Rather than give a list of those lgbt people who have come out or made their sexuality public knowledge since National Coming Out Day last year I thought I’d write about the creation and creators of day itself.
Like a lot of lgbt
celebrations National Coming Out Day didn’t emerge full-formed out of nowhere.
If there are any people and organisations which can be regarded as the parents
of the event they are Dr. Robert Eichberg of The Advocate Experience and Joan
O’Leary of the National Gay Rights Advocates. If there was a midwife it would
be the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
Jean O’Leary (1948-2005)
was a leading feminist activist of the 1970s. In 1977 she organised the first
meeting of lgbt community leaders at the White House as was an active Democrat
campaigner. At the start of the 1980s several law firms were established which,
for the first time, catered specifically for lgbt clients and their rights.
Jean head the National Gay Rights Advocates (NGRA).
During the 1980s many of
these law firms, including NGRA, were involved in cases resulting from gay men
who were refused insurance after they were diagnosed with HIV. The AIDS crisis
also sparked activists into organising the Second March on Washington for
Lesbian and Gay Rights.
While Jean O’Leary was
campaigning for lgbt rights on the national stage Rob Eichberg was advocating
something more personal.
Dr. Robert Eichberg
(1945-1995) was a psychologist by profession. He had been counselling black and
ethnic patients since the 1970s and realised that many of the psychological
issues and pressures that affected them were basically the same as in other
communities. Having come out in 1970 he knew how issues around being a closeted
gay man affected well-being. He produced a self-assurance and self-acceptance
programme which could assist gay men in their private lives. He formed a group
in Los Angeles for gay men struggling with their sexual identity. From this
group came an action committee which lobbied the LA city council to introduce a
gay rights resolution.
The success of this
lobbying caught the attention of David Goodstein, the owner of the lgbt
publication The Advocate. He invited Eichberg to set up a couple of
full-weekend seminars concentrating on self-awareness in gay men. It was a huge
success and the two men created The Advocate Experience which expanded the
programme to include addiction issues and coming out.
Eichberg developed the
programme further as Experience (now called Experience With Power).
Self-acceptance was very much at the centre of coming out, and it was important
in the lgbt community in the successful support of the Second March on
Many gay men with HIV had
not disclosed their status due to fear of the repercussions and discrimination
that they had heard had happened to others. The end to discrimination against
anyone believed to have HIV or AIDS was one of the main demands of the March on
Washington. Indeed, the March, held on 11th October 1987, was led by
a group of people with AIDS.
But the idea of a National
Coming Out Day had not yet been born. The concept was there but it needed a
final push from the “midwife”, the March on Washington, which came four months later
at a meeting of over 100 March participants and supporters who gathered in
Manassas, Virginia. At that meeting the National Coming Out Day was suggested
by Rob Eichberg and Jean O’Leary. Jean offered the offices of the NGFA in West
Hollywood as an administrative base for the new event.
The date chosen as the
first National Coming Out Day was the first anniversary of the March on
Washington on 11th October 1988. Below is the early logo used by the
NGRA. The campaign had many high-profile and influential supporters. One of
these was the American artist Keith Haring. In the summer of 1988 he produced
the logo which now symbolises the celebration of coming out (at the head of
this article). Activist Sean Strub persuaded Keith to donate the image to
National Coming Out Day and it has been used ever since.
A national campaign of
support ensured the first observance was a huge success, with 21 US states
being involved. Two years later National Coming Out Day was being celebrated in
at least one location in every state.
In 1990, shortly after the
demise of the NGRA, the headquarters was moved to Santa Fe and official
tax-exempt status was achieved. It merged with the Human Rights Campaign Fund
in 1993, who greatly expanded the activities and resources of the project.
Today National Coming Out
Day is celebrated today in many other countries around the world. Here in the
UK we will be celebrating it tomorrow.