When I was 21, I knew I was gay but I didn't think that coming out was an option. I knew gay people and I had friends who were gay, but I just thought that they had always been comfortable with who they were and that what I was experiencing was unique to me. I had no idea that most LGBT+ people go through the same stages of confusion and denial. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed in my student house just staring into space waiting for an answer that never came. I distanced myself from friends at university, fearing that they would see my lie. I withdrew from my social circle until the time came for me to go back to my home town.
Despite that fear I had, my coming out was relatively easy, and I only ever received positive reactions, but my journey have been easier if I'd have been able to hear from other people about how they felt and what their experiences were like. Everyone's coming out will be different, but it's easy to underestimate the power of sharing stories.
When a high profile person comes out, especially someone from a traditionally "straight" background such as Keegan Hirst, the first Rugby League player to come out as gay earlier this year, we naturally want to celebrate. We all know that LGBT+ people exist in all walks of life, but when someone makes themselves visible in a community where no out LGBT+ people exist, well then that's a pretty big deal.
I run a website (rucomingout.com) that shares coming out stories. Those who are struggling to come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans take inspiration from other people stories; people who were once in the position they are in now. I get emails from people telling me that the website has helped them gain the confidence to come out to family and friends. The positive stories I hear confirm that the process of sharing our stories is powerful and it really does change lives.
A few weeks before Hirst came out, I received an email from a man in his early twenties. He told me that he is married, to a woman, and that he is also a father. He thinks he is gay, but he can't see how he will ever be able to come out. He doesn't want to ever break up his family. He can't bear the thought of telling his wife that he is gay. One of the reasons he is struggling to come to terms with the reality of his situation is that he feels he is alone. When I explained to him that I know people who were in the same situation that he is, but are now content and happy after coming out, he simply could not believe me.
National Coming Out Day (NCOD) is not about pressuring people to come out. What NCOD can do is highlight the difficulties that people still face when thinking about coming out. And if that can, in turn, make everyone think a little about how they can help those people not feel so alone, then that's surely a good thing.
For every advancement in the LGBT+ rights movement that we've seen in recent years there's another sobering fact or statistic to put things in to perspective. While the United States was declaring that same-sex marriage should be legal nationwide in June this year, four men "accused" of being gay were being thrown to their deaths from a roof top in Syria. Just last month Ireland's new Gender Recognition Act came into effect which means that trans people can now attain legal recognition -- without the need to see a doctor. By stark contrast, in America a trans woman is killed in a transphobic hate crime every 32 hours. Equally as shocking, around 40 percent of the world's population live in countries where being gay, lesbian and bi can result in imprisonment.
The fact that we are far from a global acceptance and celebration of the LGBT+ community, coupled with people's individual insecurities and anxieties about being judged, unloved or disowned, means that coming out will continue to be a big deal for anyone contemplating it.
Every single person, no matter what our sexual orientation or gender identity, can help to make the coming out process easier. We can stop calling things "gay" when we mean is "rubbish." We can challenge homophobic, biphobic and transphobic language; even if it's friends who are using it -- actually, ESPECIALLY when it's friends who are using it. Parents can talk positively about LGBT people in front of their children. Teachers can challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom and on the sports field.
A recent YouGov survey shows that almost half (49 percent) of people aged between 18 and 24 in Britain identify as something other than 100 percent heterosexual. What this shows is that our understanding of sexuality and gender is changing. Our binary notions of sexual and gender identity are being challenged. We know that it will take the mainstream media a while to catch up, so in the meantime it's important that we start having those conversations. It's up to us to create the environment where being LGBT+ isn't seen as being different.
The closet can be a very lonely and a very sad place.
Come out as an ally, come out as a supporter. Use your voice, use your story.
National Coming Out Day is 11 October.
Visit rucomingout.com and read over 300 coming out stories and interviews.