From Marching to Coming Out

October 11, 2018 marks the 30 year anniversary of National Coming Out Day. To celebrate, we wanted to share a little about the origins of this holiday, the ways in which it was first celebrated in the Rio Grande Valley, and why so many in the LGBTQ community regard it as important.

National Coming Out Day has its roots in the Gay and Lesbian Liberation March of 1987. At the time, it was the peak of the AIDS Crisis. President Ronald Reagan’s administration, however, remained by in large silent about the epidemic. Funding for the research into the virus and care for those affected was notoriously low. In response to this grim scenario and the overwhelming lack of legal protections for gay and lesbian Americans, LGBTQ advocacy groups from across the country were called to participate in a large march on the capitol in Washington, DC. The planning for the march took an entire year but a date was set: October 11, 1987.

That day, hundreds of thousands of people (some estimates go as high as 700,000 in attendance) converged on DC to demonstrate, demanding equal treatment for all Americans regardless of sexual orientation as well as an increase in resources allocated to HIV/AIDS programs.

The following year, in 1988, openly-gay psychologist Robert Eichberg and lesbian feminist activist Jean O’Leary came up with the idea for a national “coming out” day. They encouraged LGBTQ people to “come out” or to disclose their identities to their loved ones and others. The goal was clear: advancing visibility for the LGBTQ community and furthering support for their rights. It was a unique call to action daringly different what many previous LGBTQ actions had been; it was not a protest against proposed or existing legislation nor was it a call to mass demonstration or civil disobedience. Instead, it was a call focused on harnessing the power that LGBTQ individuals had to make change within their immediate circles through everyday choices and small, personal interactions. Eichberg and O’Leary decided to capture the importance and legacy of the first Gay and Lesbian Liberation March of 1987 by marking the one-year anniversary of the march as the first official National Coming Out Day. That year, National Coming Out Day was celebrated by a few organizations across the United States in several states that year.

The first known celebration of National Coming Out Day in the Rio Grande Valley would follow one year later, in 1989.

Valley Voice’s In Touch Magazine, with cartoon by Keith Harring. Courtesy of Gabriel Sanchez

Coming Out in the Rio Grande Valley

In 1989, VAC was still a brand new organization. It had been established barely one year before in response to the growing AIDS crisis in the Rio Grande Valley. In addition to its virus and education outreach work, the small-staffed organization was also focused on efforts aimed at combating homophobia and stigma with those at highest risk for contracting HIV. Oscar Raul Lopez was one of VAC’s first employees and outreach workers. He remembers organizing the first known Coming Out Day event at Club 440, at the time a brand new “hot spot” gay bar in Brownsville.

The weekend before National Coming Out Day, Lopez simply cut out an image from the Advocate magazine, pasted it on a simple flier, and printed it out for mass distribution. The graphic was one by HIV+ queer artist Keith Haring. Originally designed for the first National Coming Out Day, it featured his signature graffiti-inspired figures kicking open a closet door. Underneath the flier printed by Lopez were the words “come out, come out, wherever you are” along with the names of the drag queens who would be performing at Club 440. Lopez distributed these fliers to patrons at 440 and even at McAllen’s Club X, as members of the community were known to often drive from one bar to the other in the same evening. That weekend he also took to the stage encouraging all those at the bar to speak and live their truth. Lopez would leave the Valley for a time shortly thereafter but continued working in HIV/AIDS prevention and advocacy in other parts of the country. Before leaving, he helped found what would become Valley Voice, the Rio Grande Valley’s first known LGBTQ advocacy group.

On October 11, 1991, Valley Voice organized a larger-scale National Coming Out Day celebration. Wanting to show solidarity with LGBTQ people living across the border, Valley Voice members decided to have the event in Matamoros. Alicia Lugo, who was at the time president of Valley Voice and one its main organizers and moderators, still remembers organizing the event: a fancy “Coming Out” dinner. “We went all out…it was filet mignon and fancy wine…the finest,” she told Neta. After that, members got together and went out to celebrate by “dancing the night away” at the Club 440.

The following year, Valley Voice began publishing In Touch Magazine, a zine-style publication targeted towards the Valley’s LGBTQ community. The September/October 1992 issue of In Touch was dedicated to National Coming Out Day and featured several different perspectives on the politics and the importance of coming out.

The cover of that issue once again featured the graphic by Keith Haring. The editorial in this issue of In Touch began with a quote from celebrated national gay icon, Harvey Milk. Milk had been one of the first openly gay men to be elected for public office. In Touch describes him as a “pioneer in the political arena who struggled for the civil rights of the gay community.” Milk offered a powerful view of coming out that was considered radical for the time:

“We must destroy these myths once and for all. Shatter them! We must continue to speak out, and most importantly, every gay person must come out! As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your friends, if indeed they are your friends. You must tell your neighbors…..and once they realize that we are indeed their children and we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And you do, you will feel so much better,” read Milk’s words on the In Touch publication.

In Touch article by the editorial team. Courtesy of Gabriel Sanchez

The rest of the editorial was written in collaboration by Valley Voice members, including Lugo. In it, the writers discussed the importance of coming out in the face of the AIDS crisis and the ever-growing stigma around the LGBTQ community related to the epidemic. The editors of In Touch magazine followed up on Milk’s quote by giving more context about National Coming Out Day: “the purpose of the event is to increase the visibility of gays and lesbians. In recent years, several celebrities have come out and openly admitted their homosexuality. Although we encourage coming out, we leave it up to the discretion of each individual to select the time, place, and setting to do so. However we feel that no one else has the right to divulge someone else’s sexual orientation, in other words, don’t ‘wreck’ your friends.”

The editorial then goes on to list some of the reasons why its writers felt that National Coming Out Day was so important: “if the AIDS epidemic has taught us anything, it has made it clear that we will achieve equality under the law only if we are out and visible. We will be treated with respect and dignity only if we expect and demand it. This cannot be done from the closet.”

These thoughts mirrored conversations happening on a national level about the politics of disclosing one’s identity in the name of equal rights for the community. Many at the time had begun to believe that discrimination and hatred towards LGBTQ people would continue as long as the average person believed that they did not know anyone who was LGBTQ but that coming out could disrupt this

The editorial then goes on to acknowledge that coming out is not always easy and that some people are unable to come out to their immediate families and offers some ideas for how someone could come out in other ways and still have an impact: “There are many ways of coming out, it does not have to be a blatant statement to family or friends. It can be very subtle messages. Some of our ideas include writing to your local newspaper, requesting more gay/lesbian coverage, taking your lover out to a nice restaurant and insisting on a candlelit table for two, giving your partner a hug in public, standing up to straight friends and letting them know that you don’t appreciate discriminating gay jokes, or even just leaving your copy of the ‘In Touch’ magazine on the coffee table at home.”

The same issue also featured a piece related to the issue of coming out written by Frances Marsh (who at the time used the spelling “Phrances” for her writings). Marsh, who at the time was still in high school, wrote a regular column for In Touch called “From the Teen Side.” She used this space to address queer and questioning youth throughout the Valley who might be struggling with their families, schools, and identities.

In this particular issue, Marsh directed her column at teens who might not yet be out to their families or to most of their friends. This was an important acknowledgement of the reality of many teens who might not have felt safe to come out to those around them in the conservative social climate of the Valley of the 1990s or who lived with unaccepting families. She pointed out that while coming out could be important to some, there were also several advantages to being in the closet.

In Touch article by Frances Marsh. Courtesy of Gabriel Sanchez

“I have discovered the advantages of being gay without letting other people know. Gay people have a large advantage over heterosexual couples. For example, I know two lovers in high school who have not ‘come out’ to their parents or friends. This gives them the advantage of appearing to be the best of friends and inviting each other over to spend the night and enjoying passions that heterosexual couples in high school don’t often experience.”

She ended her column by saying “my point is, don’t feel pressure to come ‘out.’ There are just as many advantages to being in the closet as there are to being ‘out.’ Do what you feel comfortable with but most of all be happy.”

Marsh says that what she wrote about as a teenager is something she still thinks about regularly.

“Obviously, there are so many privileges that hetero people have that queer people don’t, but there are certain advantages that come with being queer and I just wanted people to know about them,” Marsh said.

Come out, Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are (if you want!)

National Coming Out Day continues to be an important day for the LGBTQ community in the Valley and throughout the country, who continue to have conversations about the politics of disclosure.

“Coming OUT is still important, even all these years later,” said Oscar Lopez now Vice President of Public Policy and Advocacy for Valley AIDS Council and President of the South Texas Equality Project (STEP). “When I returned to The Valley more than 25 years later I was saddened to find that so many of the young men I knew and loved had died from opportunistic infections related to HIV Stage 3. Sadly they left behind family and friends who never truly knew who their sons were and who they loved. Being in the closet is still very much a reality along the U.S. – Mexican Border for so many of our brothers and sisters. The reality is that while Latino culture can be very conservative, it is at its core a loving and family oriented culture more than anything else and we must remember that it is so very important that we be true and authentic to ourselves. If your family of birth can’t accept you for who God made you, then create a new family of friends who will.”

For more on the stories of Valley Voice, In Touch Magazine, Valley AIDS Council, Oscar Lopez, Alicia Lugo, Frances Marsh, Club 440, and what it was like to come out in the Valley in previous decades, check out Pansy Pachanga, a documentary on the history of the Valley’s LGBTQIA+ community coming in 2019.

Special thanks to Oscar Raul Lopez, Alicia Lugo, Laurie Coffey, and Frances Marsh for providing the info for this article. All images original from September/October of 1992 issue of In Touch Magazine and provided by Alicia Lugo and Laurie Coffey.