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National Coming Out Day

It's as much about knowing our history as declaring ourselves.


 It’s easy to forget about #NationalComingOutDay when you’re middle-aged. But when I saw Ellen’s tweet, which reprises her famous TIME cover with the caption "Yep, I’m gay!" I was reminded not just of the day itself, but of the coming out history for each of us and how fraught it still is.

It’s been nearly 20 years since Ellen came out on that TIME cover–and was immediately black balled in Hollywood as "too gay"–Hollywood being America’s biggest closet, even today.

It’s hard to recall that Ellen’s lesbianism was once too much, since she’s now the doyenne of daytime. Ellen’s the most mainstreamed lesbian in American history and presidents, former presidents and presidents-to-be have been on her show, which remains the most popular and award-winning on daytime TV. It’s hard to think back to that other time, before she was out, since she’s just "Ellen" to everyone, now, that there was a time when it was so not okay to be lesbian or gay (or bi or trans) on TV. But when that cover story appeared in April 1997, there were no out lesbian or gay actors on TV. None.

Now there are more–Sarah Paulson, Holland Taylor, Raven Symoné, Kate McKinnon, Rosie O’Donnell, Portia De Rossi, Jane Lynch, Lily Tomlin, Cherry Jones, Jenny Shimizu, Lea DeLaria, Linda Hunt, Wanda Sykes and others less well-known than those stars.

Robin Roberts isn’t an actor, but when she finally came out on New Year’s Eve 2013, she became the first black lesbian TV anchorwoman in American history. Her interview with President Obama when he "evolved" on marriage equality was huge. Roberts beat cancer twice and then, at 52, beat the closet.

The Rio Olympics featured a few dozen out lesbian athletes–the most in Olympics history. Very different from when tennis legend Martina Navratilova came out in 1981–the first out lesbian in sports. In 2013, Navratilova wrote in Sports Illustrated that it had been an impossible time to come out in team sports: "A homophobic coach at any level—high school, college or pros—could keep a player from playing. Remember Rene Portland, the women’s basketball coach at Penn State? She proudly boasted she would not allow a lesbian on her team. In the past, that kind of homophobia would have had support from the front office. Why come out when—apart from dealing with all the other complications—it could kill your sports career!"

Navratilova noted coming out gives you freedom because "that closet is completely and utterly suffocating. It’s only when you come out that you can breathe properly. It’s only when you come out that you can be exactly who you are."

But the reason why we have National Coming Out Day is because it’s still so hard to come out. Despite what sometimes seems like a plethora of out actors (I have "The Real O’Neals" on in the background as I write this and it’s about National Coming Out Day and the cute gay boy lead helps another young Asian lesbian come out–yay!), where are the other out lesbians?

Can you name famous out lesbians who aren’t in the arts?

If coming out is so much easier than it was 20 years ago, if marriage equality has been the law for over a year, why aren’t we seeing more out politicians or mathematicians or scientists or...anyone? Was Sally Ride our first and last lesbian astronaut–out only in death? 

I searched for lesbian scientists and found an article by a lesbian scientist where she used only her first name, but she at least introduced me to the only lesbian scientist she herself had uncovered: Dr. S. Josephine Baker, a physician and consultant in pediatrics whose partner, Dr. Louise Pearce, was a pathologist at the Rockefeller Institute.

Why had I never heard of these women before? I keep seeing the same 20 faces over and over every National Coming Out Day and some of them are actually just famous straight allies, like Lady Gaga. Isn’t part of our touting this day to introduce us to other LGBT people–and make us feel less alone?

According to the National Institutes of Health, Pearce was one of the foremost scientists of the early 20th century (she died in 1959). Her research with pathologist Wade Hampton Brown led to the cure for trypanosomiasis (African Sleeping sickness) in 1919. Untreated, the disease is always fatal. When she was 35, Pearce went alone to Leopoldville, Congo to personally test the drug she’d developed during an outbreak of the disease. It cured everyone.

                                                                                                                                     Dr. Louise Pearce

Her partner, Baker, was also a pathbreaking lesbian. She was the first head of the newly-developed department of child health in New York and as such, instituted numerous programs related to women, children and poverty. According to the NIH, as "director of the city's new Bureau of Child Hygiene, she developed programs for midwife training, basic hygiene, and preventive care. She also pioneered city-funded well baby stations, and the Little Mothers Leagues (beginning in 1910), to train girls age 12 and older in basic infant care. The Leagues had important practical benefits for the family economy. Educating siblings to care for younger brothers and sisters allowed mothers to go out to work without their children suffering neglect, a key issue for family health and financial security."

                                                                                         Dr. S. Josephine Baker

These are only two lesbian scientists, but they are two to add the the National Coming Out Day register of LGBT role models.

Barbara Jordan and I share a birthday, but when I was a child and she was in Congress, I didn’t know she was a lesbian because she wasn’t out of the closet. Jordan was the first black American elected to the Texas state legislature after Reconstruction, the first black woman elected to Congress from Texas, the first woman to give a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention and the first known lesbian elected to the U.S. Congress.

Twenty years after Jordan died, there is only one out lesbian in the Senate, Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and one open bisexual in the House, Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)

The reason it’s so vital we have out LGBT people in all walks of life is because we need models. Not just for LGBT kids like we all were once, but for all those people still in the closet as adults, afraid to come out because they are, like the woman who wrote the lesbians in science blog post, the only one they know in their particular field.

I think of Eleanor Roosevelt, married mother of six, wife of one of the most important presidents in American history, social justice warrior before there was such a thing. And yet she moved her lesbian lover into the White House, traveled with her incommunicado for several months doing work for the WPA with her husband’s blessing. She was in her 40s when she met the 30-something Lorena Hickok, one of the most prominent women journalists in the country. Their love letters are legendary, though some historians insist they were just friends. (Hickok had had lesbian relationships prior to meeting Eleanor.)

                                                                                                               Lorena Hickok

Eleanor to Lorena, March 5, 1933: "Hick my dearest, I cannot go to bed to-night without a word to you. I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving to-night, you have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you even though I’m busy every minute."


Eleanor to Lorena, March 6, 1933: "Hick darling, Oh! how good it was to hear your voice, it was so inadequate to try & tell you what it meant, Jimmy was near & I couldn’t say ‘je t’aime et je t’adore’ as I longed to do but always remember I am saying it & that I go to sleep thinking of you & repeating our little saying."


Eleanor to Lorena, April 4, 1934: "Dearest, I miss you & wish you were here I want to put my arms around you & feel yours around me. More love than I can express in a letter is flying on waves of thought to you."

I think of the playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, who was just finally coming out when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died so very young, at only 34. She was striving to come out–she wrote letters to "The Ladder," and then she was gone. Her immense talent gone with her, but some of her brilliant writing left behind.

Most of us knew early on that we were lesbians.

                                                                        Michelle Heyman, Australian soccer player

The first time I was completely aware I was a lesbian I was in fifth grade at a classmate’s Halloween party. I went dressed as a football player. In seventh grade another classmate instructed me how to kiss–so I would know for boys, of course, since we were in an all-girls Catholic school.

A few years later I would be expelled from a different all girls high school for being a lesbian and a "bad moral influence" on all the other girls.

And therein lies a reason why this day is so important. I was outed just before my 16th birthday when my then-girlfriend’s mother called the school after she discovered love letters between her daughter and me.

I was expelled from a school with several lesbian teachers–women who had been teaching there since my mother had been a student two decades earlier–as if I were the only lesbian to ever be there.

I was forced into conversion therapy at a mental hospital after a failed suicide attempt. It obviously failed, but the trauma remains to this day and I never hear references to the practice without being flooded with the memories of my own experience.

Yet conversion therapy is still legal in most states nearly four decades after I was expelled from high school. (Conversion therapy is a controversial practice that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. It’s banned in five states including California, Oregon, Illinois, Vermont and New Jersey.)

                                                      Lorraine Hansberry

More devastating, support for conversion therapy is part of the platform of the Republican Party. Mike Pence, governor of Indiana and vice presidential nominee, has been a strong proponent of this barbaric practice. 

PolitiFact reported after the Democratic National Convention that Pence had written on his website: "Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior."

Also on the website, Pence wrote: "Congress should oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriage." And "Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexual’s [sic] as a 'discreet [sic] and insular minority' entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities."

PolitiFact also reported, "Pence angered gay rights groups (in 2015) when he signed a religious freedom bill that opponents said would allow businesses to discriminate against customers based on their sexual orientation. Pence later backtracked, when state lawmakers changed the law to say that no discrimination would be allowed."

How many anti-gay bills have there been in the past year? I’ve reported on several. And this election cycle began with several of the then-Republican candidates blatantly supporting the anti-gay actions of Kentucky marriage licenses clerk Kim Davis

There’s no question that the Republican Party is deeply invested in maintaining their anti-LGBT stances that have been in political play since the Religious Right and Christian Coalition were founded and Ralph Reed became the poster boy for evangelicalism in the GOP in the late 1980s.

Yet on National Coming Out Day, Gary Bauer, former GOP presidential candidate and one of the staunchest advocates of restricting any and all civil rights for LGBT people was defending Donald Trump’s recent comments about women.

The reason we need National Coming Out Day isn’t just so LGBT people can tell family and friends, colleagues and co-workers who they really are. It’s because the rights of LGBT people are still "under review" by many Americans–particularly those with the ability to pass laws restricting LGBT civil rights. It doesn’t matter if more than half of Americans under 30 support LGBT rights if more than half of people over 40–including those in legislative positions–do not.

National Coming Out Day may seem like nothing more than a hashtag on Twitter and a feel-good moment for people with lots of money and position who aren’t risking anything to say they support LGBT rights. But National Coming Out Day is a reminder of how far LGBT people have still to go. It’s decades since I was expelled from high school for being a lesbian. But that experience was one of the most devastating of my life and made everything that came after for the next decade much harder. And the memories of being drugged and psychoanalyzed are as vivid now as they were at the time–and I was not the only one. Other friends of mine were also put through the same brutal conversion therapy. In the 1980s I was a frequent guest on TV talk shows against proponents of such groups as Exodus. I used my experience to explain how vile conversion therapy was (and still is) and how damaging it can be to those forced into it.

So National Coming Out Day continues to have meaning–especially as LGBT Americans are still without full civil rights and are still fighting battles for so many things from our jobs to our children.

National Coming Out Day can’t just be the one day, though. LGBT people–especially lesbians who are being erased every day even in our own community–must come out every day. It’s not a one-time event. That’s the most significant difference between being straight and being LGBT. Every day presents new challenges because every day there’s another Pence or Bauer and there are so few Ellens and Hansberrys and Jordans and Baldwins to look toward for support.

Be that person. Be the model for others. Be the one who came out in science or math or gyn class or wherever and said it was okay to be a lesbian (or GBT).

Remember what black militant radical lesbian Audre Lorde said: Your silence will not protect you.

Remember what Martina said: It’s better to be free and yourself.

Do it. Help someone else to do it. So that one day National Coming Out Day is what you tell your grandkids about and they say, "Really? I can’t imagine that."

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, senior politics reporter and contributing editor for Curve magazine, contributing editor for Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine and Slate. Her book, Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic won the Lambda Literary Award, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, Ordinary Mayhem, won the IPPY Award for fiction on May 1, 2015. Her book Erasure: Silencing Lesbians and her next novel, Sleep So Deep, will both be published in 2016. @VABVOX

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