The Ohio Origins of National Coming Out Day (October 11th)

By Svetlana (Ter-Grigoryan) Harlan, Community Engagement Coordinator

October is LGBTQ+ History Month, thirty-one days dedicated to recognizing LGBTQ+ stories of community, activism, struggle, and joy. The occasion was devised by a Missouri teacher named Rodney Wilson in 1994, who chose October partly because National Coming Out Day (NCOD) fell on October 11th annually.

Since the launch of the gay liberation movement that began with the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, “coming out of the closet”  or, just “coming out,” has been an integral part of LGBTQ+ culture in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. “Coming out” involves self-disclosing one’s sexual and/or romantic orientation or gender identity to family, peers, and the larger community. Many queer folks experience “coming out” as an empowering statement of visibility and identity meant to combat stigma and shame. In recent years, though, some queer communities have begun to question the validity of “coming out” as a necessary rite of passage for all LGBTQ+ individuals, since “coming out” inherently relegates “LGBTQ+” into a minority category and assumes heterosexual and cisgender are the norm.

Even as the notion of “coming out” comes under review by those within the LGBTQ+ community, it’s difficult to deny the impact of this rite of passage on our collective culture. NCOD has become an annually celebrated reflection of that impact, and the inauguration of the holiday has Ohio roots!

NCOD came into being when Robert Eichberg, a psychologist from New Mexico, and Jean O’Leary, an activist from Cleveland, Ohio, devised the holiday in 1988. O’Leary – NCOD’s Ohio connection – was born in Kingston, New York in 1948. However, she grew up in Cleveland and attended Cleveland State University, graduating in 1971 with a degree in psychology. O’Leary considered becoming a nun, spending time as a novitiate of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary. However, O’Leary left the convent before taking her vows and embarked on a different path.

O’Leary left Ohio in 1971 after graduating college, moving to New York City to pursue doctoral studies. It was during this time that O’Leary became active in the budding gay rights movement (also known as gay liberation), which was born from the Stonewall Riots that took place in the city just years earlier. However, in 1972 O’Leary began focusing her activism on lesbian rights, founding Lesbian Feminist Liberation. Lesbian Feminist Liberation became one of the first explicitly lesbian activist organizations. They gained prominence in 1973 when they participated in the campaign to lobby the New York City Council to add sexual orientation to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance.

Photograph of Jean O'Leary at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in August 1973.

Jean O'Leary states the decision of Lesbian Feminist Liberation to oppose drag queens at 1973 Pride March in New York City.

However, O’Leary and Lesbian Feminist Liberation were controversial figures among LGBTQ+ activists. O’Leary espoused the opinion that drag queens and drag performance were based on misogyny and male chauvinism. Lesbian Feminist Liberation also collectively excluded transgender identities in their activism, choosing to focus on cisgender lesbians. O’Leary later apologized for her early views and the shortcomings of Lesbian Feminist Liberation and publicly changed her stance about drag queens.

The feminist icon Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), referred to O’Leary and Lesbian Feminist Liberation as the “Lavendar Menace” in 1969. Friedan and the National Organization of Women (NOW) hoped to distance themselves from lesbian radical feminists and the notion that all feminists were lesbians. The name “Lavendar Menace” alluded to the Cold War-era nickname for communism – the “Red Menace,” capturing the present threat in the analogy. During this internal feud, lesbians like O’Leary and Rita Mae Brown were expelled from NOW.

Almost immediately after Friedan’s putdown, lesbian feminists (including O’Leary) reclaimed the derogatory title of “Lavendar Menace” and utilized the terminology in their activist language. The expelled activists protested at NOW’s Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970, many of them donning signs and shirts with the words “Lavendar Menace” prominently displayed. They earned the support of many NOW members and were readmitted to the organization the following year, ending NOW’s short-lived lesbian exclusionary policy.

Lesbian feminist activists storm the stage of the Second Congress to Unite Women on May, 1970. Photo by Diana Davies (Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library)

O’Leary became a prominent member of NOW and spoke at the 1977 NOW Conference alongside other feminist icons like Gloria Steinem. She served as a delegate to the United States Democratic Party and served on the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee in the late 1970s and 1980s. She was pivotal to the development of the National Gay Rights Advocates in the early 1980s, one of the precursors to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

In 1988, O’Leary and Robert Eichberg came up with the concept of NCOD as part of their effort to create more positive representations of queer people in the general public. Much of O’Leary and Eichberg’s work in activism focused on fending off anti-LGBTQ policies and rhetoric. So, they devised NCOD as a positive way to proclaim one’s identity. The internationally renowned gay artist Keith Haring created a logo for NCOD’s first annual observance, and the image has become iconic. O’Leary’s organization, National Gay Rights Advocates, spread the word and eighteen states and many other cities participated in the first NCOD on October 11, 1988. By 1990, all fifty states and seven countries participated in recognizing the day in some way.

In 1993, HRC took over organizing NCOD, as National Gay Rights Advocates had disbanded. They have used NCOD to highlight the ongoing struggles many people faced with “coming out.” Although “coming out” has generally become easier in recent years, HRC and other organizations continue to use the holiday to shed light on ongoing homophobia and transphobia and the toll it takes on those who have to “come out” to hostile families and communities.

October 11th isn’t just about “coming out,” but also about “being out.” For those of us already “out of the closet,” NCOD provides the opportunity to reflect on our own personal history of “coming out” and coming into communities that embraced and accepted us.

This year, on October 11th, GOHI is participating in just such an event. Join us on the evening of Wednesday, October 11th at the Ohio History Center for Meet the Sheroes: A Night of Jack’s/Summit Station Nostalgia. The event is hosted by The Friends of Summit Station, recipients of Ohio History Connection’s most recent LGBTQ+ Ohio Historical Marker. Celebrate National Coming Out Day and LGBTQ+ History Month in an atmosphere that will recreate the look and feel of a lesbian bar, complete with archival ephemera and storytellers from the early days of Jack’s and Summit Station!

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