Wednesday, Oct. 11 marks the 19th annual celebration of National Coming Out Day. For a few years now, it has been my custom to mark this occasion with an Observer column targeted to gay and lesbian issues at Notre Dame. But this year, I have decided to expand my scope just a little bit, and to explore what I believe is a valuable and overlooked point about this event: the values espoused by National Coming Out Day can offer just as much-if not more-to straight people as they can to gays and lesbians.
For those gays who have chosen to embrace it, National Coming Out Day frequently embodies a catharsis, that is a cleansing spiritual purge. There is a great deal of warped negativity that stems from being closeted, and today almost all accept that this psychological condition can be, and is, profoundly destructive to those caught within it. The reasons for this destructiveness may vary from person to person, but the continual fear and stress of discovery and the emotional (and moral) doublethink of self-delusion are equally good contenders for the cause.
But neither this type of condition nor its cure are uniquely gay. It is my belief that each is far more universal than is commonly recognized.
The complex mental gymnastics that we colloquially refer to as coming out of the closet represents gays and lesbians at their best. I am convinced that the act of coming out is one of the more beneficial and progressive mental health steps that an individual can take, and that the pattern of coming out that has been developed by gays and lesbians is something that all people can and should learn from. Western culture is seeped with levels of confusion, and many people wear layers of carefully constructed masks to hide scars that they may not even be aware of. The process of coming out, in general, is an emotional baptism that is an effective answer to this hostile choreography.
The first step is always self-knowledge. Most of the masks that we wear are not directed toward others, but are designed to conceal us from ourselves. Even if we believe that we understand ourselves, the true motives for our actions may still be opaque as long as the masks linger. For gays in particular, this step is challenging since the impetus for coming out about one's sexual orientation, by definition, comes from within. For others, self-awareness may come at the prompting of a friend or a revealing experience. Either way, this step is always the most difficult. We can, however, make it easier by promoting a culture of introspection and acceptance, where self-discovery is the norm and where others refrain from castigating others because of what they have discovered.
The second step is self-love. If self-knowledge often takes a great depth of character, then self-love often takes a great span of time. Again this is a particular challenge for some gays and lesbians because of the culture of our day, but it is equally challenging for a youth in an ethnic minority who must come embrace his culture within another that sees him as alien, or a young man or women coping with self-image in the face of anorexia, or any of the hundreds of types of people who are implicitly discouraged from loving themselves. In the gay community, the symbol of self-love is pride, because pride is the polar opposite of the emotional sludge that closeted gays and lesbians often live in. It is, intentionally, as far from that origin as possible, and stands as a reminder that the birthright of self-love cannot be had in compromise. It is always an all-or-nothing proposition.
The third step is revelation. This is the part of the process that is classically understood as "coming out," but actually it is only the last part of a delicate dance. Many people misunderstand the desire of some to reveal things that are often intensely personal about themselves (although I think the "MySpace Generation" understands better than most). There is nothing of flaunting about it, and everything of finality and openness. Secrets fester. Only truths can live in the open. And by revealing something about themselves, whatever that may be, a person who is coming out passes a point of no return, at the same time protecting themselves returning and standing out where others who may have to travel the same process can see them.
These are the three steps on a road to actualization that gays and lesbians have discovered: self-knowledge, self-love, and revelation. This is what National Coming Out Day is about, and this is why it is for absolutely everyone.
Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He came out on Nov. 6, 2003. Contact him at email@example.com. His column appears every other Tuesday. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.