National Coming Out Day: it’s not gay rights, it’s queer justice

Kendall McElhaney

With the recent passing of marriage equality on June 26, it is my belief that we are currently living in an identity revolution. I feel very lucky to be living in a period of time where this is possible. However, this freedom is still not accessible for everyone. There is still a lot of work that must be done for queer Americans of all gender identities, sexual orientations or preferences and sexual anatomies to feel like they have a seat at the table.

Now so more than ever, folks are starting to speak up, specifically the younger generation, and are taking it upon themselves to self-identify and “come out” in ways that were once considered too taboo to discuss openly. This is creating a new wave of conversations and introductions of who we are as a generation, which challenge our society’s inherent biases.

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Sounds great in theory, but this win did not come without countless losses.

This past Sunday was the 27th National Coming Out Day, an entire day focused on the recognition and acceptance of identities outside the heteronormative. Started Oct. 11, 1988, NCOD emphasizes the most basic form of activism through the practice of coming out to family, friends and colleagues as a way of living as openly as safety allows.

Transparency about who you are, how you choose to present yourself and who you choose to love are not actions that most heterosexual individuals feel they need to do. However, it has been stigmatized as a “right of passage” for anyone under the queer spectrum. In my 21 years, I have never had a straight friend, or even a cis friend, sit me down and tell me that they are straight or cisgender. There is a level of validation and visibility that accompanies coming out that some individuals feel is absolutely vital to living authentically, but this is not the case for everyone. Just as some straight people don’t all feel the need to get married, not all queer people feel the need to come out. Neither of these life decisions should be forced on anyone. Yet, this is not the reality for many in this community. Oftentimes, most people feel pressured to come out, whether that be in a big way or just small subtle conversations. And with that comes a lot of danger, as recognized and illustrated in Matthew’s story.

In 1998, Matthew Shepard was a  21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, just about an hour from our own University. Shepard was brutally attacked and tied to a fence in a field outside of Laramie. On Oct. 12, Shepard passed away at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, with his family by his side. The horrific events that took place shortly after midnight Oct. 7, 1998, would become one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in American history.  

Two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, abducted Shepard and drove him to a remote area in east Wyoming. He was tied to a split-rail fence where the two men severely assaulted him with the butt of a pistol. He was beaten and left to die in the cold of the night. Almost 18 hours later, Shepard was found by a bicyclist who initially mistook him for a scarecrow. Shepard’s memorial service was attended by friends and family from around the world and garnered immense media attention that brought his story to the forefront of the fight against bigotry and hate.

Shepard’s story is pivotal to Queer History and spawned an activist movement that, more than a decade later, would result in passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a federal law against biased hate crimes directed specifically at lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.

The life and death of Matthew Shepard changed the way we talk about, and deal with, hate and injustice in America. Since his death, Shepard’s legacy has challenged and inspired millions of individuals to erase hate in all of its many vicious forms. Although Shepard’s life was short, his story continues to have a great impact on queer-identified individuals and allies alike.  His legacy lives on with thousands of people who actively fight to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance.

Today, 17 years after Shepard’s passing, we honor his story, and others who have faced intolerance, hatred, assault and even death just for being who they are. We get caught up in the progress we’ve made and rarely ever look back at the injustice we’ve faced. We stand tall, legs shaking and hands clenched, with response to the love we still carry for those who cannot.

Today, I think about how close Shepard was to this place I call home. Today, I honor the countless Trans* women of color who have wrongfully died in the last year. Today, I honor the countless LGBTQ+ youth who have taken their own lives because they couldn’t see how life could get any better. Today, I honor everyone who has ever felt like they didn’t belong. Today, I honor my own identity and the privilege I have to even write this column. Today, I honor my parents who love me with the entirety of their hearts and support me no matter what. Today, I honor my friends who engage in the hard conversations and those who stick around to hear the answers. Today, I honor laughter and connection and community. Today, I honor the success we’ve made and the struggles that lie ahead. Today, I honor Matthew Shepard.

Collegian Columnist Kendall McElhaney will be writing jokes again very soon — it’s cool, everybody. She can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @kendallaftrdark.

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