As Xang Hang walked the halls of his high school, he heard the hush of murmuring gossip. He hadn’t come out to his peers yet, but they were already talking about it.
"It was a very small city,” Hang said about his hometown of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. “Growing up, I didn't know or hear about anyone else who was gay.”
But that was five years ago. Hang, now a freshman at UW-Madison, reflected on his coming out story in time for National Coming Out Day.
Not only does October host the official National Coming Out Day, but all 31 days are dedicated to LGBTQ+ History Month. This year, the month also marks UW-Madison’s own LGBT Campus Center’s 25th birthday. The center has planned a full schedule of parties, keynote speakers and other events to celebrate the inclusion of a spectrum of identities and sexualities.
“[The month is] framed as a birthday rather than an anniversary, because we wanted it to have a more forward-facing and celebratory feel rather than an archival feel,” said Katherine Charek Briggs, the interim assistant dean and director of the LGBTCC. “Although of course history is very important … we are looking forward in a time where it may be hard to have that framework.”
The U.S. saw its first National Coming Out Day 29 years ago, on Oct. 11, 1988. It was established by Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary as they celebrated the anniversary of the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which had occurred on the same day one year earlier. Half a million people gathered in the nation’s capitol, which resulted in the formation of various LGBTQ+ organizations and the founding of a holiday observed year to year.
“To me, National Coming Out Day is about visibility,” said Gabe Javier, former assistant dean and director of the LGBTCC, and current assistant dean and director of the Multicultural Student Center. “People who have been out for a long time still find empowerment in this day, and people who are thinking about coming out have a chance to see positive role models celebrating their identity. It’s also a chance to remind people that because of continued homophobia and heterosexism, coming out is still a big deal.”
Despite the day’s growing observance, some individuals, such as Hang, believe society’s forward-thinking progress has decreased the need for such a holiday.
“Coming out isn't something I see as an expectation of young queer, gay, lesbian or questioning people to do because you never see a straight person come out and say 'I am a heterosexual and I prefer the people the opposite gender of me,'” Hang said.
Hang argued coming out is complex, and assigning it to an arbitrary day seems unfit.
“It's extremely important but at the same time it's a validation on the history of oppression,” Hang said.
Javier agreed that while coming out is a complex process, affirmation is crucial.
“Coming out is a process because LGBTQ people are constantly having to negotiate to whom and when to come out,” Javier said. “Coming out is still a big deal and people still need to be affirmed during this process.”
Hang came out to his brother first, when he was 12. After that, he slowly opened up to his friends and family.
“I think even before [my brother] I came out to a few friends. I was very young but I think I always knew,” Hang said. “I first came out as bisexual because it is just easier. I was like 'I still kind of like girls, I could get married some day,' obviously because [same-sex marriage] wasn't legal back then.”
Hang struggled to string together a sentence that captured the intense emotions he left behind in Manitowoc. He decided on the word “hopeless.”
"Hopeless for change, hopeless for life to get better,” Hang said. “It was extremely hard to see outside of what I was being fed by the media and how I was being treated by people around me."
Even in these moments of darkness, Hang said he recognized the light at the end of the tunnel.
“I always knew there was something else out there, and I knew once I got outside the city, the stigma in school of being gay wasn't going to stick around," Hang said.
And the stigma didn’t stick. Separating himself from the hardship of his teenage years, Hang developed an identity far beyond his sexuality.
"I knew there was more to me than just my sexuality,” Hang said. “I can define myself as a gay man, but I define myself as so many other things that are important to me."
Hang’s list of interests and extracurriculars are extensive. With an intended double major in Spanish and political science, and a long list of volunteer work, Hang has a strong passion for politics and justice.
Though Hang’s attitude often brings him to the forefront of change, he insists that one does not have to be marching in protests to push for social justice.
“Many of us are ignorant about a lot of things, but rather than staying silent and being influenced by different perceptions of what gay people are like, you yourself should be willing and open-minded enough to at least have a conversation,” Hang said. “Ask someone what it means [to them] to be gay. It's not a way to just get involved but it's a way to educate yourself.”