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What Exactly Does Coming Out Mean in 2021?

By Lo Styx

For 33 years, National Coming Out Day has been observed on October 11 as a celebration of queer courage and visibility. It’s a day of empowerment for LGBTQ+ folks to come out of “the closet” and take pride in living comfortably at whatever level of openness that might be, whether that’s self-discovery or publicly defining your sexuality.

Since its inception, National Coming Out Day has also been an invitation to rail against the bastion of a largely cisgender- and heterosexual-dominated society.

Psychologist Gregory Cason, PhD, worked on the team that coordinated the first National Coming Out Day in 1988. The brainchild of two LGBTQ+ activists, Jean O’Leary and Robert Eichberg, the day was founded to combat the negativity surrounding gayness by urging LGBTQ+ folks to embrace their sexuality.

“[The founders] decided we can’t have anything in the gay community until people start to come out,” Cason says. “At the time there were very few out celebrities, you didn’t see positive portrayals on TV or in magazines. You only heard negative things in religion, and it was really common and it was plentiful.”

The message behind the day has stayed consistent. Cason notes that the idea was never to urge queer folks to announce their sexuality to great fanfare, but rather to simply take the next step in their coming out journey. And for many people, that step might be extremely subtle. It could look like reading a magazine devoted to LGBTQ+ culture or wearing a piece of clothing that signals other members of the community.

“A lot of people mistake coming out for a black or white—you’re either in or you’re out,” Cason says. “And we said no that’s not reality, it’s a continuum. It happens over time.”

Just as the process of coming out evolves over a person’s lifetime, so too has the concept itself. Today, “coming out” can refer to more than just sexual orientation, but also gender, and in some cases, physical and mental ability.1

And for those who are just embarking on that lifelong journey of coming out, the experience has looked especially different during the Covid-19 pandemic. Because despite increasing normalization of queer visibility in mainstream society, the circumstances many young adults have found themselves in this past year and a half have not been ideal for publicly embracing the less “traditional” parts of their identity.

Coming Out, Stuck at Home

Visibility isn’t everything, points out psychotherapist Adam Blum, MFT, founder of the Gay Therapy Center, the largest private therapy provider for the LGBTQ+ community in the U.S. While it’s incredibly positive to relate to celebrities and public figures who own their sexual identities in mainstream society, not everyone is guaranteed that privilege of positive reception.

“The truth is that many people are still painfully rejected by their families when they come out as LGBTQ+,” Blum says. “Therapists witness the stress and isolation that comes with that rejection. It is the reason that research continues to find higher rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction in the LGBTQ+ community.”

Parental rejection has also been linked to suicidal ideation and a higher risk of homelessness, as young people are often forced to leave the home or choose to do so on their own.2 During the pandemic, countless young people have been stuck in the house or had to move back home to potentially unsupportive families. Many have been forced to stay in the closet in the interest of their own safety, Blum says. This is an extremely stressful scenario.

“They live with the great fear that their secret may be discovered with just one text message read over their shoulder,” he says. “This anxiety, when experienced every day for months, can significantly impact their mental health.”

While some people felt more oppressed by having to keep things under wraps during the pandemic, Cason has also worked with individuals who experienced the opposite.

“Some people felt more corked up and so exploded and told their parents or were more expressive during that time,” Cason says.

He’s also heard from young adults who didn’t identify as gay before the pandemic, but have begun to question their sexuality and explore their identity thanks to more time spent online.

We know the internet and social media, specifically, can be double-edged swords. But in this case, they’ve offered invaluable resources. LGBTQ+ teenagers and young adults have been able to access a near-endless supply of information to help them better understand themselves and navigate the experience of coming out, while also being able to connect with a sea of people who are going or have gone through the same thing.

Blum points to resources for young people like Q Chat Space and The Trevor Project that can be incredibly beneficial during this period of exploration. But for those living in an unsupportive home, it’s crucial to do so with care.

“It is very important to maintain your privacy and secrecy while you are still financially dependent upon adults that you believe may be capable of abandoning their support of you,” Blum says. “Use common sense measures like carefully protecting your phone passwords.”

Coming Out vs. Coming In

The first step of anyone’s coming out journey is coming out to yourself, which can actually be the hardest part, says inclusion activist Ash Beckham, speaker and author of “Step Up: How to Live with Courage and Become an Everyday Leader.” So much positivity comes with living authentically, but it takes work to get there.

Some corners of research highlight the importance of this self-evaluation in coming out and actually reframe the way we think about the process. A 2017 study interviewed queer individuals about the search for queer identity and suggests that “coming in” or shifting the focus inward toward self-acceptance regardless of society’s views helps a person to arrive at a better understanding of their queerness.3

As coming out and queer visibility has become more normalized, shifts are also happening within the LGBTQ+ community. With its continued evolution, the community is forced to be more inclusive, Beckham says.

“When you are creating safe spaces, you can often be—intentionally or non-intentionally—exclusive because you want to protect that safe space,” Beckham says.

For example, as more and more individuals come out as nonbinary or gender fluid, this provides an opportunity for the community to take into account the broad spectrum and various intersections of those that identify as LGBTQ+.

Becoming more inclusive from within can ultimately help more queer folks to come out, creating a domino effect that could eventually reach the individuals who are more deeply repressed. As Beckham says, everyone deserves support regardless of where they stand in their coming out journey.

“That constant reevaluation of—who are we leaving behind? Who still can’t come out today? And what is our responsibility to make that path easier?—is the responsibility that comes with outness and the privilege,” Beckham says.

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Lauren (Lo) Styx is a freelance journalist focused on mental health, sexual wellness and patient advocacy. She is based in Brooklyn and can be found on the internet @laurenstyx.