National Coming Out Week

UVM began recognizing National Coming Out Day in 1992 with a week of events intended to educate the community by celebrating the richness that LGBTQ people bring to their communities and to the world. We continue to celebrate National Coming Out Week each year with events including film screenings, panel discussions, an open mic, and a Speak Out. For information about this year's National Coming Out Week (NCOW) events, see our calendar and /Bored for up-to-the-minute information.

History of National Coming Out Day The idea for National Coming Out Day was born on October 11, 1987, when 600,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, friends, family and allies had traveled from all over the United States to march on Washington, D.C. for civil rights. As the crowd gathered on the Mall after the march, one of the organizers addressing the crowd asked us all to look around and realize that by coming out of our closets and into the streets we had shown Washington and the world that our community is made up of real people who are the neighbors and co-workers, friends and family members of every American.

The events that lead to the declaration of October 11, 1987 as National Coming Out Day, started more than a decade before with the political campaigns of Harvey Milk, who became, in 1977, the first openly gay politician in the United States. Harvey Milk, who should be remembered as one of the founders of the modern gay civil rights movement, said more than once:

“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

On November 27, 1978, Harvey Milk, was assassinated by Dan White in San Francisco’s City Hall. Milk had served on the city’s newly formed Board of Supervisors less than fifteen months before White, a fellow Supervisor, entered his office around 11 am and shot him as he rose out of his chair. The fifth and sixth bullets from White’s gun entered Milk’s brain at almost point blank range. The following are excerpts from a tape Harvey Milk recorded just 9 days before his death.

"This is Harvey Milk speaking on Friday November 18. This is to be played only in the event of my death by assassination. [...] I’ve been giving some thought about this for some time prior to the election and certainly over the years. I fully realize that a person who stands for what I stand for—a gay activist—becomes the target or potential target for a person who is insecure, terrified, afraid or very disturbed themselves. Knowing that I could be assassinated at any moment or any time, I feel it’s important that some people know my thoughts, my wishes, my desires, whatever. [...] Almost everything that was done was done with an eye on the gay movement. [...]"

"I cannot prevent some people from feeling angry and frustrated and mad, but I hope they will take that frustration and that madness instead of demonstrating or anything of that type, I would hope that they would take the power and I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let the world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody could imagine. I urge them to do that, urge them to come out. Only that way will we start to achieve our rights. [...]

"And that’s all I ask. That’s all. I ask for the movement to continue, for the movement to grow because last week I got the phone call from Altoona, Pennsylvania and my election gave somebody else, one more person, hope. And after all it’s what this is all about. It’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power—it’s about giving those young people out there in the Altoona, Pennsylvania’s hope. You gotta give them hope."

Less than one year after Milk’s death, in “October 1979, over one hundred thousand marched on Washington as Harvey had wanted, and thousands of them carried placards and portraits invoking the slain leader’s memory.” Eight years later, on October 11, 1987, 600,000 people marched on Washington again, once more demanding civil rights protections for gay men and lesbians. No one expected such a large turnout and in their exhilaration, march organizers called for participants to commemorate that day each year by finding someone new to come out to until everyone in every community would know at least one person who is lesbian or gay, bisexual or transgender.

The movement and the politics Milk referred to 25 years ago have grown to include national and local organizations. Fourteen states now have laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. A growing number of states have similar protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Lesbians, transgender and bisexual people, and gay men still wait and fight for equal citizenship and equal rights in the eyes of the federal government. Until that time comes, as Harvey Milk predicted, all people who believe in equal rights for everyone will have to continue to come out of the closet.

Source: The Mayor of Castro Street: the Life & Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts

I wouldn’t learn all of the history behind National Coming Out Day until years later, but as I stood in the crowd that day in 1987 I felt both thrilled with the possibility of equality and fearful about the risks involved in coming out in my own community. Thousands of people just like me who were there that day have been inspired to work for the passage of civil rights legislation in their states, the creation of domestic partner benefits in their companies and institutions, civil union legislation and even marriage in the state of Massachusetts. There is still a long way to go, but the gains have been impressive. I know now how proud Harvey Milk and others who have died in the pursuit of justice and equity for LGBTQ lives would be of the gains we have made. I also know that none of it would have happened without the visibility of LGBTQ people. --Dorothea V. Brauer