National Coming Out Day 2020: LGBTQ community members share stories of struggle, triumph
For National Coming Out Day, USA TODAY NETWORK journalists asked folks in LGBT communities across the Northeast to share their coming out stories. NorthJersey.com
Sunday, Oct. 11, marks the 32nd annual National Coming Out Day.
To commemorate the occasion, a team of USA TODAY Network journalists from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland joined forces to document the coming out stories of members of the LGBTQ community across our region.
The memories of their struggles and triumphs are a vital part of our region’s history. Here are their stories:
'We need all of us, we need an army'
These folks told us about the importance of solidarity and support from friends, family and community members.
Morgan Robinson, 50, Collingswood, New Jersey
Morgan Robinson, 50, is a bisexual woman from Collingswood, N.J. Asbury Park Press
Morgan, 50, is a bisexual woman living in Collingswood, New Jersey, with her female partner. Morgan works as an editorial production manager and co-parents her three bi-racial children with her ex-husband.
"The first time somebody said happy Pride to me, wow! Wow! We need the whole army of all of us, we need voices,'' she says.
Geena Buono, 57, Asbury Park, New Jersey
Asbury Park chiropractor talks about her coming out experience Asbury Park Press
Geena, a chiropractor practicing in the Asbury Park, New Jersey area, is also a parent of three adult children and part of the city's vibrant music scene as a singer and guitarist known for her work with Geena and Dragster.
"With the world being the way that it is today, people need to learn that we're people, too. We're all humans. We're all in this together."
Rebekah Bruesehoff, 13, Camden County, New Jersey
Rebekah Bruesehoff is a 13-year-old transgender girl from Camden County, N.J. Asbury Park Press
Rebekah is an activist and advocate for LGBTQ youth. A transgender teen formerly from Sussex County, New Jersey, she was featured in "The Mighty Rebekah," an episode of the Disney+ series "Marvel's Hero Project."
"My mom helped me figure out terminology for what I was feeling so we found the word transgender and that really clicked.''
Eric Pinckney, 52, Asbury Park, New Jersey
New Jersey resident and Asbury Park school board member Eric Pinckney talks about coming out Asbury Park Press
Eric is a fixture of the Jersey Shore gay nightlife scene, performing as the drag queen Miss Savannah Georgia. He is also a member of the Asbury Park Board of Education.
"Savannah Georgia was always in there," Eric says. "So she was hidden away, big time, but I always wanted to express myself through that, and I was finally able to do that. I would have never been able to do that straight.''
LGBTQ bars work to survive COVID-19: 'These spaces need to be saved.'
It's not always easy
Plenty of subjects told us about the struggles that came with coming out.
Daniel Ortiz-Centeno, 24, Rochester, New York
Daniel Ortiz-Centeno, 24, of Rochester, NY shares his coming out story. He talks about, "your sexuality is nothing similar to your identity." Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Daniel moved to Rochester from Puerto Rico not long after Hurricane Maria. He works at a local coffee shop and runs his own graphic design company, Enfassis Design Diversity. He said he came out more than once: The first time was about his sexuality the second time was about his identity as a person.
"When I came out, I came out a couple times because people don't understand that we don't have the correct vocabulary to be accurate the first time.''
Liam Harrington, 31, Endicott, New York
Raised in a religious family, Liam Harrington came out as a lesbian at age 18 and wasn't accepted by his mother. At age 25, Liam came out again as transgender. Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin
Liam identifies as a queer transgender person. He works as a program director for the Southern Tier AIDS Program. He’s also happily remarried and a dad.
''I think I was about 18 when finally I came out and I wrote my mom a letter and it did not go well,'' he recalls.
Torie Fisher, 35, and Melinda Gulsever, 31, Barnegat, New Jersey
Torie Fisher and Melinda Gulsever share their coming out stories Asbury Park Press
Torie is the owner of Backward Flag Brewing Co., Forked River, where her wife, Melinda, is the head brewer. Fisher is a U.S. Army veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq, while Melinda serves in the Army National Guard.
"For myself, being a veteran, working in a fairly male-dominated world and getting to the places I have in life, I think it's important that people can see that as a gay woman that there are no limitations and that that looks like a lot of different types of things and can be anybody," Torie says.
On their own terms
There's no one way to come out. These folks shared their individual journeys.
Milton Delgado, 55, Middletown, Delaware
Milton Delgado, a 55-year-old Navy veteran and co-owner of Stumpy's Hatchet House in Middletown, Del. He said anyone who wants to come out should be around people who love and support them. Delaware News Journal
Milton Delgado is a U.S. Navy vet and co-owner of Stumpy's Hatchet House in Middletown with his partner and other family.
He says his parents told him they knew he was gay even before he came out to them. For those thinking of coming out, he says surrounding yourself with people who love and support you is key.
Leroy Oglesby III, 36, Erie, Pennsylvania
Watch as Leroy Oglesby III, 36, of Erie, Pennsylvania, shares his coming out story on Oct. 1, 2020 outside Gannon University in Erie. Erie Times-News
Leroy came out publicly as a gay man in 2003 when he was an undergraduate student at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. The Long Island, New York, native grew up in Virginia and now lives in Erie, where he is employed as a special education teacher while working on his second master's degree in education. He is also considering a political career.
"I said, 'Hey, I'm gay and this is who I am and this is the person that I've always been.' ''
Troy Hendrickson, 32, Wilmington, Delaware
Wilmington, Del., drag performer and comedian Troy Hendrickson, 32, better known to many as 'Aunt Mary Pat.' He said coming out was like 'dropping weight off his shoulders' and now he tries to help others navigate their own stories. Delaware News Journal
Troy Hendrickson of Wilmington, Delaware, is not only a drag performer, but he's also the comedian behind the Aunt Mary Pat, a Philadelphia Eagles-loving, loud-mouthed character based on his mom.
The touring act says he came out to his parents at age 14 and says it was like "dropping weight off" his shoulders. For those thinking of coming out, be sure to find an ally you can trust.
Finding freedom and acceptance
Coming out can be a radical, even revolutionary, act of self-acceptance.
Nate Rivera, 52, and Joaquin Calles Guzman, 32, York, Pennsylvania
Nate Rivera and Joaquin Calles Guzman, a couple who have been together for 12 years in Pennsylvania, describe what it was like to come out. York Daily Record
Nate and Joaquin met each other 12 years ago online and have been together ever since.
"Revolutionary" and "liberating" are words that come to mind when they recall their coming out journeys.
Alex Francisco, 40, Haverstraw, New York
Alex Francisco, Youth Services Coordinator at the Pride Center in Nyack, New York, shares her coming out story. Rockland/Westchester Journal News
Alex is an LBGQT activist and the Youth Services Coordinator at the Pride Center in Nyack, New York. “I came out in an era when no one was really out,” Francisco said.
She first came out to her parents at age 13, as bisexual, then gay and finally trans and said her family was “really amazing.” Her advice to others: “You don’t have to come out immediately; sit with yourself for awhile. “
Jeannie Neil Bale, 54, Salisbury, Maryland
Jeannie Neil Bale, capacity director for the Transgender Assistance Program of Virginia, shares her coming out story. Salisbury Daily Times
As a child, Jeannie felt out of place in her own body. After relocating to the eastern shore of Virginia, Jeannie found the courage to come out as a trans woman. She and her wife own a bed and breakfast in New Church, Virginia.
"We need to be there for everyone.''
Support is out there
There is a whole world of activists out there providing guidance, assistance and support to community members.
Justin Gibbs, 28, Medford, New Jersey
Justin Gibbs, founder of Medford Pride on Main, shares his coming out story. Asbury Park Press
Justin is the president and founder of Medford Pride, an LGBTQ non-profit that offers monthly events and education to South Jersey. He has worked locally as a certified nursing assistant for the past 11 years.
"Be who you are!'' says Justin, who first came out to his best friend.
Michael Mahler, 57, Erie, Pennsylvania
Michael Mahler of Erie, Pennsylvania shares his thoughts about coming out as a gay man. Erie Times-News
Michael came out publicly as a gay man in May 1992. The Erie resident works from his home office to produce the monthly Erie Gay News newsletter and website, of which he is the editor. Michael founded the EGN in December 1992. He is also the facilitator of Erie Mayor Joe Schember's LGBTQIA+ advisory committee and serves as a commissioner on the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs.
Sean Strub, 62, Milford, Pennsylvania
AIDS activist Sean Strub shares his coming out story Pocono Record
Sean is an AIDS activist and director of The Sero Project, a network of people living with HIV. An AIDS survivor, he founded POZ magazine and POZ en Español, and is considered a leader in the fight against HIV-related criminalization. He is an author and the mayor of Milford, Pennsylvania and owner of the landmark Hotel Fauchère there.
"Once there was no anxiety about being in the closet, I was much happier.''
The story behind the story
National Coming Out Day was launched more than 30 years ago, commemorating the anniversary of 1987’s National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
Each year, the day raises awareness of “the importance of coming out and creating a safe word in which LGBTQ people can live openly as their authentic selves,” according to Human Rights Campaign deputy communications director Nick Morrow.
The number of American adults identifying as members of the LGBTQ community has climbed in recent years — Gallup polling data estimated that 8.4 million U.S. adults identified as LGBTQ in 2012, but using 2018 General Social Survey information the HRC estimated that there were more than 14 million LGBTQ adults in the country, a 66% increase, Morrow explained.
“This data clearly shows that more and more people are becoming comfortable identifying openly as LGBTQ,” he said. “While people are more comfortable coming out, it is because of those who did before. So, it still remains vastly important.”
The event has only gained importance in 2020, a year when the COVID-19 pandemic made us all further apart than ever physically, Morrow said.
“The message of National Coming Out Day feels even more important and vital this year,” he said, “because it shows the world that LGBTQ people are here – even if we aren’t physically as out and about as we’d like to be due to the pandemic.”
For more information on National Coming Out Day and the USA TODAY NETWORK project commemorating the event, tune in to the Asbury Park Press’ Facebook page at noon on Friday, Oct. 9, for a conversation between Asbury Park Press features reporter Alex Biese, project subjects Sean Strub and Alex Francisco, as well as Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
The team behind this project
REPORTING: Alex Biese, Nancy Cutler, Ryan Cormier, Jasmine Vaughn-Hall
EDITING: Bill Canacci, Liz Johnson, Tammy Paolino
VISUAL EDITING: Magdeline Bassett, Sean Oates
PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEOGRAPHY: Peter Ackerman, William Bretzger, Peter Carr, Kate Collins, Miguel Fernandez, Micaela Hood, Brian Johnston, Paul Kuehnel, Joe Lamberti, Tina MacIntyre-Yee, Christopher Millette, Kaisha Young
DIGITAL PRODUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT: Ana Hurler, Benjamin Leibowitz
SOCIAL MEDIA, ENGAGEMENT AND PROMOTION: Courtney Marabella, Candace Mitchell, Elyse Toribio
ILLUSTRATION: Take Uda