October 11th is National Coming Out Day, a day established in 1988 by members of the LGBTQ+ community to encourage people to stop hiding and be open about their identity. Coming out increases visibility of the LGBTQ+ community and in extension combats ignorance, prejudice, and biases. It also fuels feelings of solidarity within the LGBTQ+ community, which is important for a community more at risk of depression and suicidal ideation due to discrimination and prejudice.
It its essence, National Coming Out Day is about visibility. But encouraging LGBTQ+ individuals to come out, which many cannot do safely due to a variety of reasons, such as youth who are financially dependent on others or people living in states where discrimination is still legal, puts an enormous amount of pressure and responsibility on the community. One way in which everyone can participate in National Coming Out Day and increase visibility is through learning about LGBTQ+ history the struggles, the victories, and the work still to be done.
Prior to joining the Education team at Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, I worked at a former concentration camp in Germany. While introducing myself to visitors in my first days there, some people were subtly but obviously uncomfortable with the LGBTQ+ aspect of my identity. So I became an anonymous educator, talking about the experiences of people in the camp while excluding my own identity. I didn't want to be a distraction from the lessons to be learned there. Or so I reasoned. To be honest, I didn't want to feel others' discomfort in who I am.
But excluding part of my identity in certain contexts of my professional life felt wrong. LGBTQ+ individuals were murdered by the Nazi regime, and their stories are just as important as other victim groups. Thousands of people were arrested, imprisoned, and murdered in the very camp where I was working, simply for an aspect of their identity which I shared. I began to make it a habit of mentioning my wife and our child when introducing myself and the rare cases of disapproval became more motivating than defeating.
In the act of sharing that aspect of my identity I found myself feeling more empowered. More importantly, I saw firsthand the impact it had on LGBTQ+ students and visitors. People began to approach me and share that they were also part of the LGBTQ+ community. Sometimes students confided that they hadn't yet come out to their classmates or teachers. They felt safe, heard, and connected.
In a place where LGBTQ+ people were once imprisoned, tortured, and murdered, people became inspired to embrace their authentic selves. Somehow, talking about the horrors of the Holocaust created a safe space to embrace that aspect of their identity. That's the transformative power of Holocaust education.
The Nazi regime divided people into categories, and while assigning those categories was often subjective and nonsensical such as trying to determine how much "Jewish blood" someone had or categorizing someone as "homosexual" based on a denunciation from an employer citing rumors about an employee these categories determined who lived and who died. But people are more than categories and not limited to one identity, and LGBTQ+ identity goes beyond victimhood.
LGBTQ+ history isn't limited to the pink and black triangles of Nazi Germany. LGBTQ+ people have always been victimized and marginalized, and continue to be to this day. This is an important part of our history. But it is only part of our history.
Our history is also the 6-day uprising at the Stonewall Inn in the summer of 1969. It's how LGBTQ+ activists used Stonewall to propel the fight for equality to a new era of marching, speaking out, and demanding change. From Cold War-era witch hunts and forced lobotomies to marriage equality and beyond, the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States illustrates the power of both the individual and the community to conquer seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the journey to create a more equitable society.
And the fight continues. While 21 states and the District of Columbia have full LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination protections, 29 states do not. This discrimination legally occurs in various aspects of daily life, such as housing, health care, education, and the use of public spaces including restaurants, businesses, and bathrooms. LGBTQ+ history is often erased from textbooks. Only 5 states currently mandate teaching LGBTQ+ history, while 39% of non-LGBTQ+ Americans are uncomfortable with their child learning a lesson on LGBTQ+ history in school.
LGBTQ+ history is Holocaust history. It's also American history. It's the history of our neighbors and our families.
It's a history about the LGBTQ+ community, but it's not only for the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ history is all of our history.
For National Coming Out Day, let's all rise up and learn our history, make it visible by educating others, and continue the fight for equality.
Leah Rauch is Director of Education at Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, where Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement is on view from October 17, 2021 to May 8, 2022.
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