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.
Happy “coming out” day–to the LGBT community and also to my undocumented friends. We’re not really coming out; we’re letting you in.
— Jose Antonio Vargas (@joseiswriting) October 11, 2012
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.