Today, October 11, is National Coming Out Day here in the U.S. As you can see from the Keith Haring poster, National Coming Out Day comes from a time in American queer history when “SILENCE = DEATH” was the watchword, and so it is tempting perhaps to think that it belongs to a time that is no longer, when urgency and militancy overtook the case for same-sex marriage and other, more concrete and legalized understandings of LGBT civil liberties. But in fact, that’s not so: the specter of a particularly large round of young queer people’s suicides means that there are radical political groups holding die-ins again.
But even as we find militant urgency surrounding us in a stark reminder that historical narratives cannot ever be written as entirely teleological marches toward progress, we can also think of National Coming Out Day as a reminder that you needn’t be a militant to save people’s lives; you needn’t pull a Harvey Milk and declare that you will risk assassination in the name of “destroy[ing] every closet door.” All you need do is be here, be yourself, and be alive. You can go about the rest of your life, and the rest of the things you do to make the world a better place, safe in the assurance that if you live an out and unashamed life, you are, in the paraphrased words of another eminent cultural icon of teh gayz, convincing by your presence.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt either if you’re willing to put a little part of your life and yourself into being a mentor to the queer kids and the not-yet-queer kids who happen to look to you for help. Tell them your stories and listen to theirs. I have found, through a life made not just easier and more bearable; but wonderfully entertaining, enriching, and loving, by good queer mentors, that it is easier to say “homophobia” or “transphobia,” to say “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” in the way you want to say them, to talk the language of cruising or of gay-marriage politicking, if you have heard someone else do it first. And it is easier to believe that you can be a queer, gender-nonconforming woman in academia if you have seen a woman stand in front of your classroom or sit with you on a committee who is also wearing a men’s dress shirt and slacks, you know?
Coming out is at times a complicated, a perplexing, and a daunting prospect. But when you do so, whether you have any sort of life as a public figure or not, you do so for the kids who need to see queer adults around them to know that it’s worth growing up to be one too. Something I’ve always admired about gay history is the familial closeness of queer communities, even when faced with incredible adversity. Think of what queer community could do for each other in the time when Keith Haring created that poster, think of today’s queer kids who still need a ton of support, and do the right thing and tell them you’re One of Those People too.