In the Beginning, There Was a March
On Oct. 11, 1987, half a million people participated in the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It was the second such demonstration in our nation’s capital and resulted in the founding of a number of LGBTQ organizations, including the National Latino/a Gay & Lesbian Organization (LLEGÓ) and AT&T’s LGBTQ employee group, LEAGUE. The momentum continued four months after this extraordinary march as more than 100 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer activists from around the country gathered in Warrenton, Va., about 25 miles outside Washington, D.C. Recognizing that the LGBTQ community often reacted defensively to anti-LGBTQ actions, they came up with the idea of a national day to celebrate coming out and chose the anniversary of that second march on Washington to mark it. The originators of the idea were Rob Eichberg, a founder of the personal growth workshop, The Experience, and Jean O’Leary, then head of National Gay Rights Advocates. From this idea the National Coming Out Day was born.
Each year on Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day continues to promote a safe world for LGBTQ individuals to live truthfully and openly.
Themes of NCOD
For 15 years the Human Rights Campaign announced a theme to exemplify the spirit of National Coming Out Day. Here are some of the themes chosen:
2014 – Coming Out Still Matters
2013 – Coming Out Still Matters
2012 – Come Out. Vote.
2011 – Coming Out for Equality
2010 – Coming Out for Equality
2009 – Conversations from the Heart
2007 – Talk About It
2006 – Talk About It
2005 – Talk About It
2004 – Come Out. Speak Out. Vote.
2003 – It’s a Family Affair
2002 – Being Out Rocks!
2001- An Out Odyssey
2000 – Think it O-o-ver (Who Will Pick the New Supremes?)
1999 – Come Out to Congress
The People of NCOD
The success of NCOD, which from inception quickly expanded to include participation from all 50 states and foreign countries, is because of the hard work of celebrities, volunteers and activists.
- Rob Eichberg and Jean O’Leary were the originators of the idea of NCOD
- In 1987, Activist Sean Strub got Keith Haring to donate his now-famous image of a person fairly dancing out of a closet
- In 1990, Lynn Shepodd, who later became a member of HRC’s Board of Governors, was hired as executive director and obtained tax-exempt status for the organization
- Geraldo Rivera hosted a coming out day TV program in 1991 that featured Dick Sargent, a gay actor famous for playing Darren on Bewitched, openly gay California Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl and Eichberg.
- Wes Combs in 1994 was named HRCF’s project director for National Coming Out Day
- Candace Gingrich, half-sibling of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, became a National Coming Out Project spokesperson and full-time activist in 1995
- Dan Butler, who played the character Bulldog on NBC-TV’s Frasier, was NCOD spokeperson in 1995
- Rock musician Melissa Etheridge did a radio public service announcement, reminding people that “Labels belong on records, not on people.”
- Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., spoke at the “Come Out Voting” rally in Washington, D.C., Oct. 11, 1996.
- Fashion photographer Don Flood in 1996 shot past spokespeople Bearse, Butler and Gingrich, along with Olympic diver Greg Louganis, actor Mitchell Anderson, newly minted gay activist Chastity Bono and Sean Sasser, who had appeared in MTV’s The Real World.
- In 1996, actress Judith Light, pro golfer Muffin Spencer-Devlin and, in her first appearance at a gay rights event, Cher spoke at a Come Out Voting rally in Washington, DC
- In September 1997 the project brought in its first straight spokesperson, Betty DeGeneres, mother of actress/comedian Ellen DeGeneres.
- Patrick Bristow (formerly of the Ellen TV show), Dan Butler, San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno, longtime activist Donna Red Wing, Betty DeGeneres, Gingrich and SF Mayor Willie Brown were featured in a 1998 NCOD event in San Francisco’s Delores Park
- Chicago-native and founding member of the rock group Styx Chuck Panozzo celebrated a special homecoming in 2001 when he came out at the Human Rights Campaign annual Chicago dinner.
- On National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11, 2002, a benefit CD featuring the songs of openly LGBTQ musicians and straight allies was released. Cyndi Lauper, Queen, k.d. lang, Jade Esteban Estrada and Sarah McLachlan are among the artists who donated songs to the album.
- Etheridge’s name appears on a poster celebrating the 2002 theme along with 18 other openly LGBTQ artists, including Ani DiFranco, Michael Stipe, the Indigo Girls, RuPaul, Rufus Wainwright and The Butchies