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Inside Out: A National Coming Out Day Honor Roll

Friday Oct 11, 2013
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Keith Haring’s logo for the first National Coming Out Day in 1988
Keith Haring’s logo for the first National Coming Out Day in 1988  

When pundits attempt to find a reason for the seismic change in LGBT equality the past few years, they often cite a simple human interaction: the act of coming out. The equation is simple: as more individuals acknowledge being gay to their family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances, acceptance is more widespread. Gay marriage and families have become commonplace. Not that the struggle (as we like to call it) is over; far from it, but on this National Coming Out Day, it gives us a moment to reflect on the enormous progress LGBTs have achieved in the past quarter century.

That time frame is significant in that today marks the 25th anniversary of the first such event. That was in 1988 when Rob Eichberg, a founder of the personal growth workshop, The Experience, and Jean O’Leary, then head of National Gay Rights Advocates, decided that October 11 would be National Coming Out Day. They chose the date because it was the two-year anniversary of March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, an event that brought a half-million to DC and re-energized a social movement marginalized by the AIDS epidemic, conservative politicians and religious leaders.

For those LGBTs in the public eye, though, the act of coming out reflected the difficulties that most people faced, only played out in headlines and television reports. If an actor was suspected of being gay, his or her career was thought to be in jeopardy. (Indeed, out British actor has said as much.) The same faced sports celebrities, news reporters, musicians, politicians, even cartoon characters (remember Sponge Bob?) when they were thought to be gay.

Today, though, the list of out public personalities grows larger and larger every week, so much so that to put together a list of those that have come out is more a case of judicious editing. For every Neil Patrick Harris and Wanda Sykes, there’s Zachary Quinto and Ellen DeGeneres. So apologies to those not on this list, but here are some whose ’coming out’ is worth remembering on this anniversary.


Anderson Cooper

In 2012, questions surrounding one of television’s most well-known open secrets were put to rest when CNN’s Anderson Cooper publicly outed himself in an open letter he posted online stating "The fact is, I’m gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud." A year later, he was honored by GLAAD in recognition of his stature and accomplishment as a gay journalist.


Jodie Foster

"I guess I have a sudden urge to say something that I’ve never been able to air in public that I’m a little nervous about [..}But maybe not as nervous as my publicist..." said Jodie Foster in a long awaited and cagey public coming out moment that occurred during her acceptance speech for lifetime achievement at the 2013 Golden Globe Awards ceremony. Foster was both praised and criticized by LGBT activists writers including Michael Musto who called the move "a self-rationalizing defense of the celebrity closet."


Ellen DeGeneres

In 1997, actress/comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly during an interview with Oprah Winfrey. In a case of art imitating life, her character Ellen Morgan came out in an episode of the sitcom "Ellen" to her therapist played by Winfrey. "Ellen" would last only one season after the famed coming out episode. DeGeneres would return to TV audiences in 2003 with a talk show. A decade later, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" remains one of the highest rated syndicated programs on broadcast television.


Patty Bouvier ("The Simpsons")

In 2005, "The Simpsons" proved itself yet again to be the most progressive cartoon ever to grace the small screen when chain-smoking DMV employee Patty Bouvier (voiced by Julie Kavner) came out. "You could see it from space!" Patty said to her surprised sister Marge (also voiced by Kavner). The installment drew harsh criticism from the American Family Association, was praised by GLAAD, and with an audience of 10.5 million viewers, became the highest rated episode of the popular animated series’ sixteenth season.


Chely Wright

Following in the footsteps of Ellen DeGeneres, in 2010, multi award-winning country singer-songwriter Chely Wright came out on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" becoming the first major Nashville star to do so publicly. Wright captured the long process leading to the Oprah appearance in the soul-bearing 2011 documentary "Wish Me Away" which garnered numerous film festival awards. She currently resides in New York City with her wife Lauren Blitzer. In 2013, she gave birth to twin boys.


Will Portman

The scales of equality were tipped slightly in 2011 thanks to Will Portman coming out to his father, conservative Republican senator from Ohio Rob Portman. Prior to Will’s coming out, the elder Portman was noted for having a long record of opposing gay rights that included the co-sponsorship of the failed 1996 federal ban on gay marriage. In March of 2013, Senator Portman announced he changed his stance on marriage equality, publicly owing his change of heart to his gay son.


Jim McGreevey

"My truth is that I am a gay American," said former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey during a press conference in 2004. Although McGreevey would soon resign due to controversy surrounding his affair with a political appointee, the announcement made him the first openly gay state governor in US history. He is currently studying to become an Episcopal minister and volunteers service through Exodus Transitional Community to former prisoners seeking rehabilitation. His life after politics and work with former prison inmates is covered in the HBO documentary film "Fall to Grace."


Jason Collins

In 2013, NBA star center of the Washington Wizards, Jason Collins made history as the first male professional athlete in a major North American team sport to come out publicly as gay. In a Sports Illustrated interview with Collins published shortly after his coming out, he said "The most you can do is stand up for what you believe in. I’m much happier since coming out to my friends and family. Being genuine and honest makes me happy."


Darren Young

Professional wrestler Darren Young shocked a TMZ reporter, when during an impromptu interview with the stalkarazzi television program he said "Look at me. I’m a WWE Superstar and, to be honest with you, I’ll tell you right now, I’m gay, and I’m happy. Very happy." Young would go on to say in a later interview "I guess if you want to call it ’coming out,’ I really don’t know what to say it is," he said. "I’m just letting you know that I’m happy [with] who I am."


Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman

Songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman stole the show at the 2003 Tony Awards telecast when accepting the award for writing the score to "Hairspray," Shaiman said "I love this man. We’re not allowed to get married in this world ... But I’d like to declare, in front of all these people, I love you and I’d like to live with you the rest of my life." The declaration was followed by a kiss watched by over 7 million viewers at home.


Rawley Farnsworth

In 1993 during one of the most heartfelt and poetic acceptance speeches ever given at an Academy Awards ceremony, actor Tom Hanks thanked his high school drama teacher Rawley Farnsworth, calling him one of "the greatest gay Americans he knows." The only problem was Farnsworth, who had retired from teaching several years earlier, had yet to come out to many friends and former colleagues. The event was the inspiration for the 1997 film "In & Out."


Raven Symone

The best example of coming out in the age of social media came in 2013, when former child actress Raven Symone of "The Cosby Show" and "That’s So Raven" came out in a 61 character tweet that said "I can finally get married! Yay government! So proud of you," Sticking to her preferred medium, Symone retweeted a follower who said ""She been out, momma just didn’t have time for [nonsense]"


Frank Ocean

Though not officially out, R&B superstar Frank Ocean wrote an open letter on Tumblr last year stating he was once in love with a man. The letter came a week before his debut album ’Channel Orange’ was about to drop. He performed his same-sex love jam "Bad Religion" on "Jimmy Fallon" shortly before his record came out. He’s been rumored to be dating French male model Willy Cartier and Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci.


Sarah Paulson

Fans of "American Horror Story: Asylum" know Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated actress Sarah Paulson as the lesbian reporter that attempted to expose the horrific conditions at a mental institution only to be placed there herself. (She’s back for the new season as the headmistress for a school for witches.) But it was when her then girlfriend Cherry Jones acknowledged her at the Tony Awards in 2005 that their relationship (and Paulson being gay) became public. The couple broke up in 2009.


Shaun Thompson

Any insomniac awake at 3 am who is watching workout infomercials knows Shaun Thompson, the superbuff trainer who created a series of workout DVDs called "Insanity." Called "the hardest workout put on DVD," the training program was created by Thompson (a/k/a Shaun T) in 2009. While many wondered whether he was gay or straight, he answered that question last year when he tweeted the world that he tied the knot with his boyfriend Scott Blocker.


Barney Frank

Barney Frank is easily the best known out politician, but there was a time (the 1970s) when the former Massachusetts congressman was firmly in the closet and dating women. Once, though, he admitted to himself that he was gay, he slowly came out, first to friends, then publicly in 1987 in part because of increased public interest in his private life; but also in response to the death of closeted Connecticut congressman Stewart McKinney, which haunted Frank. He told The Washington Post after McKinney’s death there was "An unfortunate debate about ’Was he or wasn’t he? Didn’t he or did he?’ I said to myself, I don’t want that to happen to me."


Oscar Wilde

The granddaddy of all public coming out stories happened in 1895 when Oscar Wilde was accused of being a "sodomite" by the crazed father of his current lover on the night of his greatest theatrical triumph - the opening of "The Importance of Being Earnest." Wilde struck back with a lawsuit - a not-so-wise move, in retrospect, because it exposed the not-so-covert underworld of Victorian gay London and led to Wilde’s public humiliation and imprisonment. Upon release from prison he fled to Paris where he lived in poverty until his death in 1900 at the age of 46. As he lay dying in a dingy hotel, he said: "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go."


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