A community’s solidarity in four stories
Story by Bailey Mount Editor-in-Chief, Lilly Nguyen Culture Editor, and Tara Thomas, Opinions Editor
National Coming Out Day is celebrated every Oct. 11 as a result of Robert Eichsberg and Jean O’Leary’s efforts to commemorate the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It is not to be confused with Pride, which unofficially takes place in June due to the historical significance of the Stonewall Rebellion in the summer of 1969. OUTober itself focuses on the personal victories and contributions to and by the LGBTQ community.
With that said, the celebration of LGBTQ-identified people seems to have fallen short this year. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that there were 36 records of hate violence relating to LGBTQ or HIV-affected people by August and is noted to be the highest recorded by the AVP to date.
“So far in 2017, there has been nearly one homicide a week of an LGBTQ person in the U.S.”, the coalition reported. Trans women of color have seen a steady increase in homicides for the past five years. With tragedies like the deaths of Ally Steinfeld and Scout Schultz coming out of Missouri and Georgia just last month, it is hard to think about celebrating anything.
It is harder, certainly, to think of doing so in a socio-political climate that begs them to stay hidden. The LGBTQ community is no stranger to scorn by “religious” zealots nor is it an unknown to political and social controversy.
The act of coming out is no easy feat, and it certainly is not a conversation someone can have with themselves and their loved ones just because OUTober and National Coming Out Day are being acknowledged at a federal level.
It is a deeply personal journey and for most, it can be as simple as being made aware that there is a different way to be that is more true to their authentic selves.
Janet Doan, 19, Bisexual
For Janet Doan, 19, it was early instances of homophobia from classmates that encouraged her to explore her identity.
“Some people would laugh at [my] drawings, mainly because I would say, ‘Oh my god, this guy is so cute, I love him,’ but then other people would be like, ‘He looks just like a girl! You’re a lesbian!’” said Doan.
“I started to think more about whether or not I was queer, because I knew that I liked males but I was attracted to feminine features on both men and women,” she continued. “So I did a lot of research on bisexuality and homosexuality, and after some months I finally understood that I was bi. I didn’t know any queer people so I felt alone, and I knew most of my family sees queer people as ‘weird freaks’ who don’t take anything seriously and are confused about their sexuality, but I didn’t want to deny who I was.”
Her coming out was silent.
She came out to her mother when she was a sophomore in high school. Her mother didn’t understand at first, but the misunderstanding of what “bi” was turned into quiet anger.
“She said I was influenced by the media — particularly anime and manga because, she said, ‘All the boys there look like girls, so you confuse the two,’” said Doan.
Doan believes that the anger might have just faded or that her mother simply gave up on changing her daughter’s mind. She feels that her mother’s opinion on LGBTQ people has become more positive since her coming out some three or four years ago, and she believes that a part of that is due to her own influence.
Quan Nguyen, 23, Gay
In comparison, Quan Nguyen, 23, came out like a firework lit at both ends.
Nguyen also came to grips with his sexuality in high school, though he said the realization came instantaneously.
“Like, we all hear about gay people, but I feel like unless you interact with them you wouldn’t know,” said Nguyen, who identifies as gay. “He was a classmate and he came onto me and straight out said, ‘Hey, you’re cute, you’re so gay.’ And I was like, ‘He’s right, so that’s what it is…’ And it clicked. ’Cause I never thought of myself as gay.”
He had always pursued girls before but admits that the “attraction never went very far.”
Nguyen first came out to a close friend named Lisa, who he says simply replied, “I know. I was waiting to hear it from you, but I knew since I met you.”
He later came out to his family, though he adds that it was before he was ready to have the conversation with them. While his sister seemed unfazed, his parents were less so.
“My parents completely hated knowing that I was gay and argued and cried and yelled at me,” said Nguyen. “My dad didn’t talk to me for three months. My mom immediately tried to convince me it was wrong based on my Buddhist faith and said that I was having a phase and that being gay is filthy.”
Like Doan, however, his parents eventually changed their tune.
His parents now accept his sexuality and Nguyen currently lives with his boyfriend. He notes that his father defends him when his uncles say something that is “out of line” and that his mother seems interested in his relationships.
He considers himself lucky, especially when compared to the 39 percent of LGBTQ-identified people who have been rejected by a family member or close friend for their sexuality or gender identity, as reported by Pew Research Center in 2013.
“It took a while,” he said. “But honestly, let’s be real, a year is nothing compared to a lot of people who wait decades for the acceptance they wanted or needed from their family.”
For both Doan and Nguyen, coming out is not something necessary for LGBTQ-identified people to go through. Coming out isn’t necessarily something that needs to be done with everyone and should be handled on a case-by-case basis.
“For instance, if I go to class, why would all the other students care whether or not I’m straight?” said Doan. “I’m just here to learn.”
The community has seen setbacks since 2013, particularly with the Trump administration’s policies and repeals of protections for LGBTQ-identified civilians. Both Doan and Nguyen believe that this will affect chances for people to “come out.”
While Doan believes that the majority of these issues remain in society at large, Nguyen argues that some of these issues may be with “allies” and within the community itself.
“I hate hearing, ‘Be my gay best friend!’ or, ‘Do you think he or she is cute?’ It’s shallow acceptance,” said Nguyen. “Or the whole, ‘Oh, I have another gay friend you need to meet!’ They’re not really accepting me as a person — they’re accepting me as an object. We’re not corgis!”
Nguyen adds that recent protests on the behalf of the community are “outlandish” but not because he thinks they serve no purpose.
He argues that the protests account for the “colorful” side of homosexuality, but neglects to include the “Average Joe,” who Nguyen defines as a group of LGBTQ-identified people who “lead very basic and sort of boring lives that don’t involve clubbing, promiscuity, Lady Gaga and rainbows.” He believes that by excluding the “Average Joe,” the LGBTQ community is failing an entire group of their own, particularly those who do not want to reclaim “the stereotypes being paraded around the streets.”
Nguyen concedes that there are bigger issues that need to be handled, with which Doan is in agreement.
“It’s society as a whole,” said Nguyen. “We’re a subset. The world has bigger issues and once everyone can realize there are bigger issues out there, issues like acceptance will just disappear. It’s not always about you. That argument goes to both sides: the heterosexual community and to our community.”
Coming out is scary.
It is stepping into the unknown and trusting, hoping, that people will decide to stay. It is not easy, but it is a personal choice that is by no means required of a person to be a part of a community.
Doan and Nguyen stress safety above all else, and coming out only when people know that they are in an environment that will not ridicule or harm them.
Doan asks of readers, especially those looking to come out, to be patient. People will not change right away. It will take time. Nguyen adds that not everyone will be willing to listen, but it is always worth trying and that understanding must be worked towards.
People can change.
Nguyen leaves readers with a few last pieces of advice: “Be yourself. Be unique. Be true. You can be the hottest thing on the planet but if you’re the nastiest person out there, nobody is going to like you. But lastly, be happy.”
Danny Lemos, 60, Gay
Danny Lemos is most easily identified by his laugh.
The sound, a sudden explosion of noise that both surprises and delights those within earshot, is a hallmark of the University Student Union.
It wasn’t always this way.
Lemos, now 60, grew up in a traditional Catholic-Mexican family in Pico Rivera, California. He described his childhood as “adventurous,” his neighborhood as “very 1950s-ish suburban America” and his family as “progressive,” but not about sexual orientation. He lost 25 friends — and one long-term boyfriend — in the AIDS crisis. He also lost his twin brother, David, soon after they were both diagnosed HIV positive in 1995.
For Lemos, the first twenty years of his life were spent restraining himself.
“I learned how not to express myself by tamping myself down,” he said.
Now, despite one arm being wrapped in a sling as the result of a recent surgery, he’s expressive enough to make up for those years. Every anecdote is punctuated by wild gestures, his good arm doing double-time for the one strapped to his side.
He realized he was gay when he was 7 years old. To him, it was pretty simple.
“I kinda knew I was different,” he said. “All my friends would always talk about stealing their dad’s ‘Playboy.’ I would steal my dad’s ‘Playboy’ and then be disappointed when there were no pictures of men in it.”
His laugh was an exclamation mark.
He did not, however come out until he was in his early 20s, living with his twin in San Jose, surrounded by a community of his peers. David had sent a letter disclosing his own sexual orientation to their parents and then went camping that weekend without telling Lemos; he had to comfort their mother over the phone. Afterwards, this happened:
“I was vacuuming the carpet,” he said. “it was Saturday morning, and I thought, ‘ You know what? Let’s just get this over with’.”
He called his mother back.
“Mom,” he said, “you know that thing about David?”
“John!” He recalled her saying. “I told you so! You owe me a hundred dollars.”
Most of Lemo’s anecdotes end with a quip like this. Whether recounting the time his father brought out TIME Magazine’s “gay gene” article one Thanksgiving (“It’s your mother’s fault!” he had gleefully proclaimed) or how his boss once abandoned him in a gay nightclub — that was how Lemos became a DJ — there’s a humor in these stories that, if told by anyone else, would seem tinged with sadness.
Instead, his story is a colorful quilt of community, life and loss sewn together with an unbreakable thread of determination.
“I learned that the best way to survive in life is to be yourself,” he said.
To him, this makes coming out an instrumental part of the LGBTQIA+ community, as inseparable from their identity as their skin or eye color.
“How do you hide that you’re black?” he asked. “How do you hide the essence of you?”
Coming out, he continued to say, was almost a rite of passage in the community. It was an acceptance of who you were and an acknowledgement of the legacy that the act was built upon.
When asked why coming out was important, he thought for a moment. The first 20 years of his life seemed to flash before his eyes. His hair seemed whiter. Then, he spoke:
“Know that you stand on top of a long history of people who had to fight for your right to come out,” he said. “Honor them, when it’s your time, by being out enough that twenty years from now you’ll share it with someone else.”
He then sat back, satisfied, looking like the CEO of a multimillion dollar company instead of the beloved media coordinator of a student multimedia company. He sat like a man with the world at his feet, with his hands outstretched to help other people climb it.
Danny Lemos is most easily identified by his laugh.
It’s a laugh that has spent sixty years fighting to achieve the exuberance, the joy, and most importantly, the pride that people hear in it.
It wasn’t always that way.
But now that it is, it is a laugh that encourages others to also unapologetically be themselves.
Juan Gonzalez, 26, Gay/Queer
As a part of the LBSU housing staff and a member of the LGBT community, Juan Gonzalez, 26, is a strong proponent for queer support on campus. After completing his undergraduate and graduate studies at our diverse university, he was grateful for the number of resources and safe spaces on campus for LGBTQ students, but he saw an opportunity for an even stronger community when it came to dormitory living.
“For a lot of people, this is the first time they have a space that allows them to be themselves one hundred percent, so I wanted to provide extra resources and an extra community,” said Gonzalez.
This sentiment resulted in the creation of the Beachside College thematic community centered around LGBT individuals. Currently in its pilot year, the community is an effort to bring LGBT residents together so they can find strength and friendship with others who may share similar experiences.
As an alumnus of Delta Lambda Phi, a fraternity consisting primarily of gay males, Gonzalez says that he found his confidence and strength by being around other gay and queer people. This sentiment represents the essence of Coming Out Month, as being the first step in finding one’s personal support network.
“It was maybe as early as kindergarten or first grade,” Gonzalez said when asked about the moment he became aware of his sexual orientation. He knew he was unlike the other kids on the playground, where the girls chased the boys and he found himself chasing them too. “I didn’t necessarily have the words for it as a kid but I knew that I was different.”
Today, he identifies as a gay or queer man depending on the situation, more due to a natural maturation and acceptance of his feelings than a sudden realization and dramatic coming out story.
His childhood took place in a lower to middle-income neighborhood of Stockton, California. He was surrounded by a society that projected hypermasculine stereotypes onto young men. Whether it was dressing a certain way, how you carried yourself or how you spoke, those who decided to stray from the norm were often bullied, harassed or even ostracized by their supposed peers.
While this space was not especially accepting of homosexuality, Gonzales does appreciate the close aspect of community that was present through his family and traditional Mexican culture. Whether it was large family gatherings or game nights with his cousins, Gonzalez did not feel the need to hold back his true self.
Growing up, he was always visibly gay, and he rarely tried to hide, but this did result in being treated differently by classmates, teachers and parents. He believes that his parents would have preferred him to fit the role that was expected of him, and that his younger brother, whose masculine character fulfilled their desires, allowed him to be a sort of “black sheep” in the family and explore his own self-identity without feeling an obligation to conform.
However, Gonzales understands that coming out can be an extremely complicated decision. Many LGBT people choose to blend into society out of fear of being kicked out of the home, cut off financially or physical violence.
Without the support of his family, Gonzalez would not have considered his hometown a safe space. The climate in the country as a whole, Gonzalez commented, is not the best when it comes to underrepresented people. But he considers university campuses to be very progressive in providing support and acceptance. It makes having space on campus even more important.
Correction: A previously published version of this article did not include Gonzalez’s story.