Thursday, June 13, 2024

Why we need to celebrate National Coming Out Day, and LGBTQ History Month!

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, October is the queerest month. National Coming Out Day is October 11 and the entire month is dedicated to LGBTQ History.

At a time when Human Rights Campaign has declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ people, these celebrations of queer and trans identities have never been more important–or more under threat.

In 2023 Missouri leads the nation in anti-LGBTQ legislation. Missouri also ranks third for the most banned books. A report released Sept. 21 by PEN America documented a 33% increase in public school book bans and Missouri — where 333 were banned last year — was ranked third nationally, just behind Florida and Texas, both of which are notorious for their anti-LGBTQ governors. 

Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis, who is running for president, began the anti-LGBTQ fervor with his “Don’t Say Gay” laws and has expanded anti-LGBTQ legislation throughout the state. Other states have used DeSantis’s executive orders as a template for their own legislation and policy, Missouri among them. 

“The toll of the book banning movement is getting worse,” said Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America, in a statement. “More kids are losing access to books, more libraries are taking authors off the shelves, and opponents of free expression are pushing harder than ever to exert their power over students as a whole.”

Yet Missouri was once iconic in LGBTQ history. In 1994, Rodney Wilson, a Missouri history teacher at Mehlville High School, founded LGBTQ History Month. Wilson set out to start LGBTQ History Month after a trip to the national Holocaust Museum. LGBTQ History Month has now been adapted in countries around the world.

October was chosen for LGBTQ History Month because it was already established for National Coming Out Day (NCOD), which began in 1988. 

As Amy Hoffman wrote in her 2007 memoir, An Army of Ex-Lovers: My life at the Gay Community News, “the initial idea was grounded in the feminist and gay liberation spirit of the personal being political, and the emphasis on the most basic form of activism being coming out to family, friends and colleagues, and living life as an openly lesbian or gay person.” 

In a New York Times obituary for the day’s co-founder, Dr. Robert H. Eichberg, a psychologist and author who died of complications of AIDS in 1995 at only 50, the Times wrote that Eichberg “helped establish an annual day of observance encouraging gay men and women to reveal their homosexuality.” 

The Times quoted Eichberg as saying his belief was that “homophobia thrives in an atmosphere of silence and ignorance and that once people know that they have loved ones who are lesbian or gay, they are far less likely to maintain homophobic or oppressive views.”

In an interview in 1993, Dr. Eichberg said: “Most people think they don’t know anyone gay or lesbian, and in fact everybody does. It is imperative that we come out and let people know who we are and disabuse them of their fears and stereotypes.”

Eichberg co-founded NCOD with Jean O’Leary. O’Leary had previously founded Lesbian Feminist Liberation, one of the first lesbian activist groups in the women’s movement, and was an early member and co-director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in the late 1970s.

In 1977 O’Leary organized the first meeting of gay rights activists at the White House through arrangements made with White House staffer Midge Costanza. O’Leary was the first openly gay person appointed to a presidential commission, the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, by Jimmy Carter. Before becoming a lesbian and gay rights activist, she was a Roman Catholic nun, which she wrote about in the groundbreaking 1985 anthology, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence. O’Leary was among three openly gay delegates to the United States Democratic Party convention in 1976. She also served on the Democratic National Committee for 12 years, and spent eight years on the executive committee. O’Leary died in 2005, from lung cancer. She was 57.

Eichberg and  O’Leary chose October 11, 1988 as the celebration’s inaugural date because it marked the one-year anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

The march drew a crowd estimated from 500,000 to 750,000 marchers (including a contingent of bisexuals) in opposition to President Ronald Reagan’s neglect of the HIV epidemic and the Supreme Court’s 1986 ruling against consensual gay sex in the Bowers v. Hardwick case.

The first NCOD was observed in 18 states. By 1990, 50 states and seven other countries observed it. That year the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) began promoting NCOD. From 1999 to 2014, HRC assigned annual themes for the day, such as “Come Out to Congress,” “It’s a Family Affair,” “Conversations from the Heart,” “Coming Out Still Matters,” and “Come Out. Vote.”

In Philadelphia, this year’s NCOD was celebrated with a first-of-its-kind three-day event including a parade and festival. OURfest was held from October 6 through 8 and hopes to become an annual event as an additional celebration to Pride Month in June. 

The organizers of the OURfest, Pride 365 by Galaei, told Queer Forty that America’s first-ever National Coming Out Parade would feature a giant blocks-long street festival and resource fair on October 8 from noon to 7pm with hundreds of vendors throughout the Gayborhood and Midtown Village. 

The group said, “OURfest looks to make history as the only parade in the country dedicated and inspired by National Coming Out Day. The parade will feature a 200 foot rainbow flag (the largest in Pennsylvania), floats and displays, live entertainment, marching bands, cheerleaders, community organizations, business leaders and more.”

Among the parade marshals was Giselle Fetterman, wife of Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman and a longtime LGBTQ ally, the drag sensation Legendary, Rue Landau, the first open lesbian elected to Philadelphia City Council, gay writer and activist Robert Drake and Celena Morrison. Executive Director, Office of LGBT Affairs of the City of Philadelphia.   .

The splashy OURfest event is meant to both highlight National Coming Out Day and LGBTQ History Month and to countermand the recent efforts to curtail LGBTQ visibility by the GOP and the MAGA wave in the U.S. That far-right extremist movement has helped augur hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills and policies being enacted nationwide, as Queer Forty has reported.

As HRC declared in June, “LGBTQ+ Americans are living in a state of emergency. The multiplying threats facing millions in our community are not just perceived – they are real, tangible and dangerous.” 

The group’s president, Kelley Robinson, said. “In many cases they are resulting in violence against LGBTQ+ people, forcing families to uproot their lives and flee their homes in search of safer states, and triggering a tidal wave of increased homophobia and transphobia that puts the safety of each and every one of us at risk.”

As Queer Forty reported in September, hate crimes against LGBTQ people are up and have included high-profile murders as well. Robinson’s state of emergency was not hyperbole. In September Canada issued a warning to Canadian citizens about traveling to the U.S. because of the GOP onslaught against LGBTQ people.

The importance of visibility cannot be overstated. As California’s Democratic governor Gavin Newsom said Oct. 2 when he publicly announced his appointment of Black lesbian activist and labor and repro rights leader Laphonza Butler to fill the Senate seat vacant since the sudden death of Dianne Feinstein, “The assault on the LGBT community, the assault on the African-American community, criminalizing speech and books and travel, this cultural purge that’s going on in this country — all of those things matter. Laphonza Butler is uniquely positioned and simply the best person I could find for this moment and this job.”

HRC’s Robinson also highlighted the historic appointment saying, “The appointment of Laphonza Butler to the Senate is a landmark moment in the fight for social, racial and economic justice. As the first Black lesbian to represent California in the United States Senate, Laphonza brings a compelling voice for abortion rights, the labor movement and civil rights into Congress. Her leadership is a testament to the legacy of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s strong record of pro-LGBTQ+ support.”

Robinson added, “The threats to reproductive freedoms and LGBTQ+ families emanating from the Supreme Court and anti-equality politicians are twin crises that require immediate attention, and Laphonza Butler is an exceptional advocate on both of these issues. We thank Gov. Newsom for making an excellent choice in Laphonza Butler to succeed Senator Feinstein.”

Yet while the momentous nature of Butler’s appointment cannot be overstated, the battle against the far-right rhetoric and legislation, as well as the banning of books and excising of history make it ever more critical that LGBTQ accomplishments be heralded and that LGBTQ people come out to reveal their numbers.   

Lesbian Herstory Archives co-founder Joan Nestle sounded an alarm in an interview with Queer Forty, saying, “When you have presidential candidates, when you have major political parties, who are culturally cleansing—culturally cleansing, that’s my term for it—your imagination, lesbian imagination, lesbian writing, anti-racist writing and what’s acceptable—the closest I think of is the McCarthy era—that’s on a level that stuns me.”

In an interview with Queer Forty, trans activist and journalist Imara Jones said that Republicans “believe that these attacks will help them win office by exciting their core voters and peeling off independent voters who are uncomfortable with trans people. That’s why it is both ideological and cynical.  It’s also why we see the widespread introduction of these bills across the country in the form of state-by-state copycat bills and see which one passes first for other states to copy.”

She added, “When not everyone has the same rights, the rights of everyone are actually quite fragile.”

Celebrate National Coming Out Day and its courageous pathbreaking founders. Celebrate LGBTQ History Month. Don’t forget the mantra of AIDS activists during the AIDS crisis: Silence equals death. As Nestle told Queer Forty, “Like always, they oppress, we resist.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated and Society of Professional Journalists Award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.

Victoria A. Brownworth has 42 posts and counting. See all posts by Victoria A. Brownworth

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