The Universal Experience of Coming Out

10/11/2013 09:00 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

The arrival of fall brings to my mind the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, a solemn time for memorials and reflection on those who were murdered the past year due to their trans status. Since its inception in 1999, that day has been Nov. 20. But before we get to November, we have Coming Out Month in October, with National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11. I've been honored to speak to two audiences already this month, with more to come, and those events have provided me with an opportunity for serious reflection.

It has become a bit of a cliché to say that the most important tool in the fight for gay rights has been the process of coming out, but I think it's a cliché for a good reason: It's true, and it has become even truer with time. Today 87 percent of Americans say they know a gay person, so it is no surprise that support for marriage equality has reached 57 percent nationally. Coming out works. A good survey of the change in attitudes over the past decade was done by Pew earlier this year.

For transgender persons it is true as well, but because so many trans persons over the past half century transitioned and then left the community, far fewer Americans know a trans person than a gay person. So every opportunity that a trans person gets to speak publicly, be it in print, visual or social media or face-to-face, is a valuable one that will amplify our voices. And now that we're being labeled as the force that will "dismantle" Western civilization, it's all the more important. I do feel sorry for my gay friends who have been supplanted as the agents of all that is evil, though they're still the ones viewed as destroying Eastern civilization.

More seriously, however, I'd like to make a few important points about coming out. First, most human beings are closeted in one form or another. We all have secrets, what are euphemistically called "skeletons in the closet." While in the closet, we lead lives, as Thoreau said, "of quiet desperation." I believe that coming out is so powerful because it is a universal desire.

I tell a story that taught me this just weeks after my transition. I was having my hair done, and a woman came over and said, "Dana, you don't know me, but I want to thank you." I was confused and a bit surprised, not having become quite comfortable yet in my own skin, so she continued, "I heard about your journey, and you inspired me to take the step I have wanted to take for a long time."

"What's that?" I asked.

"To leave my husband."

I thought, "This isn't what I had in mind," but upon reflection I realized that my midlife leap empowered her to do what she needed to do to overcome her own state of apprehension. Recognizing that I had been paralyzed for three decades gave me the empathy to respond positively to her, and to realize that simply by becoming myself, I could make a difference in others' lives.

Second, coming out is a process, potentially a lifelong one. Until being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender becomes an irrelevancy, we will always be having discussions with new friends and acquaintances, and I believe it is incumbent upon us to do so. When we enter new situations, we might actually have to come out all over again, in a simulacrum of our original coming out. As an example, we are beginning to discover that older LGBT folks moving to retirement communities are facing bias all over again. This doesn't surprise me, as my parents lived this experience in Florida, where friends joining retirement communities discovered that, thanks to the release of inhibitions due to cognitive decline, many of their new neighbors were reverting back to their childhood anti-Semitic attitudes. This is not a pleasant vision of the future for many of us.

Third, when we come out as individuals, we drag many others along with us, our parents and siblings, primarily, when we come out as children or adolescents, and our spouses and children when we do so as adults. Then there are all our friends, neighbors, colleagues and acquaintances who have to reconfigure their images of us and revise their mental histories of us and our relationships with them. These days, that process proceeds much more fluidly than in the past, but still, for some, there is a sense of great betrayal. Again, this is a fundamentally emotional human experience that most people have gone through at some time during their lives. When I came out, I apologized to my oldest friends for having defrauded them when we were children and adolescents. I knew as an adolescent that I wasn't being honest, and to their credit, they forgave me. Some even asked, earnestly, why I hadn't trusted them with my secret, and I could sense the pain in the question, the tinge of a sense of betrayal. My response was generally like, "Well, had I come out to you as trans at a time when you had little idea of 'gay,' would you really have embraced me?" The answer was always, "No." So we mutually forgave one another, but each time it was a difficult conversation for both parties.

Finally, I've learned that the most difficult coming out, save coming out to oneself, is coming out to one's family -- not necessarily one's nuclear family, but those who mean the most, whose rejection would sting the most painfully. I discovered that I had a harder time asking for support from the Jewish community. It turns out that I was so relieved to have just been accepted when I transitioned a decade ago that I was afraid of pushing the envelope and asking for affirmation rather than being satisfied just with acceptance. It was only this past week that I finally understood my reticence and made an effort to overcome it and reach out assertively. Hard to believe, I know, my not being assertive, but it is also universal that when the stakes are highest, people revert to more primitive and protective behaviors.

So I ask those who are still closeted to seriously consider the good that they can do not only for their community but for themselves, and reach deeply to find the courage to come out and sing. Oliver Wendell Holmes put it beautifully when he wrote:

Alas for those that never sing,

But die with all their music in them.

Taking that first step might very well be the most difficult but important step you can take. Keep in mind this poem, The Cure at Troy, from the late Seamus Heaney, Ireland's poet laureate, and a favorite of former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden. In it he sings:

History says, Don't hope

On this side of the grave,

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.