I come from a small town in Long Island with large African-American and Latino populations. It was a fairly socially conservative community, with more churches than clothing stores. But the most conservative experiences I had were at home. During my teen years, my foster mother was very religious and backed everything with the Bible. For her, sexual orientation and gender presentation were synonymous, so the more masculine I dressed, the more she associated me with being gay. At a time when I wasn’t even fully out to myself, I had to battle every day to scrape up the courage just to walk out of the house presenting myself as the person I was.
Courage is something that has always been inside me, but for a long time I didn’t know it was there. I struggled with the idea of coming out. I went through periods of depression, denial, self-hatred and even thought I was crazy or that something was wrong with me. Many times, I would push away the idea. Without the visibility of gay or trans-identifying people in my hometown, coming out was something I only saw on TV. Those actors and actresses never looked like me; they were always white, so I felt a disconnect. And the characters they played always had psychological issues or were shown in negative roles, so I didn’t want to be stereotyped like they were. I kept asking myself, “Who am I? What am I?”
Growing up, I learned that my country was built on the genocide of one group of people and the enslavement of another. Over the centuries, America has sought to rectify its wrongs, but only as a result of oppressed peoples fighting to make real the principle that all men are created equal. Our evolution in breaking down racial barriers began with individuals displaying dignity and courage. These folks realized that if they overcame their internalized oppression and fought for the rights they deserved, they could create a movement that benefited them and inspired others to join the struggle. They understood the importance of visibility, and came together to march, lobby, rally and document their experiences to encourage others. I longed for the courage they displayed and the respect they demanded. I soon realized that I, too, could have those things just by being myself and no longer being apologetic about who I was. I realized that if I wanted others to accept and respect me, I would have to accept and respect myself.
Using what I learned about the battles of those who came before me became my inspiration to work in support of pushing human rights even further. I dedicated myself to activism on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The more involved I became, the more I noticed a lack of LGBT people making themselves visible in spaces occupied primarily by people of color. I saw a similar lack of people of color in LGBT spaces. I was sad to see the schism between the two, and didn’t understand why they had to be separate. Reflecting on history, I recognized that the 1960s fight for African-American civil rights was one that grew by inviting all communities to participate. I understood that my very presence would encourage more LGBT people of color to make themselves visible. I continuously put myself in spaces of color and saw that it inspired more individuals to come out. And in coming out—and becoming visible—they too began to realize they were empowering some folks to live freely and educating others about the presence of LGBT people of color.
The lesson I learned was that visibility is both strength and power. The award-winning documentary The New Black offers even more proof of this. The film follows the Maryland Marriage Equality campaign, where the visibility of people of color played a significant role in the passage of marriage equality for same-sex couples. It’s a testament to what I’ve seen again and again in my work: The African-American civil rights movement is not separate from the LGBT rights movement. It’s all one big movement—and one long story—with new chapters written every couple of decades. Over the past couple years, our current chapter has seen many liberating laws passed. As we celebrate National Coming Out Day, The New Black—which offers a real look at the way LGBT and communities of color can come together in support of civil rights for all‚seems especially relevant, and the story at its heart particularly resonant.
Having been out for years now, I can say coming out is quite a journey—one that is not easy for many people. “Coming out of the closet” is not a one-step event, but a process a person experiences throughout his or her life. I am out to people in all aspects of my life, and I will have to out myself again and again as my circumstances, environment and the people in my life change. The act of coming out encourages others to take pride in who they are and helps the majority understand that there are people in this country who are not protected by our laws. National Coming Out Day emphasizes the importance of visibility, and reassures people who identify as LGBT that we will not be silent and do not stand alone. This celebration isn’t just for LGBT individuals – it’s an opportunity for those who support the LGBT community to also “come out” and show they’re proud to be allies. The more visible we make ourselves, the more we’ll give others the confidence to come out as well.
Karess Taylor-Hughes is originally from Long Island New York. At the age of 24, she already has years of experience working in political campaigns. She was a field organizer for Equality Maryland and The Human Rights Campaign. Karess currently attends Columbia University, where she is pursuing her Masters degree in Sports Management. She will continue to make progress as she pushes to increase more advocacy work for underrepresented communities.