It's National Coming Out Day. For some people it's an easy process to come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. For most of us, we faced at least a few obstacles. Here are some things to know.
1. It's really your decision. You can come out on your own terms and in your own time. You may decide to wait until you're financially independent or until you move to a new town. Or you may decide you've waited long enough. Maybe everyone else knows, as you've suspected. You can come out to friends first or family first or just one of those groups. You may decide to wait a long time to be out at work. It remains your decision.
2. Support is available in every region of Tennessee. Having traveled the state extensively, I can assure you there are LGBT people and allies everywhere. You'd expect support in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Clarksville, and Murfreesboro. But it's available in Jackson, Cookeville, Crossville, Johnson City, Bristol, Elizabethton, Maryville, Morristown, Dickson, Franklin, Lebanon, Martin, Cleveland, and everywhere in between. And we'll be glad to help you find supportive people close to you. If the thought of coming out and coming to terms with your sexual orientation or gender identity is overwhelming to you and you are considering taking your own life, please contact the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network.
3. You can be as religious or irreligious as you are now when you come out. If you're religious, you may find people preaching at you and trying to use faith to constrict your identity. You may find you can no longer continue with religion. Whatever path you take, be assured that many have taken it before you. Many have continued and even grown in their faith and many would tell you they've grown out of it. But coming out does not necessarily have to change your relationship to your basic beliefs. Will you be able to continue to be a member of your current congregation? Maybe not. Some of the dominant faith traditions in Tennessee are frankly not welcoming. You may have to search for a faith community that both resonates with your religious understanding and is open and affirming. But the options are growing. If you decide to leave religion behind, it might be meaningful for you to engage with some other group for volunteering in order to get to know more people. LGBT and progressive groups around the state can always use more volunteers.
4. You will run into people who don't get it, use the wrong terms, and fumble in trying to support you. As anyone who has lived here any length of time can tell you, many people either hold socially conservative religious views or rather traditional views about gender roles or both. You might be treated as an anomaly or a stereotype. You will also run into people who are friendly but call you something that's rather outdated or they might use a term that really offends you. It's OK to give people the terminology that best fits your identity. It's also OK to take a break from people who refuse to use your new name or the right terminology...a long break in some cases. We often hear the phrase in activist circles that "It's not my job to educate you." That's true to a large degree. You don't have to answer any questions about your sex life or genitalia or really anything else. It may fatigue you. But if the other person is trying and you value the relationship, you may decide it's worth the time to talk it out. You know best who's worth it.
***It's important to note that sometimes people become violent or abusive. Your safety is of paramount importance. You may need to seek help with a domestic violence shelter or law enforcement or through the courts. You may simply need to distance yourself from some people who won't accept your identity. Trust your instincts and observations and get to safety if you need to.
5. The movement for equality needs you. Whether you're coming out as LGBT or as an ally, we know it's not always easy. But the fact that it's not easy for everyone is really the evidence that you are needed in Tennessee. Volunteer at the Pride celebration closest to you. Attend the meetings of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition. Become part of a business network near you like the Nashville LGBT Chamber or Outlook Chattanooga. There are PFLAG chapters around the state. The Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center, OutCentral in Nashville, and the Nooga Diversity Center could use your help. And TEP committees throughout the state would value your efforts as well as many organizations I'm leaving out.
Coming out is always about you first. But you will find that the broader movement for equality in Tennessee is full of resources for you and you will also find that you are a vital part of growing that movement so that coming out can be easier for the next person.