National Coming Out Day has been held annually on October 11th since 1988. Its aim is to offer support and recognition to people who are in the process of “coming out” about their sexual orientation or gender identity. The awareness day was inspired by the feminist and gay liberation movements, which stressed that the personal is political. National Coming Out Day highlights the significance of the simplest form of activism: openly sharing one’s LGBTQI identity with family, friends, and colleagues and living authentically as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person.
National Coming Out Day recognises that the coming out process is deeply personal and varies for every person. Some individuals come out to close friends and family, while others choose a more public declaration. For the LGBTQI refugees and asylum seekers that Micro Rainbow works with, ‘coming out’ can take on a profound dimension. It’s illegal to be LGBTQI in over 60 countries around the world. In many more countries, it’s not illegal to be gay, but LGBTQI people still face significant persecution, exclusion from society and live with the everyday risk of violence.
Coming out – or being outed
If you are from one of the 60 plus countries where being LGBTQI is illegal, coming out – or being outed – can be a matter of life or death. The refugees and asylum seekers that Micro Rainbow works with and who live in our housing frequently don’t have the option of ‘coming out’. When they lived in their home countries, they had to keep their sexuality hidden. For many, they lived in constant fear of being ‘outed’.
Eric is Congolese, and fled to the UK after his living situation became untenable. He was outed to his family:
“My uncle was high up in the government – a figure of respectability and influence in our society. He told me that I had been outed; someone had informed my family that I was gay. My uncle made it clear that he could not have a gay man in his family. He then gave me an ultimatum: find a wife within six months or go to prison”.
Eric’s uncle’s government position mean that it wasn’t an empty threat. Eric knew he could no longer live safely in the DRC. “I knew then that if I stayed, I would either end up killing myself, or I would be killed”.
Living under suspicion
Oftentimes, people who have escaped to the UK to find safety haven’t ‘come out’ or been outed. But sometimes community suspicion is enough to make their lives unliveable. Angela is from St Lucia and identifies as a lesbian. In St Lucia homosexuality is illegal and carries a penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment.
In St Lucia, Angela kept her sexuality secret, but was accused on many occasions of being a lesbian. She faced insults, abuse, and multiple rapes by men in her community who believed their actions would ‘cure’ her. Eventually, she fled to the UK to try and find safety, but even then, she kept her LGBTQI identity hidden because her years of trauma and abuse lead to her believing she was responsible for her ordeal.
Coming out to save your life
For some LGBTQI asylum seekers, many of whom have spent their whole lives hiding themselves and any evidence of their LGBTQI identity, the first time they ‘come out’ can be the day they claim asylum. That interview with a Home Office official could be the very first time that they say the words: “I am gay” out loud.
It takes an incredible amount of courage to leave everything and everyone you know to fight for your right to live authentically. Coming out is an act of resilience and defiance. Over the years, National Coming Out Day has evolved into a global phenomenon, transcending borders and cultures. It has become a day when LGBTQI individuals, celebrities, and allies take to social media, hold events, and engage in open conversations about the significance of coming out. Increased visibility is a powerful tool for breaking down barriers. This National Coming Out Day, we are honouring the brave people whose coming out is an act of survival.