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Coming Out: Suicide, stigma, and lessons from Harvey Milk

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Photo by Katie M. SimmonsHarvey Milk spoke the following words in 1978. He was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. His impassioned appeal to the San Francisco gay community—to step into the light in ways both private and public, to allow themselves to be seen—has inspired me repeatedly since I first became aware of it.

Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents…Come out to your relatives. Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop. Come out only to the people you know, and who know you, not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths. Destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.

For me, though, coming out as a queer woman has always been easy. With supportive friends and family, a cultural shift that has broadened my access, and support in advocating for myself when necessary, I am lucky to have rarely felt pressured to hide my sexuality.

As a suicide attempt survivor, on the other hand, this quote has been unspeakably important to me. I think of it every time I come out as someone who knows emotional crisis. Explaining that I am someone who continually experiences low lows and high highs, who has recovery plans and crisis plans and wellness plans, who is reliant on the people I can call when I feel helpless and hopeless – this is terrifying.

Will people think I’m weak? Will sharing this part of myself mean my autonomy will be compromised? That I won’t be respected? If I tell the truth about my emotional life, will I have the same access to opportunity and support that I could have if I kept it hidden? Will my feelings be dismissed? The doubts and insecurities are endless.

But Harvey Milk, and this appeal to the gay community to stand up and identify themselves, gives me courage.

I don’t want to stay hidden. I know how lonely that can become. I know how hard it is to trust people I’m not honest with—Including people who are part of the support system that keeps me going. I know that not reaching out carries deep, damaging costs, and that opening up in the presence of non-judgmental, compassionate support rewards.

I am careful about how and when I reveal this part of myself. Stigma still surrounds suicide and emotional distress; judgment and shame can be quick to swarm and sting deeply.

I am also careful to never miss an opportunity to tell my story in a supportive context. Every time I speak it, I feel the light shining on me brighter. 

Suicide attempt, crisis, and loss survivors, you must come out.

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Caitlin LaVine's picture
Catilin LaVine
Forefront Advanced MSW Practicum Student
Caitlin is in her 2nd year of the UW Master of Social Work program. She is a suicide attempt survivor, an advocate for mental health resources and support, and is always looking for new ways to fight stigma.