Thirty years ago today, October 11 was named National Coming Out Day to mark the anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in the United States. October is LGBTQ History Month and Filipino American History Month as well.
Also 30 years ago today, I was born in Texas as the youngest of three siblings to the parents of Filipino immigrants. Each year, this time feels bittersweet to me. As I celebrate each of these identities, I remember how central my Filipino-American identity was to my coming out story.
For years as an LGBTQ person, I felt closed off from our cultural religion — something that should have felt like it deeply belonged to me — and dreaded coming out to a family I feared would reject me. I sought to create two worlds for myself: a world in which I worked for equality as an LGBTQ activist and another world in which I kept silent about that identity and work to my parents and family. The separate and siloed nature of these two October celebrations — LGBTQ History Month and Filipino-American History Month — reminds me of the separateness with which I approached my own identities for so many years.
But on National Coming Out Day, I am reminded of the day that these two worlds unintentionally collided, and the importance of allowing each LGBTQ person to decide when and how to share their identities, on their own terms.
My mother and father immigrated to the United States in 1978 and settled in Sugar Land, Texas, to work as nursing supervisors. As my parents worked day and night shifts in emergency rooms, intensive care units, and psychiatric hospitals, they achieved something for our family I previously thought was only obtainable in either sleep or fantasy: the American Dream.
But my own American Dream didn’t begin to form until I left my undergraduate institution to participate in the 2010 Soulforce Equality Ride. As a traveling forum that started in 2006 to confront discrimination that LGBTQ students face at more than 100 college campuses across the United States, the Equality Ride aimed at reconciliation through dialogue, challenging school policies that are religious-in-intent but discriminatory-in-practice.
While the main purpose of the ride is to confront the rhetoric that sustains spiritual violence against LGBTQ students, the Equality Ride also advocated this simple but important message: Love your neighbor as yourself. Unable to reconcile my sexual orientation with my family and faith, loving myself was something I denied myself growing up.
Out of my fear of being called bakla, a derogatory Filipino term to describe effeminate men, I often resorted to strict monitoring of my gender presentation, behavior, and mannerisms. I forced myself to join karate at my dad’s request and limited the amount of time I spent with my older sisters. As the only son, I felt my dad was raising me in an image of himself, with the hope I would one day marry a Filipino woman, have children, and carry on the family name.
I wanted to be a good Catholic son and became an alter server at our local parish. I struggled to reconcile Catholic teachings with who I am but eventually came to the realization that God is a loving God — one that looks into the heart of each person for kindness and compassion. These were the traits I strived to project in my interactions with queer students on the Equality Ride, letting them know the value of their worth and the value of their stories.
Yet when I returned to Texas in May 2010, my American Dream turned into a temporary nightmare. I was still not out to my dad, when one of his friends mentioned an image of me from a local newspaper engaging in a nonviolent Equality Ride protest in Mississippi. “Isn’t this your son?” he asked. “You must be proud of him.”
I had never had a Coming Out Day to my dad — the news delivered by his friend was a shock.
The violence of not being able to control the contours of my story was aggravated when, despite my own tears of disbelief, my father gripped me and began using conversion therapy tactics, trying to “pray the gay away” during dinner at Luby’s Cafeteria, a Texas restaurant. My body felt paralyzed, but my mind was racing.
Years later I still ask, if not for these moments, when would have I mustered enough courage to come out to my dad? I struggle to answer this question. But looking back on the Equality Ride, I can now imagine myself eventually coming out to him through the courage inspired by brave LGBTQ students I met on the road. Brave students who, by the essence of their very existence as queer at conservative universities, engaged in nonviolent protests and challenged gender norms.
With the amount of progress our movement has made in such a short period of time, it can be easy to forget the complicated layers many face in making the decision about when and how to come out, particularly for those in our community navigating multiple minority identities.
Yes, we rightfully celebrated national marriage equality across the land in 2015, but in this seemingly-safe atmosphere for LGBTQ Americans on NCOD, let us remember Orlando. Let us also remember 2018 is fast becoming one of the deadliest years for transgender people in the United States, with 21 transgender people murdered, nearly all of them transgender women of color.
We have come so far, and yet we still have so much work ahead of us.
The person who outed me to my father didn’t know the consequences of his actions. The avalanche of negative repercussions that followed were not his fault.
But sometimes the celebration and momentum of NCOD can inspire us to seek to help others in our community, to throw open the closet doors and live more openly and authentically. I love my out, open life. And I have continued my LGBTQ activism, now working with conversion therapy survivors for the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Born Perfect Campaign.
But I know that throwing the doors open can result in a very different outcome for so many different people. While we celebrate our own openness and authenticity, we must also stand in solidarity with those for whom coming out may not be safe and continue to work for a world in which everyone is and feels free to live authentic lives.
DARREN ARQUERO is a Butler Koshland Fellow at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.