National Coming Out Day

National Coming Out Day is always a bit strained for me. Partially because of my own hangups, and partially because of how “coming out” is framed in a lot of mainstream discussion (both by LGBT people and otherwise), it often feels like there’s a lot of pressure to be very public about being queer and/or trans, and like people who are “closeted” should feel ashamed about it.

I do think it’s incredibly important for youth in particular to have visible queer and trans role models to look up to; really, greater visibility is a good thing for everyone. And there’s definitely freedom in not having to hide one’s sexuality or gender. But I worry that overly simplistic narratives about what it means to be “out” and what it means to be “closeted” can end up putting an undue responsibility on queer and trans people for a problem that’s caused by homophobia and transphobia.

As lots of people have pointed out, the very need to “come out” is created by heteronormative assumptions that everyone is straight until proven otherwise, and cisnormative assumptions about the relationship between biology, appearance/behavior, and gender.

Not everyone has the ability to be “in the closet” either – some people are read as queer or trans, without ever “disclosing” their identities one way or the other simply by virtue of how their bodies or behavior or appearance fit (or don’t) with social norms. We talk about being “in” or “out” as though they’re simply statuses that people choose voluntarily; we don’t talk enough about how they’re frameworks that are imposed from the outside. The closet is the construction of assumptions and prejudices that also define the line between “in” and “out.”

The price for queerness was extremely high – it cost me my home, family, and the community i’d grown up in.  And yet…[b]eing out has afforded me a loving chosen family, work that I truly feel called to do, and so much more.  For me, there has been no greater freedom than being out, but…[f]or far too many, coming out means falling through another set of cracks of  systems not designed to support our kids, and a community not ready to take them in.

When we as queer folks shout COME OUT! COME OUT! we must be sure that we as a community are prepared not just pay lip service to welcoming those youth into our ‘family’ we must truly be prepared to open our homes, wallets, ears and hearts to ensure that the youth who pay a heavy price for heeding our call are not abandoned by the very community they have lost everything to be part of. – Sassafras Lowrey (ht Idzie)

I’m privileged to be in a place where I could come out to everyone without fear of losing my home or not being able to meet my material needs. Still, I’m out to some of the people in my life, and not to others. For me that decision has largely boiled down to taking the steps I feel are necessary to preserve my mental health. As someone living with chronic depression and anxiety, I can’t afford to come out indiscriminately to everyone I know, not without considering what the impact will be for my well-being (which affects my ability to work, to take care of my child, and to be a good partner). I also have to weigh being out against the potential cost to relationships and community that I value.

I love the idea that sharing information about one’s identity is a “welcoming in” rather than just a “coming out.” That creates more room for a discussion about who we choose to share with – it implicitly acknowledges the reality that some people aren’t safe enough to merit being welcomed in (again, assuming someone even has the option to choose when/how/to whom their identity is disclosed).

To be honest, days like this also stir up my anxieties that people might question the legitimacy of my queerness. I only acknowledged my attraction to women and nonbinary/genderqueer people long after I was married to a man who’s also the only person I’ve ever dated. This makes me feel like kind of a fake queer sometimes – at best, a baby queer. Intellectually I know that it’s not having a sex or dating that makes someone straight or queer, but I worry that not having that experience makes my queer identity less real somehow, if not in my own eyes then in the eyes of others. I know for sure that I’ve lost out on something precious by not being able to see or admit my orientation earlier. All of this is complicated by the fact that I benefit from the privilege of being presumed straight and having my marriage socially and legally sanctioned.

My coming out (to myself, that is) story is very similar to this one from Rachel Oblak, a former BJU student. When Mr. G and I first talked about him not being a Christian any more and my own doubts about church, one of the things I said to him was that leaving the church would mean I’d finally have to really think about whether my experiences of same gender attraction (which I’d dismissed and suppressed) meant I was bisexual or not. I was surprised that his response to this was laughter – apparently, like Oblak’s husband, Mr. G had long suspected that I might be bisexual based on things I’d said in the past.

Of course, being married doesn’t necessarily mean that I could never have a relationship with anyone else. Leaving church has also meant that my husband and I had to seriously confront the fact that we can’t guarantee our marriage will last forever. And nonmonogamy is a thing – a thing I have thought about at some length, but am increasingly sure isn’t really for me. My reality, for now, is that I’m a queer woman with no experience of queer romance or sexual expression, and no prospects of any for the foreseeable future. I won’t lie, this is something that makes me profoundly sad.

I’m angry that I grew up in a culture that taught me to suppress any non-hetero feelings and pushed me to get married before I really had any clue who I was or what I wanted out of life. I wonder a lot if I’d be with a man – or even partnered at all – if things had been different. None of this means that I don’t love my partner. It just means I’m left to wonder a lot about what might have been.

But again, I don’t believe queer identity boils down to sex and romance. I’m grateful that a good friend – also a queer woman of color, but with very different experiences from me –  gave me some great advice as I was struggling with what to make of my sexuality in light of my unusual (I assume) circumstances. She suggested that I work to cultivate friendships with other queer women, and build connections with/invest in queer communities (please note: not the same thing as looking for token queer friends!). It was pretty wise counsel, I think, that I’ve tried to apply since then. It’s a process.

20 Comments

  1. I was glad to read all of this. Not glad for the things you have gone through and the times you were basically told to dismiss or shut down a part of yourself. I just mean, I’ve known you for so long and am sometimes not sure what is, like, “okay” to ask and what is just really too damn nosy. So I’ve wondered about some of this, and I’m (selfishly) happy you wrote about it today.

    Happy Coming Out Day! ilu.

    • The last few years have been pretty head-spinning for me, so I can just imagine they’ve been confusing for other people to see from the outside! I think probably there aren’t many questions you could ask about this that would offend me. Your support and friendship have been so steady and it’s meant a huge amount to me. *hugs* ilu too! (2 even!)

  2. Thank you for sharing this. It resonates a lot with me. I didn’t know I was queer until I married a womanish person without realizing it. ^_^ After that, though, an awful lot of my adolescence made more sense, lol. Until recently when I started seeing someone new, I’d never dated anyone else, so it felt like I’d somehow “cheated” my way into the “club”, whatever that means. We’re queer because we know we are, though. That’s really clear to me now. And I heartily condone cultivating queer friendships; I’ve never been very good at making friends in general, but it’s such a different and fulfilling experience to connect with one of your own. Baby queers unite! <3

    • Yea, the whole idea of the club is so strange, but it’s definitely there! I guess it’s something most marginalized groups do out of self-protection, which is understandable.

      Team baby queers!

  3. grace, i really appreciate reading this–you story combined with a perspective on “coming out” i hadn’t really been made to consider before. thank you.

  4. A fake queer – at best, a baby queer. <—- Yes. So much yes. Thank you so so much for this.

  5. I’m glad you did it! This is an important addendum to the celebration of “coming out.” not everyone is safe to do so, esp. teens. And no one would need to come out if we didn’t live in a heteronormative society that, as you said, assumes heterosexuality until otherwise stated. I am straight, but I tried to raise my kids (now 12 and 15) with an idea towards discovering their sexuality (i never assumed they were straight and encouraged them to figure it out for themselves). There is such a taboo against discussing sexuality with young children, but in a society that imposes heterosexual expectations as ours does, it is imperative if we want kids to avoid the kind of pain you have suffered. The more people talk about it, the more we can undo the harm of it.

    A really brave post!

    • Thanks for the comment :) We have a similar goal to raise our daughter without assumptions about who she’ll be and give her space to discover herself. She’s not quite 4, so it’s early days yet, but we’re trying to lay the foundations for future conversations.

  6. Yes. This is hard, and you did a beautiful job writing about it. I hope to get to this place some day.

  7. Thank you for this post. The first thing I was asked when I came out (at 25) was who I was with. Everyone thought it was strange that I was coming out of the closet as a lesbian but had never been with a woman. It was clearly laid out that your level of qeerness coincides with your dating life (or lack of). It didn’t make sense to me, the restriction. I was under the mpression I was coming out to be free right? But I quickly learned LGBTQ community has a very long list of their own rules. When I see the debate about same sex marriage there is the same you don’t count as queer unless your motives include building a family unit. So what if you’re single? Celibate? Non monogamous? Queerness is still measured against a heteronormative model. I was not expecting this when I was trying to find my way.

  8. Thank you so much for this. As somebody who is still in the closet and trying to inch my way out of the closet, it’s been helpful to think again about some of the “why,” and also to help understand some of the “scaling back” that’s happened in my thinking about how I want to come out to those I love. There are trade-offs and costs involved. And resolving those is a very personal, individual decision.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Kristin! It is incredibly personal and no one should be rushed or pressured into it. Hope your your coming out process unfolds in a way you’re comfortable with and works best for you. <3

  9. Thank you again for this. I sometimes think if it wasn’t for my struggles with depression I would come out as bisexual and atheist, but I don’t want to deal with the backlash. I don’t have the energy.
    Surprisingly, there is a small but vibrant queer community in my Conservative city which includes a bisexual group. It has been so helpful in allowing me to come out to myself. They have also included me even though I feel like a fake as I am in a monogamous, hetero relationship sanctioned by church and state.
    My husband also thinks it is better for dialogue with fundy Christians (aka family) to appear cis-gender and Christian and challenge their ideas in other ways. It is true that part of the pressure I feel for coming out is the wishful thinking that I can change people’s stereotypes by presenting them with a person who does not fit their stereotypes. I fear they would let the stereotype win and ignore reality.

    • Thanks, Prairie. I guess the bottom line for me is if coming out is at odds with taking care of your self, the latter has to come first.

      I’m so glad you’ve found a bi group! I’d love to have a community like that to connect with. Who knows, maybe there’s one local and I just haven’t found it yet.

      Re: challenging others’ ideas, I don’t know…sometimes challenging happens when people encounter someone who is different and realize that they’re not as scary as they’d assumed. Sometimes appearing “normal” means you can have conversations with people that they wouldn’t be open to otherwise. I think it depends.

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this. Love the “welcoming in” vs “coming out” and I’m grateful to hear a story so similar to mine, and know I’m not the only one who feels fake queer sometimes! I never had a chance, growing up fundy and marrying at 20, to explore why I found women just as attractive as men. I moved from “well, it’s just a observation – she IS cute!” to wondering why I checked out the women runners as often as my husband, to claiming an attraction to a body type (my husband = lean, narrow, etc) and finally just admitting that I really am bi.
    It’s almost disappointing to know that I am with my queer friends in so many ways and yet may never experience life the way those do who discovered themselves before becoming committed to a relationship that appears in every way to be heteronormative.
    On the other hand I know I am privileged in many ways: to be married to someone I love and am attracted to, that he finds my bi self attractive and accepts me for me, that he supports me coming out/staying in, depending.
    I’m still working through that. The coming out thing. :)

  11. This really resonated with me, because I am in a similar situation. I came out (ish) this October 11, and with it came a lot of feelings and reservations. I am also in an opposite-sex relationship (we’re engaged, so close to where you’re coming from), and have never dated or had sexual relations with another woman. It also makes me sad to think about the loss I might have in never having that experience. But, I’d like to think in some ways, I feel like a greater advocate. I’m also presumed to be straight because of my relationship status, and I don’t really present in a way that would “out me”. So I’ve sort of taken it on as my duty to debunk the myths — that a hetero relationship now means I’m always hetero; that “there’s no such thing as bi”; that bi people can’t be monogamous; that sexual identity is not the sum of a person’s whole being. At least in my community, I feel like there’s acceptance for the “classically queer” type of people – butch lesbians, femme gay men, etc. But there’s not as much acceptance for anyone who challenges those norms (even if they’re the norms of the minority). I want to be the person that people cite and say “that chick identifies as LGBTQ, and she doesn’t fit your stereotype — it must be more complex than that.” I understand that I can do this from a point of HUUUUGE privilege. But I hope I can use my privilege for gain, and not loss.

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