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National Coming Out Day — The ‘Outest’ Generation

This October marked the 29th National Coming Out Day.

Created to mark the March on Washington for LGBT rights in 1987, October 11th provides space for people to openly identify as LGTBQ; increasing the visibility of gender and sexual minorities everywhere. National Coming Out Day also serves as an acknowledgement of the tremendous courage demonstrated by previous generations of LGBTQ people; many of whom were lost to violence, systemic persecution, and historical erasure.

Earlier this year, GLAAD published results of their Accelerating Acceptance survey, which indicated Millennials self-identify as LGBTQ at much higher rates than older generations (20% compared to 12% for Generation X, or Baby Boomers at 7%).

Millennials also appear to understand gender differently; the percentage of responders who know someone with a gender identity other than cisgender is much higher as compared to earlier generations. This cohort seems to experience gender as a spectrum, and not a locked binary state.

As details of this survey began to circulate, many articles presented the results by labeling Millennials the “gayest” generation yet. Looking at the numbers of those who self-identify as LGBTQ, yes, it does appear that there is a substantial increase across this generation. A higher rate of identifying also coincides with kids coming out at much younger ages. Expressions of gender variance and same-sex attractions occur earlier than previously expected.

However, I would argue that Millennials are not the gayest generation, but the ‘outest’. Self-expression of identity by these young adults is the culmination of decades spent fighting to create space for gender and sexual minorities. Queer kids are embracing, and naming, their own experience because earlier generations refused to stay in the closet.

This generation is the first to grow up with gay-straight alliances in high schools and, in some cases, LGBTQ acceptance programs at even earlier grade levels. Millennials were born into a world after Stonewall, Harvey Milk, and the beginning of modern LGBTQ civil rights movements. They grew up learning about Matthew Shepard and watching Pedro Zamora on MTV’s “The Real World”. These kids saw queer people represented in prime time television shows and learned that HIV/AIDS was not something that only impacted gay men. They saw the normalization of identities that weren’t limited to straight or cisgender.

Millennials have also seen legal protections and equality expand in the LGBTQ community, especially over the last few years.

This is an important influence for a few reasons: protections make it less dangerous to be openly LGBTQ, and policy that discriminates based on sexual orientation or gender doesn’t align with this generation’s worldview. When gender identity and sexual orientation are no more relevant that left or right handedness, denying equal status seems arbitrary to the point of being ridiculous. Legislators aren’t writing policy against some mysterious “other”, they are discriminating against these young adults and their friends. That creates a very different dichotomy.

So, when people you know and love start changing their profile pictures or come out as LGBTQ, here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are different. Lesbians, gay, bisexual, pansexual are sexual orientations. Transgender, non-binary, gender fluid, gender queer are gender identities. Learn the differences.

2. The list in item 1 is not exhaustive, largely because the vocabulary and concepts are constantly evolving. Again, do your homework and research as you hear of new terms.

3. If someone comes out to you, stay calm and acknowledge the courage it often takes to disclose. Ask how you can support them and keep what they share in confidence. Do not disclose to anyone else without their consent. People out in one aspect of their lives (school or home) may not be out in others (work or extended family).

4. If someone comes out as non-binary, transgender, or gender fluid, ask about their pronouns. They / Them / Theirs, She / Her / Hers, He / Him / His….be respectful and use the pronouns indicated.

5. When you are unsure of something, educate yourself.

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