Sunday, 11 October 2015

How "Coming Out Day" Began

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 Washington.

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.

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