Tell me who you really are

National Coming Out Day stands as a reminder to the LGBTQ communities every October 11 th that it is important to come out. For people who discriminate against or do not accept people who identify as LGBTQ, learning that someone they love falls into this community is often the first step towards openness.

In my college class last year I wanted to do something to honor National Coming Out Day that would make this experience of coming out very personal to my students. I wanted them to have at least a little sense of what it means to come out as LGBTQ. I started by asking them why people come out and they came up with a great list of reasons. The students were clearly in favor of coming out – they thought it had all sorts of benefits for the individual, their community, and society at large. Then I asked the students why, given all of these good things, people still don’t come out. Again, they indicated a deep understanding of the issues, the shame, the fear of rejection, the judgment.

I pointed out to my students that most of us, probably every one of us, either has something to come out about currently or has had something to come out about in the past. Something that we feel ashamed of, that we fear rejection about. Most people hide aspects of themselves in certain times and places. The students grasped the connection quickly and were nodding in agreement. I asked them to pull out a piece of paper and write down the thing that they have not come out about and you could hear a pin drop. Eyes were narrowed, a few students started pulling out paper and pen, many did not.

One student voiced the majority concern: “Where are these pieces of paper going?”

I answered: “To me. There were many reasons you listed for why coming out is beneficial. I’m asking you to start that process for yourself here and now. Do not write your name on your paper – this is an entirely anonymous process.”

Almost everyone settled down to write. One young man kept staring at his paper and said, “I’m having a hard time even writing this down anonymously.” Then he took a deep breath and started writing. Coming out is an indication of true bravery.

Some people filled a page, others wrote one terse sentence. I collected the papers, mixed them up, and started reading. Here is what they said (I have shortened the three very long ones):

  • I lost my virginity in high school and have not told my mama till this day.
  • I was raped and that was how I lost my virginity.
  • I don’t identify as a part of the gender dichotomy.
  • I was “technically” date raped when I was 17.
  • I’ve had bisexual curiosity before and experimented before, when I was 13.
  • I get excited about having sex with guys with girlfriends.
  • I feel like I am unlovable. I feel like no man will ever want to truly be my person I can rely on.
  • I’m a virgin.
  • I have HPV and have spread it to 4 different guys.
  • I’m a heroin addict. Haven’t used (anything) in two years.
  • I’ve had an STI before…
  • I’m ashamed that I was once accused of sexually assaulting a girl who was my ex-girlfriend.
  • I was abused by a family member as a child.
  • In high school I hung out with a lot of guys. One of them was trying to sexually harass me. I was really scared.
  • A lot of people think I’m tougher than I really am. In actuality I’m pretty sensitive.
  • When I was in 6th grade, I engaged in mutual sexual activities with someone of the same gender. I’m reluctant to admit this to people out of fear of judgment.
  • I told an intricate lie to a significant other in order to keep a relationship going.
  • At one time I didn’t want my mother to know that I had been promiscuous.
  • I had a miscarriage before.
  • When I was eight years old, my sister’s husband molested me in my bedroom. I never told my parents.

I often ask students to write or contribute anonymously to class because it allows everyone to offer their perspective. As we look over anonymous offerings there are usually a few people who claim theirs. No one claimed any of these.

Coming out can be extraordinarily difficult. I wish that there were a greater understanding that we all have something that makes us hide, that society or culture tells us we should be ashamed of. The benefits of coming out are substantial, for ourselves, our society, and our culture.

When I asked if anyone had a reaction they would like to share in response to hearing what their peers have not come out about yet, one student said, “I just didn’t know. I didn’t know that all of these people who have had all those experiences were here in class with me. It makes you think and realize that you don’t know people or why they do the things they do and maybe you shouldn’t judge them.” The other students nodded.

Then I took a deep breath did something that was very scary for me. For the first time in front of a classroom I said, “I am gay.”

During the rest of the semester students referred back to this activity many times. In the final course evaluations, about a third of the class said that this activity was the most impactful of anything they had ever done in a college classroom. Coming out is powerful and political and personal.

We all have something we can come out about, and we will be the better for it. What do you have to come out about?