Tuesday, October 11, 2011

National Coming Out Day

Today is National Coming Out Day.

According to Wikipedia: "NCOD was founded in 1988 by Robert Eichberg, a psychologist from New Mexico and Jean O'Leary, an openly-gay political leader from Los Angeles." Interesting, but not surprising, that a mental health professional would create a holiday for LGBT people to "come out." I want to write a bit about coming out as an important part of a queer person's mental health and wellness as well as an act of activism--and that those two are linked.

In my practice, I often hear questions of whether or not it is important to come out of the closet. When I was in graduate school, I was taught that coming out of the closet was an essential part of mental health for LGBT people. I clearly remember the instructor, a well-known and respected psychotherapist, saying, "The closet is a coffin." I am sure that, being the high-achiever that I am, I wrote this down dutifully in my copious notes.

After years of practice in the field, I have change my tune about coming out. I have seen that the human experience is too diverse to be captured in simplistic terms like "the closet is a coffin." Questions immediately come to mind: To whom are you coming out, and how? How many people does one have to come out to in order to have good mental health? And of course, there are people for whom coming out is not a good idea. The reality is that some people would make their lives significantly worse by coming out of the closet.

And that last thing--the reality that some people's closet doors are nailed shut for safety's sake--is what brings me to my second point today: Coming out, because it can be dangerous, is also a political issue. Yes, it's a mental health issue, as evidenced by the fact that one of the founders of the holiday was a clinician. But the other founder was an activist, and that reminds us that coming out is an act of activism.

On the personal level, coming out is activism because it goes against heteronormative society, certainly. But beyond that, the more people come out, the easier coming out is. The more people get active and work to change and challenge a society that penalizes LGBT folks just for being LGBT, the easier it is to come out. (Not that it will get truly "easy"; note my use of the word "easier.") The more people who are on the side of LGBT liberation, the more success we have. And the more people are out of the closet, the more normalized LGBT becomes.

Activism, among other things, is aimed at reducing emotional stress through systemic changes: Successful activism can change or eliminate structures of control that contribute to emotional distress in individuals. This connection between interpersonal wellness and social change is one reason that I am a proud social worker, as it happens, but that is a separate essay.

So on this National Coming Out Day, I am choosing to remember that my coming out was made possible by the LGBT people who came before me, and will in some small way make it easier for those who have yet to come. And I am choosing to remind myself of the progress that we have made, and to look with hope and optimism to all that we can accomplish in the future. And I can see, today, how the personal can be political, and how mental health and activism are linked.

Here is a link to "An Open Letter to my Legally Superior Heterosexual Friends, Family, Colleagues, and Acquaintances, by Karl Frisch. I thought this summed it up nicely.

I’ve been open about who I am for ten years now. My parents still love me. My friends have stuck by my side. The jobs I’ve had in these years since coming out treat their gay employees with equality and respect. I’m lucky in that regard because for many people that is not the case. The freedom I now feel is amazing but that freedom is also limited.

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