Back in 1988, on October 11th, National Coming Out Day (NCOD) was founded in America. The date was significant because it fell on the first anniversary of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay rights. 18 states participated in the very first NCOD, rising to 21 in the following year. By 1990 all 50 states, as well as seven other countries, acknowledged and marked the occasion. 2013 marks the 25th National Coming Out Day and to celebrate the significant milestone the theme for this year is 'Coming Out Still Matters'.
Once I had carried out some research (I spent an hour or so on the internet!) I realised that the idea behind NCOD wasn't to encourage closeted LGBT people to come out on October 11th,no matter what their personal situation was, but was about raising awareness of the difficulties and challenges around coming out.
I set up RUComingOut last year because I saw a huge gap in support for closeted LGBT people. I was working as a youth worker and one of the young people I saw regularly came out to me. What he wanted to know more than anything was how people deal with the challenges of coming out to family and friends. I told him how it was for me - realising I was gay at 15 but not telling anyone until I was 21. After asking my friends to write their stories down and sharing them with him I realised the benefit of sharing experiences of what can be a hugely emotional, challenging and life-changing period in someone's life.
I have conversations with people sometimes who don't really understand the gravity of coming out. Obviously these people are straight so don't have the first hand experience of growing up feeling somehow different but not being totally sure how. When I came out in 2002 I faced no real problems from friends, family or my local community. I lived in a relatively small town back then where if you met a stranger you'd probably discover a common friend within two minutes of talking to them. My coming out was easy. It really was. Telling my close friends and family (people I knew loved me) that I was gay was actually pretty easy when it came down to it. However, the six years I spent in the closet that preceeded that were probably the worst of my life. When I think that I was hiding this secret throughout the whole of my GCSE exams, two years of A Levels and entire three year university experience it makes me wish I could reach back into the past and give myself a massive hug!
I wasn't outwardly miserable during this chapter of my life, but when most young people were experimenting with girlfriends and boyfriends, making new friends and laying down foundations for the rest of their lives, I was trying to work out the best way to keep my secret. When I was 15 my Dad and 18 year old brother died in a car accident. For years after I carried a huge sense of guilt with me. Not for the accident but for thoughts I found myself having as I became more certain I was gay. From about 17 I remember having fleeting sensations of relief when I used to think about how difficult I would have found it having to tell both my Dad and Brother that I was gay. It would be a further four years before I'd actually come out, but knowing that the two conversations I would have been most afraid of having were no longer going to happen gave me conflicting feelings. The guilt I felt from having these feelings made me hate myself even more and did little for my feelings of self-worth, which was already at a pretty low point!
I'm now 32. I came out over 11 years ago and as I said before, I never really experienced any real problems. However, that doesn't mean that the anxieties and worries I had before telling anyone wasn't crippling. It was. I remember times at university when I'd make myself physically sick by thinking about having to tell people. I remember one occasion when I actually started punching myself in the head because I hated, not myself, but the position I found myself in. I was frustrated that I had been dealt a hand that I couldn't cope with. I wasn't brave enough. I distanced myself from the only gay person I knew at university in case he guessed and outed me. I'm good friends with Andy now but I should have been good friends with him back in 1999.
As soon as I started telling people that I was gay, which happened in such a natural way, I began to discover who I was and who I had been for all of my teenage years. Trying to understand things clearly that only exist in your head, without being able to talk to other people, is not possible. It wasn't until I began talking to my friends about my thoughts and feelings that I began to realise who I was. I began to enjoy other people's company more because I began to open up more myself. I was more comfortable being open about my interests and tastes in music. I started to allow myself to think about what I'd like to do with my life. I didn't realise how much other stuff I'd been holding back. At 21 my friends started to see the real me, and so did I.
I no longer feel guilty about those involuntary thoughts I used to have about my Dad and Brother and not having to come out to them. I do think about coming out to them still, but now it's because I wish I had the opportunity to. I would have liked them to have known the real me and not the insecure 15 year old with low self esteem. I'd like to be able to tell them about RUComingOut and how many people the site has helped. I know they'd have found me being gay a bit weird but I think they would have seen how happy being out has made me and that weirdness would have gone away.
National Coming Out Day isn't about telling the world you're gay on October 11th, it's about everyone taking some time to realise how hard living life in the closet is for anyone who has had to do it.
For six years I didn't feel that I belonged anywhere - I knew I wasn't straight but I wasn't out yet so I didn't really feel like a proper gay! For some it may be less than six years but for others that fear can keep them in the closet for decades. Many people who come out find that they have few issues from their loved ones or society in general which is great, but they didn't necessarily know that this would be the case.
On National Coming Out Day spare a thought for the millions of teenagers, work colleagues, family members and even people you pass on the street who feel they don't yet belong. Wear a badge, change your social media profile picture, Tweet, update your Facebook status - let them know you understand and that you'll still love them no matter who they happen to fancy. It could make a huge difference to someone's day and the rest of their life.
That's why National Coming Out Day still matters.