Happy Coming Out Day, 2021 – A Personal Story
By Rose Strong
I was sixteen years old when you could loosely say, I opened the closet door.
The only person that truly mattered to me about my sexual orientation, was my mother. She knew that all my friends who were older than me by a year or more, were gay. She opened her arms willingly for them and enjoyed their camaraderie. They’d come over to our house for dinner and hang out, chat with her and play board games. She was fine with me going out with them and thought they were all very mature, well-mannered, and trustworthy.
My mom and I were the best of friends and the worst of enemies. We could talk about anything, and she was thoughtful about our discussions, open-minded and wise. She was also undiagnosed with bipolar disorder, and it took her life away while she was alive and I moved out as an emancipated minor at seventeen years-old, but that’s another story.
After my first relationship in high school had dissolved, I sat at the kitchen table and said, “Mom, I’m gay just like K & J* and P & L*. I was seeing H. and we were girlfriends for several months, and we’ve broken up. I wanted to share that with you and talk about it.” The reaction I was hoping for, a bit of comfort and understanding about my first real relationship gone bad, wasn’t at all what I expected and hoped for after revealing something so personal.
My mother freaked out. Just completely went over the edge. Yelling in Italian. (I had no idea she even knew the language!) She called the doctor and the priest who both told her not to worry, that it was just a phase. A phase I’m still in 40-plus years later.
She told my grandmother that I was gay, who was so happy that I was happy! In her day, to be happy you were described as gay, so she had no idea what the problem was. Then she called my sister in Connecticut and blurted out, “Your sister’s gay!” My sister had company just coming in the door for a dinner party and had to hang up on her, saying she’d call back later. In so many words, my mother told me she’d rather me be a pregnant drug addict than to be a lesbian. Of course, she never let that word cross her lips, but she was clear about how she felt.
Coming out is a very personal choice. I was luckier than many.
As bad as my situation was with my mother, she never disowned me, never threw me out of the house or abused me physically over my sexuality. She loved me nonetheless in her own way. I always felt that if I could live through telling my mother, I could tell anyone. The abuse I suffered was from her bipolar illness, not so much from her feelings of having a daughter who identified as a lesbian. It took me a long time in therapy to understand this, but I’ve come to terms.
Coming Out Day started in 1987, with half a million people marching on Washington, D.C. for LGBTQI rights. The event was a catalyst for several LGBTQI organizations that are still in operation today.
The following year, the late Rob Eichberg and Jean O’Leary created National Coming Out Day (NCOD) to celebrate and mark the march’s first anniversary. The NCOD logo was created by the late artist Keith Haring. The vision Eichberg and O’Leary had was to be non-combative against the LGBTQI oppression, but to celebrate the queer identities in hopes to decrease the stigma and homophobia.
Cities across the globe now celebrate the day every October 11.
Not everyone is comfortable coming out. It’s a personal decision. For many it’s the fear of losing friends and family and for others it’s also about personal safety. I have never been “in the closet” officially very much and never had issues with my sexual orientation. I was gay and that was that. I didn’t come out formally to every employer I’ve had over the years, as I live in a state where I could be fired for being gay. Yet as of 2012, I’ve been married legally to a same-sex partner. Mostly I just talk about my life and my wife very matter-of-factly. Preston Mitchum, a Black, Queer lawyer, and activist speaks to both the brave individuals who have come out, but that staying in the closet is also a way for LGBTQI people to stay safe.
The American Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off its list of mental illnesses on December 15, 1975, and the American Psychological Association supported the decision. From Conger, J. J. (1975). Proceedings of the American Psychological Association, Incorporated, for the year 1974: Minutes of the annual meeting of the Council of Representatives. American Psychologist, 30, 620–651. doi:10.1037/h0078455:
Homosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social and vocational capabilities; further, the American Psychological Association urges all mental health professionals to take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with homosexual orientations.
This of course, doesn’t mean discrimination or accusations of mental illness weren’t thrown at those who identified as homosexual, but it somewhat lifted the shadow of shame and guilt off those who felt downtrodden through their coming-of-age and discovering that they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
Eichberg and O’Leary tried to make this disapproved subject and the fear that the term LGBT conjures up just a little more mainstream. They instead wanted to shed light on those hiding in the underground and meandering in the shadows of darkness.
It’s taken decades for the public to understand that our love is the same as their love. Our lives parallel our heterosexual counterparts as we care about our families, celebrate our special occasions, and have the same ups and downs as we live our lives just like the rest of the world.
For more information on Coming Out Day, the American Psychological Association has some great resources.
*Initials used to protect privacy.