KC Wednesday: National Coming Out Day
This week’s KC Wednesday post comes to us from the GLBT KC and is written by Alyssa Montminy, Residence Hall Director at Stony Brook University
Happy National Coming Out Day! Founded on October 11th, 1988, National Coming Out Day is an internationally observed day that is meant to recognize and celebrate those who publicly identify as bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender or queer. This day is celebrated in all 50 states, and many other countries. The day is sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, and many local communities plan events celebrating the experience. Many college campuses also plan a series of events to celebrate the day – events that range from marches and film screenings to speaker panels and vigils. For members of the Queer community, coming out can be a significant cultural rite of passage, especially as one takes public ownership of their identity.
Coming out is a psychological process/journey that is definitely unique to each individual person and their experience. The first time someone comes out can be as a teenager via text message to their best friend, or as an adult introducing their partner to their work colleagues. Coming out can be a positive, affirming event that can help an individual to feel liberated and proud, or it can be a shameful event that the individual did not have personal control over. Deciding when to come out is generally not a decision to be taken lightly – there are many factors to be considered, especially as one considers their support networks and resources.
For students who are developing their own identity as a member of the LGBT community, college can provide a unique environment for this identity exploration. Attending college helps students define their perspectives – they are potentially interacting with people who have identities that they have never interacted with before, and their own social identity is developing. Students have the chance to “redefine” who they are, and they project themselves. For some students, this might be their first chance to explore and express their own sexuality on their own terms and in a relatively safe environment.
As Student Affairs professionals, we have the exceptional opportunity to engage with students through this identity exploration – we are often looked to as a source of support and knowledge, a person who can provide advice and personal experience. Regardless of our own personal thoughts or opinions, ideologies or identities, we have to do all in our power to help students feel safe and comfortable. We are here to listen to them – to be a sounding board as they process their experiences and feelings. If a student comes to you to talk about their own experience in developing their identity, then that person has identified you as a safe person with whom they trust with this deeply personal part of themselves. This may sound cheesy, but I can’t help but feel a bit thrilled when a student shares this part of their life with me – it is a goal of mine to ensure that all of the members in my community feel safe and welcomed, and if a student feels comfortable enough to talk to me, then I feel that I have made a connection with that student.
So what do you do if a student comes out to you? How do you respond? As I mentioned above, it is our responsibility as student affairs professionals to provide a welcoming and inclusive community to our students. Students should feel safe on campus, and should feel at ease in coming to us to speak about these private issues.
When a student comes to you to discuss the coming out process, it is important to attempt to understand their reasons for coming to speak with you, and the support they may need from you. Coming out is a process unique to each individual, as is each person’s definition of what it means to be a member of the LGBT community. If a student comes to you, make sure to clarify what they expect you to do with this information.
One of the most important things to remember about the coming out process is that it’s not a “check and done” situation. The process is an ongoing one, and will last for a lifetime. Someone will come out the first time they publically declare themselves to be gay, when they tell their parents, when they are asked by their roommate if they have a girlfriend at home, when they plan a wedding, when they decide to have children, when they move to a new city and start a new job – individuals who identify as LGBT are beginning a lifelong process. The process may get easier with time, but the initial steps are often the most difficult.
Santana-Melgoza, Victor. (2008). So what happens if a resident comes out to me?. Oregon State University. The Nevada Sagebrush, http://nevadasagebrush.com/blog/2010/10/04/self-acceptance-brings-challenges/