The Importance of National Coming Out Day

October 11th marks National Coming Out Day. Organized by the Human Rights Campaign, the day encourages gay men, lesbians and bisexuals to be honest about their sexual orientation with their family, friends, and others important to them.

As someone who is already out to my close friends, section-mates, and others in my everyday life, it would be easy for me to say that I’m already as out as I need to be. I’ve been out at work since college and have yet to feel as if being gay has stifled my career in any way.

In fact, I initially questioned the relevancy of a National Coming Out “Day”. It seems to me as if coming out is a process, not a destination to be marked by a specific day. Everywhere you go, people make assumptions about you according to their own standards, categories, and shorthands. A part of being gay is correcting those assumptions on a regular basis. I recall a friend’s story: while out at a bar, the female friends he was with started flirting with the bartender, asking him what kind of girls he liked. He responded with a smile, “The kind that are boys.” Whether casually, like the bartender, or to your immediate family for the first time, coming out will continue to happen throughout life.

I personally take things for granted, but there are people who do not feel as comfortable as I do to be out, either with others or with themselves. I realize that the members of the HBS GLSA do not encompass everyone who is gay at HBS. Kinsey statistics indicate that in every section there are between eight and ten gay men or lesbians. While absolute numbers are debatable, the point remains: there are individuals that you know who are not out.

Coming out means a lot of things. It means coming out to yourself and realizing that you are gay – even if you aren’t ready to tell anyone else or the entire HBS community. It also means coming out as a supporter of diversity. It’s about creating and supporting an environment that accepts differences. It is about being respectful of others and building a community where everyone is welcome. In that sense, National Coming Out Day is for everyone – whether you are gay or straight.

National Coming Out Day is especially important at HBS where there is little chance for us to address gay and lesbian issues. It surprises me that, as we tackle issues of managing people and relationships, the only case we had last year which dealt with a gay or lesbian protagonist in a provocative manner, Kathy Levinson at e*Trade, was pulled from the curriculum this year.

While a handful of other cases deal with the subject, they do so only in a peripheral manner. The attention to gay and lesbian issues is cursory at best. This is a glaring deficit in our curriculum. In theory, we are here to become leaders, and as such, we need to learn how to manage a diverse workforce in a way that respects everyone’s individual liberties and lifestyles. Gay and lesbian issues form an important and relevant part of that diversity.

We’ve come a long way from the days when HBS students had to call a phone number to get the secret location of GLSA meetings. Companies that recognize the importance of promoting diversity now hold receptions specifically for gay and lesbian students (e.g., Bain, McKinsey, BCG, Goldman Sachs, Citibank/SSB, etc.). OF’s “Gay Night Out” event was one of the hottest items in our charity auction.

On the other hand, I have a gay friend who once spent 3 years of his life living in a residential community in Northern California where he tried to “convert” himself to heterosexuality. National Coming Out Day represents his acceptance of who he is, and it helps to ease the internal tension that led him to attempt suicide twice. Such stories, and the recent rash of gay bashings in West Hollywood remind me that our progress is tenuous and uneven.

Further progress depends on more than just the gay and lesbian community. Gays and lesbians cannot extol the value of diversity on behalf of the entire HBS community. Change will depend on the community at large embracing diversity, which in turn requires the support of individuals – like you.