Why it matters

Coming out and what it means

Ashley Riehlin
Feb 16, 2014 · 4 min read

With the recent news of @EllenPage coming out as gay, there are a few a common refrains circulating Twitter.

Thankfully, one of those refrains is an outpouring of support for what was a brave, eloquent speech. These responses are heartwarming and I never tire of reading them.

But also, there are quite a few (presumably straight) people who are posing the questions: Who cares? Why does it matter? Why does anyone need to come out? So I’d like to address that question. Maybe clarity will provide a bit more understanding for why our community and allies celebrate this action with a much-deserved outpouring of love and support. Why it matters so much to the person, themselves, and to the rest of us cheering them on.

I realize that for many straight people it must be hard to empathize. Why do gay people feel the need to tell everyone they are gay? That’s an understandable question. Well, for starters, we are all born into a heteronormative world. From our first moments, it is presumed that we all are straight. Surely you know this to be true.

What you may not realize is that as many of us begin to question our sexuality, we have to reconcile the disparity between who we are learning we are, with the image of who our friends, family, and often we, ourselves, believed us to be. Even as I started to realize I was attracted to women, I was still noticing attractive boys because I had been conditioned to do so from birth. It took some time to realize the simple difference between finding someone to be attractive, and being attracted to someone.

There was then a prolonged period of time in which I was struggling to come to terms with it. I knew something about myself that I could no longer deny, but had no idea how to actually act on it. At this point the gay subculture had this undeniable lure, and yet it still felt foreign and dangerous to me. I would go to Barnes & Noble and walk by the magazine stand wanting so badly to thumb through the Advocate or Curve, but terrified that anyone would see me and know what that meant. I would drive past gay coffee shops or clubs and look out at the beautiful, confident people and wish I had the courage to join their ranks. I was 23 years old. It was 2008. I was in the gay mecca of the south, Atlanta. And yet it was, by far, the loneliest time in my life. The myth of belonging to one group had crumbled for me internally, but I hadn’t yet transitioned to acceptance and belonging from the new group I knew to be home. I had to figure out how to get from here to there. And the biggest, most difficult step in bridging that gap is the act of self acceptance.

In this light, coming out is partially a selfish act. And it is a very big moment for the person themselves. Watch the video of her speech.


You can see the nerves, apparent in the trembling of her right hand. You can hear the quaver in her voice. And you can feel the sigh of relief, the moment after she says it, as she is forced to pause and take a breath while the crowd stands to applaud her. She has navigated her own internal struggle and has come out the other side with the strength to publicly declare: This is who I am.

Coming out, especially as a public figure, is also a selfless act. In doing so, one steps out on a ledge knowing full and well the possible repercussions of such an action. The selflessness of her coming out feels particularly aware and impeccably executed. Look at the context in which she came out. It was an HRC event called “Time to Thrive.” An event designed to promote safety, inclusion and well-being for LGBTQ youth. It was the perfect stage on which to thank those that have come before her for their strength and support, and to add her name to the list.

Why does that list matter? For one, it is the mechanism on which the modern gay rights movement was based. Harvey Milk was right when he urged us to come out. The single most political act a gay person can take is to come out to their friends and family. It’s, unfortunately, easy to discriminate against a faceless unknown, it’s much harder to look someone you know in the eye and vote against their human rights.

Yes we have come far. But we have a long way to go. Today in the United States, I could be fired for being gay; until ENDA passes this type of discrimination is still perfectly legal. There are still 33 states which refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of our relationships (and the legal protections that come along with it), including my home state of Texas. And there are countless countries I refrain from visiting, because the simple truth of who I am could make me a target for violence or arrest. Needless to say, the struggle continues.

Visibility is incredibly important. Not just to sway politics. Not just for one’s own sense of pride and self. But especially to the kids and young adults that are struggling with this knowledge about themselves, to the ones currently embattled in the loneliest phase of their lives. We gotta give them hope. It is important that we live openly so that they can see us as an example of the happy, proud future that lies ahead of them. So that they can see that it’s worth it to fight through the murky waters of self-discovery. That it’s imperative to reach the other side, so that you can stand up proudly and state: This is who I am.


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