Elizabethtown College’s LGBTQ+ community and their allies gathered on the Brossman Commons (BSC) Concord Tuesday, Oct. 11 to recognize the 28th anniversary of National Coming Out Day.
For many, it was an opportunity to celebrate bravery, acceptance and the advancements that have been made toward equality. However, this was also a day to remember that many people are unable to come out safely due to lingering threats of harassment and violence.
Twenty-eight years ago, over half a million people took part in the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. They demanded that LGBTQ+ people be granted all the privileges of civil rights in the form of legal recognition of same-sex relationships, the repeal of sodomy laws, a congressional civil rights bill for LGBTQ+ people, funding for AIDS/HIV research and reproductive justice. This demonstration sparked a strong sense of community and action, resulting in the founding of a number of LGBTQ+ organizations and advocacy groups.
The following year, on the anniversary of the march, LGBTQ+ activists recognized that defensive reactions to anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments were not always the most effective method of achieving their goals. Instead, the community came up with the idea of a national day to celebrate coming out as a way to remind LGBTQ+ people of how powerful their voices are. The originators of the idea were Robert Eichberg, a founder of the personal growth workshop The Experience, and Jean O’Leary, then executive director of National Gay Rights Advocates.
Since 1988, National Coming Out Day has become an annual event to acknowledge the accomplishments of the LGBTQ+ movement and to recognize those who have had the courage and the strength to live openly as members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The LGBTQ+ community at the College seeks to carry on the legacy of LGBTQ+ activism each year by hosting events and programming to draw awareness and engagement toward National Coming Out Day. Allies and the Queer Student Union, two LGBTQ+ student groups on campus, encouraged students, faculty and staff to celebrate and show their support for the community Oct. 11 by drawing positive chalk messages on the sidewalks. “Happy National Coming Out Day” was drawn out in big, rainbow letters, surrounded by an array of doodles including hearts, interlocked hands and Pride flags.
Stephanie Collins, Interim Coordinator of Multicultural Programming and Residential Communities, remembers participating in National Coming Out Day programs back when she was a student at Etown in 2008.
“We’ve always done the chalk drawings on the sidewalks,” Collins stated. “A lot of students participate, and it always looks really cool.”
“National Coming Out Day is something meant to bring positivity to the LGBT community because there is a lot of strife and a lot of struggle placed upon people in the community,” sophomore Mika Thomas stated. “It’s a day to not so much focus on the negatives, but to focus on the positives.”
Thomas has been a member of Allies for two years and hosts the weekly Allies radio show for the College’s radio station, WWEC. She expressed that National Coming Out Day brings a sense of empowerment and unity to the community that she appreciates.
“It’s about celebrating those who have come out, creating a place that is safe for other people to come out and remembering those who have worked or suffered to make a world in which people feel like they can come out,” Thomas said.
According to Pew Research Center on Social and Demographic Trends, the average age at which LGBTQ+ people come out for the first time is 20 and for many students, National Coming Out Day becomes the first opportunity to celebrate their identities openly.
Collins understands the importance of creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students on college campuses. This understanding prompted her to host Etown’s first National Coming Out Day Candlelight Vigil.
Around 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11, students gathered on the BSC steps to stand in solidarity and to share a moment of silence for the lives lost to senseless acts of violence. Assistant Chaplain Rev. Amy Shorner-Johnson offered support to all of the College’s LGBTQ+ students and allies on behalf of the Chaplain’s office.
“With the recent shootings at Pulse night club, this felt like a really important thing to do for our campus,” Collins said.
Some students at the vigil talked about their own concerns regarding the safety and acceptance of LGBTQ+ students on campus. One student encouraged anyone who is considering coming out to put their personal safety first.
In certain situations and under certain circumstances, coming out can put an individual’s life at risk. The student encouraged others to be open, but also to be cautious and safe.
“This day brings things that aren’t normally talked about to the forefront,” Thomas stated. “There’s that aspect of thinking about those who have not had a positive experience and about those who have suffered tremendously coming out.”
Etown’s LGBTQ+ community wants everyone, whether they are out, are considering coming out or are questioning their own identity, to know that who they are is beautiful.
“National Coming Out Day is a good, safe time to come out, but it’s also not just a time to come out,” Collins said. “It’s a time to be yourself – I have always been a big advocate for people being their authentic selves.”