The importance of “coming out” was marked at schools and college campuses across the United States on Thursday.

National Coming Out Day is celebrated each year on October 11 to commemorate the 1987 Lesbian and Gay March on Washington and the first unfurling of the AIDS Quilt on the National Mall.

Activists say that there has been a dramatic shift over the years in support for a number of gay rights including equal job opportunities, open military service, and inclusion in hate crimes law for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans.

Much of this change in opinion has been tied to an ever-growing number of gays and lesbians who are being open about their sexuality and identity.

“For twenty years, the GLBT community has been coming out and putting an ever-more personal face to issues in our lives, and that is clearly changing hearts and minds,” said Mark Shields, director of the Human Rights Campaign Coming Out Project.

According to a May 2007 Gallup poll, there has been a sharp increase over the past two decades in the number of Americans who say they personally know or work with someone who identifies as gay or lesbian: From 72 percent today to just 11 percent in 1987.

“Americans have come to know their GLBT friends and family in a new way in the last 20 years, and those relationships have changed the cultural landscape,” said Shields.

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