Today is National Coming Out Day, a day meant to raise awareness and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community and the act of coming out, or sharing one’s (non-straight) sexual orientation and/or (non-cisgender) gender identity.
National Coming Out Day started on October 11, 1988, created by activists Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary, who chose the date in honor of the one-year anniversary of the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. As Eichberg noted, “Most people think they don’t know anyone gay or lesbian, and in fact, everybody does.”
In this post, I’ll take a look at the statistics behind that claim, unpack the topic of coming out, and explore some concrete strategies for supporting LGBTQ+ students, both on National Coming Out Day and year-round.
Everyone knows a member of the LGBTQ+ community
Eichberg’s statement that everyone does, in fact, know someone who is gay or lesbian (or bi-/pansexual or asexual or queer or transgender or nonbinary) is statistically sound. Self-identification in the LGBTQ+ community has consistently risen each decade, with Gallup reporting that 7.1% of the overall US population identifies as LGBTQ+, including 20.8% of those born 1997–2003. Put another way, for every one hundred people in the US, about seven are members of the LGBTQ+ community; for every one hundred people between the ages of 19 and 25, that number goes up to about twenty, or one out of every five.
Why does this matter in K–12? As I called out in my previous article on LGBTQ+ students, it matters because, while Gallup does not currently report data on the youngest generation (i.e., those under the age of 18), the generational trend is clear: the younger the generation, the more likely someone in that generation is to self-identify as LGBTQ+. If you work with K–12 students, there’s a statistically likely chance that at least one (and probably multiple) of them is LGBTQ+, even if you’re not aware of it.
Coming out, contextualized
Eichberg also said, “It is imperative that we come out and let people know who we are and disabuse them of their fears and stereotypes.” Unlike his first statement about how everyone knows someone who is LGBTQ+, this second idea warrants some additional scrutiny.
While it’s true that increased visibility and meaningful, accurate representation do lead to positive societal change, framing coming out as something that we (LGBTQ+ people) must do is problematic for multiple reasons. So, before we get into how you might support students who come out to you, I want to take a moment to talk a bit more about coming out and some of the ways that mainstream media sometimes gets it, well, not wrong, per se, but often skewed, incomplete, or whitewashed.
If you work with K–12 students, there’s a statistically likely chance that at least one (and probably multiple) of them is LGBTQ+, even if you’re not aware of it.
Many people outside the LGBTQ+ community are familiar with phrases like “closeted” or “in the closet,” which generally refer to people who know they’re LGBTQ+ but who haven’t yet shared that information with anyone. Media characterizations of LGBTQ+ people frequently portray at least some aspect of being closeted, often with a character’s closeted status being something they must “overcome” despite the potential for unsupportive family or friends, or even of real threats to their physical or emotional well-being.
While these sorts of coming-out narratives are important and can be incredibly validating to people in similar situations who may be considering coming out, they often fail to represent the full breadth of experiences, circumstances, and potential consequences that might influence someone’s decision to come out, or whether the act of coming out is even something a person wants to do.
Furthermore, media portrayals of the coming-out narrative tend to focus on the experiences of young, gay, cisgender white men, which are often radically different from the experiences of LGBTQ+ people of other races, ages, genders, and sexual orientations. The lack of balanced, intersectional representation can result in the false notion that there is only one right way to come out or that someone has to come out fully in all aspects of their life for their sexual orientation or gender identity to be valid or to achieve personal happiness, which dismisses and invalidates the experiences of those who, for a variety of familial, cultural, geographic, socioeconomic, or personal reasons, may choose to keep this information private in some or all contexts.
Finally, mainstream media portrayals can lead to the mistaken idea that coming out is something LGBTQ+ people only do once in our lives when, in reality, it’s generally something those of us who come out do multiple times or in multiple stages. Sometimes, the first person we come out to is ourselves; that was my experience as someone who lacked the vocabulary I needed to accurately describe myself until college and then spent years in denial, sure that I had to be wrong, before eventually learning to accept myself as I am. Since then, I’ve “come out” many times, occasionally in a sit-down type of conversation but more often than not more casually, when and if it’s relevant to the situation and depending on how I think the other person will react. There are some people in my life, such as my closest friends, whom I can’t imagine not being out to—and there are others, such as conservative, religious family members, whom I never plan to tell. And that’s okay. It doesn’t make who I am any less valid.
One of the most powerful things you can say is just a simple, ‘Thank you for trusting me. I’m so proud of you.’
In sum, coming out is an extremely personal, often complicated decision for LGBTQ+ people, particularly for those who might already face discrimination because of harmful societal attitudes toward their race, gender, religion, or other aspects of their identity. It’s not “imperative,” as Eichberg says, that any of us come out; what’s imperative is that we each be afforded the dignity and agency of deciding for ourselves what our own coming out journey might look like.
For additional perspectives on the complexities of coming out, I highly recommend these resources:
How you can support LGBTQ+ students
Despite what some lawmakers think, decisions about who to come out to and when should never, ever be taken away from someone. Here’s some of what you, as an educator, can do to support LGBTQ+ students who may (or may not) come out to you by helping them feel seen and hopeful.
We’re living in a time of record-breaking anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, book bans, and hateful, ignorant rhetoric. According to The Trevor Project, a non-profit that works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ young people, “45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.” These are kids who desperately need to understand that the world is better because they’re a part of it. You have the chance to be an adult in their lives—possibly the only adult in their lives—who helps them see that.
Need some resources to get you started? I’ve got you.
- On being an ally. My colleague Nathan Breeden recently wrote a wonderful article on the power of allyship and how educators can advocate for LGBTQ+ students, with advice on how to intercede when you witness anti-LGBTQ+ bullying as well as how subtle changes in the language you use can make a huge difference. The Human Rights Campaign also has an amazing resource on allyship called “Being an LGBTQ ally.”
- On updating your bookshelf. If you’re looking for new books to add to your classroom library, check out “20 LGBTQ+ books for K–12 readers during Pride Month and throughout the year” by my colleague Erin Ryan. It lists 20 LGBTQ+ books appropriate for readers of various ages.
- On knowing how to react. Want to have at least some idea of what to say or do if a student comes out to you? Check out “When a student comes out to you…today or any day!” from GLSEN, a teacher-founded organization for supporting LGBTQ+ students.
- On understanding—and honoring—names and pronouns. International Pronouns Day is on Wednesday, October 19, this year. Given that the vast majority of recent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation targets people who are trans, one of the simplest things you can do is make sure you’re referring to your students the way they know themselves to be. It might take you a while to get used to a new name or set of pronouns, and that’s okay; what’s important is that you try because by doing so, you’re communicating to students that you respect them and that their well-being is worth the effort. For an excellent overview of personal pronouns, why they matter, and additional resources, I highly recommend checking out pronouns.org.
I often hear people, both within and outside the LGBTQ+ community, talk about how awesome the world would be if nobody ever had to come out and we could all just live as our authentic selves without fear of judgment or physical harm. On my more optimistic days, I like to think that humanity will get there eventually, but even then, I know that it likely won’t be during my lifetime. That doesn’t mean, however, that those of us who are here now should give up hope and accept that the way things are now is as good as they’re ever going to be.
Progress matters. Representation matters. If my coming out helps the people I interact with re-evaluate their unconscious biases or shows the generation younger than me that they’re not alone, that is one small, personal action I can take to move the needle forward within my spheres of influence.
Finally, if someone—especially a student—comes out to you, remember that you don’t have to be an expert on all things LGBTQ+ to be what that person needs in the moment. More often than not, one of the most powerful things you can say is just a simple, “Thank you for trusting me. I’m so proud of you.”