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Come Out If You Can, But Don't Judge Those Who Can't


It's a personal and difficult journey for all of us.

October 11 is National Coming Out Day. Some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people choose this day to announce their sexual orientation or gender identity. The basic idea is that homophobia can grow in an atmosphere of silence and ignorance.

Visibility certainly helps people to understand that society is diverse and combat deeply ingrained prejudices. In societies where many LGBT people come out, others will recognize that their son, daughter, colleague, neighbor, or friend can be gay, bi, or transgender. It makes it easier to grasp the concept that, although they may be different in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity, there is no justification for treating LGBT people differently. Visibility is a good starting point to claim equal rights and prohibitions on discrimination.

Harvey Milk, the openly gay city supervisor in San Francisco, put it this way in 1978, the year when he was assassinated: “Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell your neighbors. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. And once they realize that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And once you do, you will feel so much better."

Milk believed that it was a moral duty of gays and lesbians to live their truth. The more LGBT people were open about themselves, the more difficult it would become to ignore their existence and their rights.

However, National Coming Out Day is based on the voluntary self-disclosure of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Coming out of the closet is a decision everyone has to make for themselves. One has to assess how the family, the school, the workplace, the neighborhood, their church, synagogue, or mosque will respond. The reality is that in a hostile environment many people still feel little option but to live under cover.

Recently, this core aspect of voluntariness was challenged in Mexico, in the context of a national debate on same-sex marriage. The Roman Catholic Church actively mobilized people to oppose President Enrique Nieto’s proposal of a federal marriage equality law. An LGBT group, furious about the role of the church, outed several priests, calling them hypocritical. Others within the LGBT community in Mexico distanced themselves from this view, not wanting to use the priests’ alleged sexual orientation as a tool to score political points.

I agree with the latter groups. Freedom of expression includes the right not to disclose important aspects of your private life, irrespective of your religious belief or political opinion. You can be gay and also against same-sex marriage.

National Coming Out Day should remain the day that people come out if they wish to do so. They can also choose to stay in the closet. It is a choice they have to make themselves, and no one else should deny the right to do that.

BORIS DITTRICH is LGBT rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

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