When Coming Out Is a Death Sentence

Alireza Fazeli-Monfared, 20 years old, was killed in an honor killing in Iran. (Photo: Twitter)

October 11 was National Coming Out Day. It’s a day when LGBTQ people reach out on social media to support others coming out with love and solidarity, many telling personal stories.

Those stories are rarely joyful, but all are informative and geared toward the concept of “it gets better.” While coming out may be hard, they suggest, being one’s authentic self is everything.

I posted a story I wrote back in June about my experience coming out as a teenager in the 1970s. I was expelled from my high school, Philadelphia High School for Girls, for being a lesbian. Soon after that I was committed to the adolescent wing of a Philadelphia mental hospital for conversion therapy — a grueling psychiatric program that was akin to torture and which remains legal almost everywhere, despite decades of attempts to end it and nearly all medical and psychiatric associations debunking it as “pseudoscience.

It’s easy to be blithe and even glib about National Coming Out Day so many decades after Stonewall, but circumstances for LGBTQ people remain disturbingly harsh and even dangerous

President Biden issued a compelling statement for the National Coming Out Day in which he reasserted his commitment to the LGBTQ+ community and said, “I want every member of the LGBTQ+ community to know that you are loved and accepted just the way you are – regardless of whether or not you’ve come out.”

It’s moving stuff, having the President of the United States say “those who are contemplating coming out: know that you are loved for who you are, you are admired for your courage, and you will have a community — and a nation — to welcome you.”

But coming out remains a fraught endeavor, both here in the U.S. and abroad. On National Coming Out Day, in an unpleasant irony, the coach of the Las Vegas Raiders football team, Jon Gruden, resigned mere hours after The New York Times exposed emails of his that were filled with homophobic and misogynistic remarks. Gruden had previously been reported to have made racist statements as well. For a decade these comments remained unremarked and unpunished by the NFL.

Last week I reported on the firing of NWSL soccer coach Paul Riley for homophobic assaults on lesbian players and the overall problem of homophobia and sexual harassment and misconduct in the soccer league which has many out lesbian players.

Add to that the new controversy over the Dave Chappelle comedy special on Netflix, which is rife with homophobic and transphobic jokes and commentary. Yet Netflix issued a statement in support of Chappelle and suspended three trans employees who criticized Chappelle’s special, which ranks third most watched on the streaming service. 

Chappelle’s comments and Netflix’s response to concerns raised both within the organization and from viewers, underscores how even people we like, who we think of as allies, can shock us with what they are really thinking about us — and how unabashed they are to say it openly.  

If the normative acculturation of homophobia and transphobia remains intact, 50+ years since Stonewall, there is also an effort to push back against liberal politicians like Biden who support LGBTQ civil rights initiatives. 

Biden has moved to overturn the virulently anti-LGBTQ policies of Donald Trump. But the Republican Party has no intention of relinquishing those policies.

A myriad of bills in state legislatures nationwide are focused on limiting LGBTQ civil rights at the state level, as I reported in March. There are also bills curtailing healthcare for LGBTQ people with an emphasis on trans youth seeking gender affirming treatment. 

And then there is the stalled Equality Act that sat on Mitch McConnell’s desk for a year and a half after passing the House in May 2019 and now sits on Chuck Schumer’s desk (and Schumer has a gay daughter), where it has been since Speaker Nancy Pelosi got it passed in the House a second time back in February. Biden has promised to sign it, but it is no closer to a Senate vote now than it was in 2019.

A series of studies in the past year have highlighted LGBTQ economic inequality. I have reported on those as well as on stories of violence against LGBTQ people. Trans and gender nonconforming people remain a focal point of anti-LGBTQ violence, but that violence — which included dozens of murders in 2020 — goes mostly ignored by national broadcast media. 

This is the world into which newly self-identified LGBTQ people are expected to come out. A world where there may be welcoming of people online and even in their own cities and towns, but also where the daunting realities of discrimination and violence, as well as homelessness and self-harm among LGBTQ youth, cannot be ignored.

And yet the U.S. remains one of the best countries in which to come out, with cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, Miami, New Orleans and New York achieving high marks for livability and queer-friendliness for out LGBTQ people.

In many parts of the world coming out is a literal death sentence. According to human rights organizations, there are 69 countries that criminalize homosexuality. Nearly half of those are in Africa, although recently Botswana and Angola have repealed their anti-LGBTQ laws. 

But as I have reported here over the past three years I have covered international news, there has been a creeping escalation of anti-LGBTQ fervor in eastern Europe, notably Hungary and Poland. And adjacent to Russia’s anti-LGBTQ policies, Chechnya continues to be a place where gay and lesbian people simply disappear. 

Some of that escalation was supported and fomented by the previous administration. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a lifelong homophobe, used USAID as a focal point for his anti-LGBTQ agenda.

Pompeo hired anti-gay and transphobic staffers and even commissioned a report that framed the State Department’s approach to LGBT and women’s rights abroad as fundamentally anti-LGBTQ.

Thus, National Coming Out Day is, as we say, complicated. There really isn’t anything more important than living your authentic life. But within the embrace of that truth there is the stark reality of discrimination, bigotry and violence. One of America’s two dominant political parties, the GOP, wants to curtail or outright end all of the civil rights and liberties LGBTQ people have attained in the past decade.

Within that reality, LGBTQ people must recognize that coming out entails struggle and an ongoing battle for full citizenship and personhood. Yet the more of us come out, the more powerful we are as a bloc. Coming out is a statement of our individual humanity and identity. And what could be more worthy of the fight than that?

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.