National Coming Out Day is held every year on October 11, to promote “honesty and openness about being lesbian, gay, or bisexual,” according to the Queer Resources Directory. However, for undocumented immigrants, National Coming Out of the Shadows Week was held March 14-21. There is even a proposed National Pagan Coming Out Day, on May 1. Yet despite the growing number of cognitive disorders, there is no nationally recognized day for individuals battling them to reveal their situation, made all the more difficult by their ailment’s invisibility. From sexuality to disability status, to political stance to culinary habits (have you ever tried coming out as vegan in a frat, or as a carnivore in a co-op?), it seems that everyone has a closet to exit. But for those types of “coming out” that do not have a recognized week, it is sometimes difficult to figure out how and when is appropriate.
Imagine that you are on a date with someone. You make small talk, laugh and joke around and then she twitches. “It’s just a nerve contraction caused by my cognitive disorder,” she explains casually, and then proceeds to elucidate the other, more severe symptoms. How on earth are you supposed to react?
Or alternatively, let’s say that you go out with a friend whom you’ve just met. Passing by Necto on gay night, your companion remarks that it’s the best night for dancing and suggests that the two of you swing by later. Your conservative religious background makes going out dancing a little bit ethically risqué, and you’ve heard the stereotypes about Fridays at Necto. Is it possible to casually bring up your beliefs and the limitations they impose, without putting a damper on the whole evening?
Supposedly, the U.S. is a place where diversity is valued in many realms — this is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” If Francis Scott Key’s national anthem lyrics are as timeless as we believe them to be, then it is important to remember those characteristics, especially when passing judgment over someone who has just come out as atheist or as a member of the Tea Party. And even if there isn’t outright or negative judgment, it is probable for some awkwardness to linger.
The difficulty in coming out is doubtfully a personal issue, neither for those who are in the closet, nor for those on the other side. It must, then, be cultural. And how can one affect cultural norms? Creating safe spaces — physical, like the Spectrum Center on campus, or calendrical, such as coming out days — is one way of providing an arena for people to open up about the marginalized facets of their identities. However, making distinctly separate spaces for certain groups segregates them, so there must be ways to incorporate people’s differences to make the transition out of the closet a smooth one.
We have a race and ethnicity requirement in LSA, mandating that students take a course that “address issues arising from racial or ethnic intolerance.” This is one way to facilitate discussions on differences. That doesn’t seem to be enough, though. Many students go through college without ever learning how to talk about the sensitive subjects of which people’s identities are composed. The consequences of this can be disastrous, both interpersonally and politically.
If someone can’t talk about their disability or health problem, then no one will know how to react to the mishaps that it may cause. If no one feels comfortable talking about opposing political or social views in a friendly way, then politics will continue to separate from everyday life. These issues will build a residence within a vague conceptual framework, rather than be interwoven with the issues we confront daily. In short, what is necessary is not a National Political Party or a Sexual Orientation or a Disability Status Coming Out Day (or week, or month), but more openness in general.
I mentioned earlier that coming out is not a personal problem, but rather a cultural one. The solution though, has to be both systemic and personal. If more individuals force these issues into the open, then the system will have to accommodate them. If we stay silent about our differences, then they will stay invisible. You choose. Personally, I find that closets induce claustrophobia.
Anna can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.