This October 11 celebrates the 30th anniversary of National Coming Out Day, an event begun in 1988 by activists Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary to bring awareness to the power of being out and proud. Joel Edgerton’s real-life drama Boy Erased (in theaters on November 2) provides a moving story of one young man’s journey to come out. When 19-year-old Jared (Lucas Hedges) is outed to his parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman), he is given the impossible choice of either attending a conversion therapy program or giving up his ties to his family, his community, and his faith. Described by Now Magazine as a film that might “change things—and help save lives,” Boy Erased calculates the human costs to everyone in staying in the closet.
For National Coming Out Day this year, we look back on the various tales of coming out told in different Focus films, from the tragedy of being denied the chance to love to a celebration of realizing one’s desire later in life.
Milk | You must come out
In Milk, Gus Van Sant’s moving portrait of the titled slain gay politician, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) implores his followers to “come out.” In 1978, coming out was a political necessity to fight a California proposition that would ban gays or lesbians (or those who supported them) from working in public schools. Interestingly it was one of Milk’s speeches that helped get the movie made in the first place. As a closeted, nearly suicidal gay teen living in San Antonio, Dustin Lance Black heard Milk talk about the power of coming out in a documentary film. “When I first heard that speech, …it really, really gave me hope, for the first time," Black remembers. Years later, Black not only penned the screenplay for Milk, but won an Academy Award® for it.
Brokeback Mountain | The tragedy of the closet
Now considered one of the great love stories of our time, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain also provides a tragic reminder of the cost of not being able to come out. In 1963, two young cowboys—Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger)—took to the Wyoming mountains to herd sheep, discovering that summer a love for each other they had never imagined could exist. Unable to either contain or accept their love, the two spend the rest of the lives unsuccessfully trying to quit each other. “It is the story of a time and place where two men are forced to deny the only great passion either one will ever feel,” notes Roger Ebert. “Their tragedy is universal.”
Beginners | Coming out at any age
One is never too old to come out proves Mike Mills’ Beginners. Based on the writer/director’s actual father, who came out later in life, the character of Hal (Christopher Plummer) provides a shining example for his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor), of how to live fully in life and in love. “The minute dad came out he became so alive,” remembers Mills about his own father. “He wanted to do new things and talk about everything.” Plummer won an Academy Award® for playing a man coming out in his 70s, who is, according to The New York Times, “like a man who’s hit the jackpot.”
Pariah | Coming out in many ways
In writer/director Dee Rees’ Pariah, coming out means getting in touch with the many sides of oneself. Young Alike (Adepero Oduye) grapples not simply with being a lesbian, but also with being a teenager in Brooklyn, a black woman in America, and a poet in high school. "It's not so much coming out, but coming into," clarifies Rees. "Alike… knows she loves women. That's not her struggle. Her struggle's more how to be in the world." For IndieWire, Rees’ personal tale speaks to so much—“the pangs of first love, the desirous ache of adolescent sexuality, and the excitement of not just discovering yourself but finding those kindred spirits with whom you can share your life.”
The Danish Girl | Coming out in history
In Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, the title figure (played by Eddie Redmayne) was born Einar Wegener, but came out as Lili Elbe when the truth of her gender identity became something she could no longer resist. Supported by her wife Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), Lili helped make history by becoming one of the first transgender women to undergo sex reassignment surgery. For Redmayne, “In the 1920s, there were no transgender women that Lili was aware of, but she had the bravery and the courage to pursue living a life authentic.”
ParaNoman | Animated film comes out
One of the best shocks in Sam Fell and Chris Butler’s stop-motion animated fun horror adventure ParaNorman is when Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck) comes out. While for most of the film this hunky big brother of Norman’s (Kodi Smit-McPhee) best friend is pursued by Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), she, like most of the audience, has assumed too much. For the filmmakers, Mitch nonchalantly mentioning his boyfriend was fundamental to the story’s theme of acknowledging and accepting difference. “We were telling a story that was fundamentally about intolerance,” explains Butler. “What I wanted to do with the script …was, first of all, to turn preconceptions on their head.”