National Coming Out Day

By Cat Crossley - Guest Blogger

What do Oscar Wilde, Radclyffe Hall and animal onesies have in common?  They all came out of the closet long before it was safe to do so. It was National Coming Out Day on Saturday 11th and while it may seem like a strange thing to celebrate, the freedom to live openly in one's innate or acquired (the debate still rages) sexual identity is very recent and sadly still rare. It is a day for celebration, therefore, and particularly in the world of publishing.

Although renowned for such literary gems as The Picture of Dorian Gray, De Profundis and The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde found himself very publicly outed in 1895, when he stood trial for gross indecency and was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. Thirty three years later saw the publication of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, but by November of the same year the book was put on trial in the UK for obscenity owing to its ‘lesbian content’. The ruling was made that the book be destroyed, although Radclyffe Hall, a cross-dressing polyamorous lesbian, was not allowed to defend her writing in court. 

It’s difficult to imagine, I think, just how dangerous it was to have a queer identity in days gone by. The experience of being trapped by social conventions, familial expectations, dress codes, religious doctrine, forced marriage, and legal boundaries, has curtailed the freedom of millions of people for centuries. It continues to do so in many places across the globe. And yet, we have access to a rich literary heritage proving that where tradition, church and state denied liberty, the blank page offered it in abundance. 

Sappho, Catullus, Michelangelo, Aphra Behn, Honoré de Balzac, George Sand, A E Housman and Edna St Vincent Millay are a minute handful of the incredible wealth of queer authors who have used pen and paper as a means of escape, an opportunity to create a more honest identity, a chance to explore themselves and their desires, or simply to assert their right of self expression. Even today not every queer author wants to come out, not least because sexuality may have as little to do with their work as the colour of their hair or their favourite music. But the decision to come out, or the fear of doing so, is an experience no straight author will ever have to go through. 

The most wonderful potential a book has is to open the reader’s mind to new worlds, new ideas, new identities, new possibilities. It gives the reader a sense of shared experience, of community. If you feel alone in a queer identity, if you have ever felt excluded, overlooked or marginalized, a book can be your ticket to freedom, your friend, your strength. For all the authors and literary characters who dared to speak their love’s name, and for all the readers who have been inspired by them, National Coming Out Day is for you. 

Jay Hulmeguest blog, lgbtComment