Dr. Robert H. Eichberg and Jean O’Leary created the day so the LGBTQ community could celebrate embracing their true identity.
When you're being targeted for just existing, even your existence needs to be celebrated to counter the hate, reasoned two activists who came up with 'National Coming Out Day.' It was Dr. Robert H. Eichberg, a then-43-year-old psychologist, and Jean O’Leary, the then-40-year-old lesbian activist who decided that the LGBT community needed to celebrate embracing their true identity and came up with the idea of NCOD. The holiday was first observed in 1988 to counter the hate directed at gays and lesbians and celebrate LGBT culture, reported LGBTQ Nation.
Dr. Eichberg and O’Leary chose October 11, 1988, as 'National Coming Out Day' as it marked the one-year anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It was the largest queer parade of the decade and the crowd estimated were from 500,000 to 750,000 marchers, demanding an end to all oppression based on sexual orientation, gender, and race. The rally was in protest against President Ronald Reagan’s neglect of the HIV epidemic and the Supreme Court’s 1986 ruling against consensual gay sex in the Bowers v. Hardwick case. It was the second gay and lesbian march on the Capitol after the first one on October 14, 1979. Some of the prominent faces at the march included actor Whoopi Goldberg and then-Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that young queer kids used to do the Wonder Woman spin when they were closeted. Whether you’re out and proud now or you’re still living with a secret identity, you are a superhero in my eyes. Happy National Coming Out Day 🏳️🌈 pic.twitter.com/5Pp4PMrIQa— Lynda Carter 🎃 (@RealLyndaCarter) October 11, 2021
The parade was spread out across six days and included demonstrations outside of the IRS and Supreme Court buildings, a mass marriage, and the first public display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The participants at the march called for a repeal of sodomy laws, legal recognition of same-sex relationships, the passage of a national gay and lesbian civil rights bill, and the right to reproductive freedoms, including access to contraception and abortion.
The parade breathed life into the movement, with many heading back home to start grassroots organizations to fight for gay and lesbian rights as well as support for those living with HIV. Dr. Eichberg and O’Leary believed the community needed to unite have a sense of belonging to fight the hate directed at it. “Most people think they don’t know anyone gay or lesbian, and in fact everybody does,” said Eichberg in 1993. “It is imperative that we come out and let people know who we are and disabuse them of their fears and stereotypes.”
National Coming Out Day was embraced and observed in 18 states in 1988 and by 21 states a year later. Awareness campaigns led the day to be acknowledged in 50 states by 1990 and seven other countries. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has also been instrumental in turning the day into a celebration through various annual themes including “Come Out to Congress,” “It’s a Family Affair,” “Conversations from the Heart,” “Coming Out Still Matters,” and “Come Out. Vote.” NCOD's impact goes beyond just celebrating one's authentic self but was also key to making HIV medication and treatment accessible, getting same-sex marriage legalized nationwide, and served as a platform for the Supreme Court's ruling against LGBTQ workplace discrimination last year.
Dr. Eichberg and O’Leary's contribution to the LGBTQ community wasn't limited to NCOD. Eichberg founded a political action committee in Los Angeles for gay and lesbian civil rights and also penned a book Coming Out: An Act of Love. O’Leary successfully advocated for the National Organization for Women to accept lesbians and also founded the Lesbian Feminist Liberation. O’Leary had anti-transgender views early into her work, but later, said she regretted them, describing it as “embarrassing,” “horrible,” and exclusionary. Eichberg died on August 11, 1995, due to complications with HIV at the age of 50 while O’Leary passed away on June 4, 2005, due to lung cancer.