"I don't mind gays," a colleague said to me a few years ago, "but I don't understand why they have to talk about being gay. Why do I need to hear that?"
"Do you ever mention your wife when chatting to friends, relatives, peers or students?" I asked him.
"Sure," he replied. "Of course I talk about my wife! You know, I sometimes say what we did the night before or where we're going on holiday."
"Well, don't you think lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people might also want to mention their partners? And don't you think they'd like to be able to say such things without getting funny looks or inappropriate comments in response?"
He shrugged and looked uncomfortable. "I guess."
"And do you ever kiss your wife in public?" I continued.
"Yeah, I suppose. We hold hands when walking."
"And wouldn't LGBTQ people also want to do that with their partners?"
"Yeah, yeah," he muttered.
The point, as I hope my colleague finally understood, is that LGBTQ people want the freedom to live their lives without having to hide aspects of themselves and without having to face prejudice.
That's why coming out is so important. When people come out, they say, "This is who I am. This is what I am like. Accept me for who I am." Coming out enables people to be confident in who and what they are.
On 11 October, people commemorate Coming-Out Day. On this day, LGBTQ people discuss what it means to come out and how best to do it, and they celebrate being open about themselves, and they tell colleagues, family members, and friends that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or otherwise queer.
It's essential that LGBTQ people feel safe while doing this. Unfortunately, of course, there are many families, institutions, and countries that are not accepting of humans in all their diversity. So here at the University of East Anglia, we run annual (and sometimes more frequent) coming-out workshops. We encourage any LGBTQ staff members, undergraduates, and postgraduates to attend so they have a place where they feel accepted and comfortable, so they can meet like-minded people, and so they can get (or give) advice on how to come out. I hope other institutions offer similar events.
Coming out doesn't just happen once. It's something LGBTQ people do all throughout their lives, in many different situations. There's no one right way to do it. On 11 October, we encourage people to come out, and we support them as they do so, but we hope that our non-LGBTQ friends, relatives, and colleagues will be welcoming of someone's efforts to be honest about who they are at any time of year.
Obviously, the sad truth is that not everyone will accept an LGBTQ person as a friend or relative. But it's better to know that and to not have those people in one's life. On the whole, though, things are changing these days, and LGBTQ people are getting more rights, and in many countries, being LGBTQ is no longer considered to be something wrong, abnormal, or problematic. And talking about being LGBTQ is not seen as inappropriate propaganda; if people like my colleague can talk about their heterosexual, cisgender lives with confidence, there's no reason why LGBTQ folks can't do the same.
So if you're LGBTQ and not out, you might want to think about what amazing benefits coming out has to offer. On 11 October, why not take a chance and tell someone about who you really are?
Come out in the open, and come out ahead.
Note: If you're at UEA and want to attend our workshop on 2 October, just get in touch with me for the details.
And regardless of where you're located, you might want to read Out 140: The Little Book of Coming Out Stories for inspiration and entertainment; the book is filled with Twitter-length coming-out tales.