rise to several new national and local LGBT organizations and spurred the growth of others. But Rob Eichberg, a New Mexico psychologist who founded a Gay self-help workshop called "The Experience," was disappointed so many marchers went home to their closets. In early 1988, he and Jean O'Leary - a former nun and the founding director of National Gay Rights Advocates (NGRA) - came up with the idea of an annual day to encourage LGBT people to come out for the first time or take the next step in their coming-out process.

The project took up residence at NGRA's West Hollywood office, and Gay artist Keith Haring designed a logo featuring one of his trademark figures, dancing out of a closet door. The first NCOD featured events in 18 states, and was announced on Oprah Winfrey's show, CNN, and National Public Radio. The following year, the project moved to Santa Fe. In 1990, new NCOD director Lynn Shepodd began advertising in the queer press to encourage greater participation. "There were so many activists who were still afraid of being truthful about their own lives," she later recalled.

By the early 1990s, NCOD had grown to encompass a wide variety of activities in towns and on college campuses in all 50 states and several foreign countries. Philadelphia's annual OutFest block party, begun in 1992, bills itself as "the largest Coming Out Day celebration in the world." While the country's biggest and most spectacular Gay Pride celebrations take place in progressive cities with large queer populations, such as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, NCOD tends to have a stronger presence in areas where LGBT communities are less visible.

In 1993, NCOD came under the auspices of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). The following year, HRC created a special project to encourage greater LGBT visibility throughout the year. As an indication of NCOD's success, that same year the religious right countered with an "ex-Gay" campaign dubbed National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day.

Under HRC's direction, NCOD began using celebrity spokespersons, beginning in 1994 with actress Amanda Bearse of the sitcom Married...With Children. At the time television's only openly Lesbian star, Bearse appeared in a public service announcement proclaiming, "I'm not a straight woman, but I play one on TV."

In 1995, Candace Gingrich (the Lesbian half-sister of conservative Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich) became NCOD spokesperson, later moving up to project manager. Other big-name endorsers over the years have included Dan Butler of the television show Frasier; Olympic gold-medalist Greg Louganis and professional baseball player Billy Bean; musicians Melissa Etheridge, Michael Stipe, Ani DiFranco, Rufus Wainwright, and Chuck Panozzo; Chastity Bono and her mother, Cher; and Betty DeGeneres (mother of actress/comedian Ellen).

In 1999, the NCOD theme was "Come Out to Congress," with a campaign encouraging people to send letters to their legislators demanding support for LGBT rights. The theme for 2003 was "A Family Affair," keeping with the LGBT community's increased emphasis on family values.

The point of NCOD is not to insist that every queer person must be completely out to family, friends, coworkers, and the world at large, but rather to raise awareness that coming out is a powerful way to dispel misconceptions about the LGBT community. "Most people think they don't know anyone Gay or Lesbian, and in fact everybody does," Eichberg once told an interviewer. "It is imperative that we come out and let people know who we are and disabuse them of their fears and stereotypes." Research has repeatedly shown that one of the best predictors of support for Gay rights is being personally acquainted with an LGBT individual. With this in mind, the NCOD theme for 2005 is "Talk About It."

Although the 1993 and 2000 Marches on Washington were shifted to April, Oct. 11 remains a day for LGBT people to take their own next step toward liberation, whether they are coming out to themselves for the first time, or are already loud and proud activists.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at

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