October 11th marks National Coming Out Day where across America lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and LGBTQ allies come together to celebrate the courage and strength of LGBTQ individuals in their coming out process. With DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) being overturned, this year has indeed been monumental for the LGBTQ community’s march towards equality. But as the political momentum builds a stronger foundation for supporting LGBTQ rights, we can often be tempted to generalize the personal experiences of this diverse group of people who carry with them their own cultural, social, and political history. The question then is, does the political movement mirror the personal experiences of this diverse group of people?
When I moved to America from India, I met many Indians here who were “out.” This was a surprising experience for me. Growing up in India, I never met a person who openly identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. There was close to no visibility to represent the LGBTQ community in the media, literature, arts, education, etc. Back home, the cost of being out trumped the benefits: stigma, negative judgment, loss of opportunities, financial loss, rejection, and sometimes-even death. However, I noticed that the South Asian LGBTQ community here in America shared similar risks of being out as the individuals in India, and therefore, were selective in coming out based on their social context. Some individuals were out to their siblings but not their parents or extended family; some were out in the LGBTQ community, but not the South Asian community at large; some out in their social circles but not their professional circles, and some who chose to come out to a handful of people. I imagine that these experiences are not limited to the Indian community, but capture the dynamic and complex nature of being “out” for the community at large.
For years, studies have shown that coming out increases overall emotional wellness, including: raising self-esteem, decreasing anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, and increasing the quality of interpersonal relationships. One of the early foundational theories that explained the development for Gay and Lesbian identity formation was by Dr. Vivienne Cass (1979). Cass developed a stage model to address Homosexual Identity Formation where the final stage is “Identity Synthesis,” meaning an individual accepts their sexual orientation, making their public and private identities more congruent. This would suggest the more “out” you are publicly, the better it is for your emotional well-being. This final stage, however, fails to acknowledge the evident complexity involved in the coming out process, and the vital role that the social context plays.
Like the Indian community, I imagine the experiences of many LGBTQ individuals would reflect a selective process of coming out. This selective process of not being “out” provides safety in some social contexts, and also provides nurturance in other social contexts where they find support and acceptance. This does not mean that these individuals are not authentic to how they feel about their sexual orientation, but rather, depicts that some people may not always have a safe space to express feelings authentically.
So, as we honor the National Coming Out Day this year, let us also honor the personal experiences of many individuals who continue to struggle with the costs and benefits of coming out. Let us hope to see a day where National Coming Out Day will only be a faint memory of the struggles of the LGBT community and their journey towards acceptance.
Written By: Kanika Shukul, M.A., L.P.C.
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