October 11 is National Coming Out Day in the United States. Celebrated each year, it marks the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Around this day each year, members of the Chicago Booth community participate in Ally Week. Matt Conan, ’21, shares his coming out experience—though you’ll soon see it’s an ongoing process—and how his Booth classmates help to create a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community.
There are two distinct types of coming out as LGBTQ+. The first, the one we usually think and talk about, is coming out for the first time: to our childhood/current friends, our families, and our parents. It is something that usually brackets a discrete time-period in our lives, and what we describe when we share our “coming out stories.” The second is coming out perpetually: the daily decisions we make with regards to sharing our sexuality and/or our gender identity.
See, one of the unique things about being LGBTQ+ is that we are a secret minority. The thing that makes us different—that people discriminate against us for—is invisible. For the most part, anywhere we go in life, we are outnumbered. We are minorities in our own families. The assumption when you meet a new person out in “the wild” is that they are straight. Despite the pervasive tropes of the flamboyant gay man and the butch lesbian, the reality is we don’t fall into those neat stereotypes that allow others to fall back on easy heuristics.
As a result, coming out is a life-long process. Every new space we travel in—a new city, a party, a new job, a networking event, a new school—we have to first judge whether or not it’s safe to come out, decide whether or not we want to come out, and then figure out how to come out. It’s a delicate and sometimes exhausting process we navigate literally every day.
We all have different ways of managing this process. I make sure to be pretty upfront about my sexuality. If I’m being at all honest about my life, or sharing what I did over the weekend, it isn’t too hard. I’ll causally mention that I went to a gay bar, or that I’m watching Rupaul’s Drag Race on Friday with some friends, or that I had dinner with Larry and his husband. The day I met my team during my internship, I wore a shirt with an LGBTQ+ flag. There are more subtle tricks. I can purposely lean into stereotypes at certain moments to lay the groundwork; yes, these stereotypes are offensive, but they can also be handy.
I tend to do this regardless of whether I’ve deemed a new space LGBTQ+ friendly. I force others to react to me–to be comfortable with me and not the other way around–and I’d rather know where they stand. I also have a difficult time navigating spaces where my sexuality is a secret. Being gay is a primary part of my identity, and I’m not one for code-switching. I pretty much am who I am, take it or leave it. This is largely empowering, but also can be limiting; there are places and situations I avoid in order to protect myself.
The last notable time I felt in the closet was on a new soccer team I joined in 2011. I had played at a fairly high level in high school, and would have been a borderline D1 player. My teammates would often make homophobic remarks, and when I told my coach I was gay he advised me not to come out to the team. My twin and close teammates knew—I was, after all, already out in the rest of my life—but otherwise it was a secret. As a result of how uncomfortable I sometimes felt, and my fear of teammates’ responses, I vowed not to play soccer in college.
When I graduated college in 2008, I began to wade back into the murky waters of soccer. I joined the New York Ramblers, the city’s gay soccer club, and played in co-ed leagues with college friends. I built my skill and confidence back up, and eventually my older brother invited me to join his “serious” team, Molon Lave, largely made up of the sort of jocks who had put me off from the sport in the first place. I joined the team, but again—and for the first time in a long time—I was nervous about coming out and kept my sexuality to myself for a while. It was uncomfortable.
At the time, Molon Lave was in the same league as the Ramblers. When my two teams played each other, I chose to play with the Ramblers—I had been with them longer, and frankly viewed it as an opportunity to out myself to my new teammates without having to say anything. I was really nervous and surely bashful. But pretty quickly, my straight teammates embraced me. Once they knew I was gay, I was able to share my full self with the team. I was more comfortable speaking about my life. It unlocked my sense of humor and let me indulge my signature gay-filtered analytic sports fandom.
After I came out, I liked them more, and they liked me more. I played with the team for close to five years, often twice a week, often on Friday night before we went out for drinks, until everyone moved away or had children. I’m still good friends with a lot of them, frequently turning down their wedding invites and ignoring group text messages (there’s that sense of humor!). I like to think I positively impacted the way they thought of gay men, and their perceptions of what a gay man could be.
Coming out to my teammates worked out for me. I am far more comfortable with and make more sense to people who know I’m gay, so for me it works out more often than not. These positive experiences reinforce themselves and increase my confidence. I know, however, that as a white cis-male gay man, I am extremely privileged. The calculus is different for me than it is for a lesbian, or for an LGBTQ+ minority, and certainly different for our transgender peers–all of whom often feel rejected from designated “safe” spaces.
These are dynamics that are super important for allies to understand. You may come across peers and friends who are first coming out. You may end up having gay children or close family members who will need your empathy and compassion. But more often, you’ll come across LGBTQ+ who are already out in parts of their lives, and are making a decision in real time about whether or not to come out in a new space, or to come out to you. It’s easier for some of us than others, and it’s easier in some contexts than others.
Chicago Booth is one of these new spaces that can be ambiguous. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how open the community has been, but at the same time, I’m confronting spaces that crash up against my own heuristics and biases. In many ways, Booth is one of the most diverse communities I’ve been a part of. Some of my classmates are conservative or religious. Many are international, and some come from countries I would be scared to travel to as a gay man. Some are ex-jocks and others were in frats. Not to mention “finance bros” and former members of the military. I know that here, I can be guilty of prejudice. Nonetheless, these biases make a space feel less safe, whether real or imagined, and we LGBTQ+ have had to learn, often the hard way, how to protect ourselves.
So, it’s important that, as a community, we all do what we can to demonstrate that Booth is a safe space. Every student who registers for OUTreach as an ally makes a difference. Every student who contributed to the Pink Party videos and buys a ticket to drag brunch makes a difference. Every veteran, banker, and athlete who comes to Holigays and dances their butt off makes a difference, and undermines my own biases in the best possible way. Adding pronouns to your name tag and to your Zoom isn’t just to identify your own gender in case you have an ambiguous name, and it is by no means demonstrative is your own sexuality. Instead, it is a hugely powerful, yet simple symbol of allyship.
These are small acts of awareness and compassion that together can create an incredibly welcoming environment, one that makes it just a little easier for all of us in the LGBTQ+ community to navigate our reality of coming out every single day.