Note: This article was written in October 2013.
The Perch is dim. Soft lights cast an amber hue over dozens of people sitting on couches, arm chairs, coffee tables, a 3-by-2 grid of decorative floor cushions and the laps of friends. More people are sitting around the tall, white, plastic tables that border the room, and after a while the walls are lined with more students still. Everyone is looking towards a single, short stool resting in the front of the room.
It’s the third annual Coming Out Monologues at American University, an event sponsored by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, which is associated with National Coming Out Day. The day is actually on Oct. 11, the anniversary of the national march on Washington for gay and lesbian rights. Dakota David, LGBTQ Program Staff Assistant at the center and event organizer, says during the introduction, “It is important to remember that the so-called ‘gay community’ is not monolithic. It is more of a confederation of individuals with identities as diverse as the general population.”
Over the course of two hours on Oct. 9, 15 monologues were delivered to an engaged audience of at least 75 people. The idea of the event is that the author of any individual monologue is anonymous, unless they choose to identify the monologue as their own, but you’d never know the stories delivered by some of the performers weren’t their own.
The most striking thing about hearing the coming-out stories back-to-back is the consistency of what you hear. For many, friends and family questioned the validity of their identity. Others felt shame after years of growing up in a religious institution. Every person either does feel or had felt an extraordinary amount of anxiety. One speaker said at the end of their monologue, “Being here with you guys, it feels like the ice pick in my chest is starting to come out.”
Matt Bruno, coordinator of LGBTQ programming and advising in the center, sponsored this event. He has been at AU for 3 ½ years and working as an advocate for seven. “Coming Out Day is significant because it symbolizes the fact that it has to be done; LGBTQ folks have to come out if they want visibility,” said Bruno, “the fact that we have to proclaim our identities shows there are still problems in society.”
Bruno shared his story of coming out in college in 2001. He went to a Catholic school from kindergarten to 12th that he said had just one suspected member of the LGBTQ community, and that kid was given a hard time. The news was an even more depressing glimpse into what being a member of that community may be like. “When you came out, you were killed or you died, and that caused a lot of anxiety,” Bruno said.
Matt Bruno offers one simple thing everyone can do every day to make their community a safer and more inclusive space: As soon as someone tells you how they identify or how to name them, immediately start to identify and name them as that. “It validates people’s identities. When they’re validated they get confidence, when they’re confident they can succeed in things.” Be accepting and be welcoming. It may mean more than you know, and it’s not hard to do.
However, the process went better than Bruno had hoped. His friends didn’t respond with anger, and his family didn’t reject him. After a few years, he could even see members of his family accepting him. Bruno’s brother, in particular, was supportive; he began correcting the offensive language of his own friends without being prompted. Bruno also pointed to his undergraduate adviser as a positive influence saying, “He didn’t presume to know me. I told him I was bi[sexual] and he was like, ‘Great.’”
Bruno said the initial positive reaction he received from those around him likely encouraged his career path as an advocate, and that validation is the key to making the coming-out process a positive one. This is why the Coming Out Monologues exist: to give individuals in the LGBTQ community an opportunity to come out in an accepting and cathartic environment year after year. As one speaker said, “You never come out just once.