When news spread that a 16-year-old boy, Channing Smith, from Coffee County, Tennessee died by suicide after being outed by his classmates, many were reminded of my son Tyler’s story. Both were young men, just coming into themselves, on the brink of discovering all that life has to offer. Both were newly exploring their sexual orientation, made to feel by society that who they were was somehow wrong, unnatural, and something to be ashamed of. And both tragically died far, far too young, after experiencing cruel bullying from peers on the basis of their identity.
In grieving yet another young queer person’s untimely death, I am struck by the similarity, too, that both boys were either fully or partially in the closet, and it did little to protect either of them.
Channing Smith died before he could come out to his family because he was scared of the consequences of coming out at school. In the case of my son, other students weaponized his sexual orientation against him and took advantage of a deeply private moment because he was not fully out of the closet. It's poignant and troubling to be reminded again that Tyler was never able to truly live a life “out and proud.” While he was just beginning to come out to some people, he was not out to the world yet. Neither was Channing.
The myth continues to be told, even today, that the closet is safer. If queer and trans people can hide, assimilate into heteronormative and cisgender culture, then no one will know. No one will target, bully, or belittle you to the point where you’re made to believe that your life has no meaning or purpose. But that is not the truth. There are great dangers to the closet; it’s a safety net that can break loose at any moment. It keeps LGBTQ+ folks from loving themselves as they are and that absolutely does not safeguard them from the bullying that so many queer and trans youth still experience.
None of this is to say that it’s any LGBTQ+ person’s fault for staying in the closet. Of course, we know why people stay in the closet, and I know why Tyler did so for many years. It takes time, processing, weighing who to tell, when, and how. It is no small decision. But queer and trans people can become and remain so terrified of rejection from their peers and communities that they never come out to begin with, and never want to. The concept of the closet will continue to exist as long as our world and culture see queer and trans people as “other” and undesirable.
Therefore, we all play a role in furthering a society where LGBTQ+ people can feel safe to come out. I understand why many pine for the day when it won’t be necessary for people to come out of the closet. And yet, I still see the act as revolutionary and courageous. To come out of the closet — and to love oneself, be proud, as we say — is countercultural, political and very brave. It creates a bold visibility for the community and adds a degree of vulnerability, including vulnerability toward rejection, that didn’t exist before.
The closet is also dangerous because it is a mechanism which exists in order to keep the normative straight/cis world comfortable. If queer and trans folks remain hidden, quiet and afraid, then the rest of society can more seamlessly ignore their very existence. National Coming Out Day is a reminder that society does not get a free pass to look away from, ignore, or bully gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer people. It’s a day solely focused on the courage it takes to come out and live in one’s truth.
Neither being in nor out of the closet will keep queer and trans youth entirely safe from bullying, harassment and hatred. But I am sure that if my son had the opportunity to be fully out to the world, he would have been able to more easily seek the community, the support network, and the resources he needed to stay alive. Only our continued advocacy work will help to create a change, one heart, one mind, one school, and one faith community at a time. Together we can create a culture of kindness that will make it easier for young people to come out of the closet.
This year, we celebrated 50 years since Stonewall with World Pride, we have seen nationally broadcast campaign town halls focused on LGBTQ+ issues, and we had a majority of presidential candidates sign our organization’s Upstander Pledge, which commits the signatory to rejecting bullying and standing up for those who are bullied. Yet we cannot forget that in communities and schools around the country, there are still LGBTQ+ students who are dealing with violence, harassment, and hatred.
Today is a reminder that coming out can save lives and that queer and trans Americans are still counting on us to change the world they walk out of the closet into.
Jane Clementi is the founder of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which works to end online and offline bullying in schools, workplaces and faith communities.
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