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Free to Be Themselves

by Myra Saturen
October 24, 2013

Rainbows decorated the Community Room at the NCC Monroe Campus as members of the CollegeAnita Lee and community celebrated the 25th anniversary of National Coming Out Day on October 24.  Participants shared their own coming-out experiences as well as those of their family and friends.

"You don't just come out a first time," said Aleksej Wilczek, vice president of NCC's Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), which sponsored the event.  "You come out one hundred times."  He recalled pacing the room for 25 minutes before he told his mother he was gay.  And when he did so, his legs shook.  While it took about a year for his mother to assimilate this revelation, she did come around to full acceptance.  It took additional time for Wilczek to tell other family members.

Steve Rivera, a teacher in the East Stroudsburg school district, acknowledged his homosexuality to himself while a partner in a heterosexual marriage.  Long divorced, he still finds himself coming out twenty-five years later to new colleagues and students. 

Sally Corvinus, an adjunct English instructor, recently married her partner of 34 years. She felt she had to tell her mother that she did not make her gay, but rather that she was born with her sexual orientation.  

Anita Lee, a member of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said that her gay son was outed, and that her husband discovered his son's orientation via the Internet. 

Shawn Copeland, president of GSA, came out when he was in ninth grade, first to his mother. Shawn Copeland

For Sean Salmon, coming out embodied his transgender transformation from female to male, a change he made while he was a student at NCC. 

While reactions to coming out varied for speakers at the event, all recommended thinking things through before revealing sexual orientation to family and friends.  "You don't know who will be receptive," Rivera said.  "Don't force or rush it." 

Lee, who facilitates communication between gay youths and their families, recommends a gradual conversation.  She advised students whose parents may be homophobic to wait until they are financially independent to come out.  She has known of parents who evicted children from their homes on learning the news.  To parents, she points out that their children are the same as they were on the day before coming out. 

Sean SalmonJen Bradley, assistant professor of psychology at NCC, showed a film of celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Wanda Sykes, Chaz Bono, and Jason Collins making coming-out statements.  She gave a history of what it has meant to be gay in America, from the psychiatric community labeling homosexuality as a mental disorder in the 1950s, to psychiatry's repudiation of this classification in 1973 and to the legalization of gay marriage by fourteen states at present.  In the intervening times, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people were forbidden to teach in public schools, discriminated against in hiring, barred from their partners' intensive care hospital rooms and forced to hide their sexual orientation while in the military.  Even with societal change, anti-gay discrimination still pervades our society, Bradley says. Gay marriage is still illegal in most states, and gays face unequal treatment in many milieus.  Violence and prejudice against gay people continue to occur. 

Although all of the speakers advised caution when coming out, they also described relief and liberation at being able, at last, to discard concealment. Corvinus passed a copy of her marriage certificate around the audience and related her joy at her wedding ceremony at New York's City Hall, where she saw gay, heterosexual, and ethnically diverse couples getting married also.   

Salmon said that his NCC classmates are willing to learn about transgender people even if they don't understand them.  "NCC is the best environment I've ever been in, and the most accepting," he said. 

The participants said that coming out demands courage.  Some told about losing friends and relationships with relatives.  But all described the joy of being able, finally, to be themselves.   "Life is too beautiful and too short to let anyone get to us," Rivera said.  

 


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