I feared that I might wind up like Shepard, bullied and beaten, left to die alone, simply because of who I was and who I loved.
It was still a scary time for most of us who identified as LGBTQ+ -- and those who knew in their hearts who they were, but didn't feel safe enough to come out.
Twenty years later, my wife and I dropped our toddler off at pre-school for the first time, the only kid in his class with same-gender parents. I waited, with bated breath, for him to come home upset because someone made him feel like he was different or less than because he came from an LGBTQ+ home. I didn't hear any concerns that day or that week, and I didn't want to introduce the idea, so I didn't ask.
Some weeks later, my wife and I received a note from the mother of our child's best friend. Her child had asked why she couldn't also have two moms like our kid did. We all had a good laugh, and I privately let out a sigh of relief.
On this Coming Out Day 2021, I can see what a difference two decades and a lot of work can make. Founded in 1988 at the second March on Washington, this annual day of LGBTQ+ awareness is intended to celebrate the community and raise visibility for its advances and ongoing challenges.
This year the day feels unique, in part because we have seen an incredible outpouring of support for LGBTQ+ people and some notables throwing open the closet doors and stepping more fully and publicly into their true selves.
Visibility is higher than ever
Major milestones include the appointment of Pete Buttigieg as US Secretary of Transportation, making him the nation's highest-ranking openly LGBTQ+ government official
. He recently welcomed twins
into his family with husband Chasten, expanding their LGBTQ+ family. Dr. Rachel Levine is now the highest-ranking transgender woman
appointed to serve as Assistant Secretary for Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Celebrities and pop culture icons have also burst out of the closet over the past year in ways that reflect the progress that we've made in embracing varying expressions of identity. Actor Elliot Page came out as transgender
and has been very public with his journey, while singer Demi Lovato came out as nonbinary
and social media pop star JoJo Siwa came out as pansexual
. Children's programming is more representative than ever
, with gender diversity portrayed in TV shows such as "Sesame Street," "Muppet Babies," "Steven Universe," "Ridley Jones" and more.
When it comes to how people identify, more say they are LGBTQ+ than ever before. One in six Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ+, according to a 2021 Gallup poll
, compared with 5.6% of the overall population.
The work is far from over
Coming Out Day falls almost to the day on the anniversary of Shepard's
murder at the age of 18 in Laramie, Wyoming. LGBTQ+ people had been beaten and murdered for time immemorial, but his particularly brutal killing shocked America and his death ultimately helped galvanize the civil rights movement for LGBTQ+ people.
It led to a push for hate crime laws, which President Barack Obama codified
at the federal level in 2009. We've since seen a steady increase in LGBTQ+ acceptance across the globe, increasingly so since 2015, when marriage equality was recognized in the US, according to a 2020 report from Pew Research Center
Of course, there are still many places, in the US and around the world, where being LGBTQ+ puts a target on your back. There are still countries where being LGBTQ+ is illegal, even punishable by death.
There are places in the US where I do not feel safe walking down the street in broad daylight holding my wife's hand. Even in New York City in recent times, we have been on the receiving end of jeers, threats and harassment.
That's because, despite all the gains and reasons to celebrate, there is still a stigma attached to being a minority. LGBTQ+ people can still be denied services or face obstacles to accessing them, including critical medical care, with more than one in three LGBTQ+ Americans reporting they faced discrimination, according to a study conducted by the Center for American Progress.
Transgender individuals, in particular, continue to face high rates of discrimination and social stigma, with three in five saying they have been discriminated against in the past year, according to the same study. A rash of anti-transgender bills
have swept state legislatures over the past year as well, threatening -- and in some cases succeeding -- to block young people's access to medical care and sports teams.
How to be an ally
There's work to do. But if the reaction from my toddler's best friend is any indication, we are on the right track toward greater visibility and equity for LGBTQ+ people.
Until we have reached the point where we no longer need to come out because we can simply be who we are without judgment or presumption, we can celebrate Coming Out Day as an opportunity to see and be seen, and to invite others to come out and honor our beautiful diversity alongside us
The notion of coming out -- of someone figuratively stepping out of the proverbial closet -- exists because there remains an assumption that you are not LGBTQ+ until you tell everyone otherwise. We still live in a society that presumes majority identity status, and you can help destroy stereotype.
If you're wanting to be a stronger ally to your LGBTQ+ friends, colleagues or family, there are plenty of resources available. It all starts with education. The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth, has a Coming Out Handbook
with a breakdown of definitions that both LGBTQ+ people coming out and their loved ones can benefit from.
PFLAG, the long-standing organization focused on supporting the parents and friends of LGBTQ+ people, also has a resource guide
specifically focused on ally support.
Learning the right terminology and the greatest issues that are facing LGBTQ+ individuals is an important step to being a strong ally. Once you've done that, actively working to create space for those who might identify as LGBTQ+ or who might be coming out is helpful. That means letting them know that you approach them with openness and love. Listen more than you talk or ask. Be supportive no matter what. Let them lead.
The other critical element to being a strong ally is being an active and vocal advocate. That means speaking up if you hear or see something that is anti-LGBTQ+. Help educate others to bring them along on that journey toward knowledge, inclusion and acceptance.
Most importantly, don't give up. The landscape and language and people's identities are constantly in flux, and you don't have to always get it right. But if you keep an open mind, approach the topic and LGBTQ+ people with love, trusting that others know who they are better than you do, that's a great start.