National Coming Out Day is October 11th this year, which is two days away. So, I think it’s only right that I share some of my thoughts on what it means to “come out.”
For me, “coming out of the closet” is a conscious decision to live and present yourself authentically within a social group that perceives you in a way which contradicts with your true and authentic self. Until one’s decision to come out, one is consciously choosing to repress or hide a part of their identity from a social group, be it sexual orientation, gender identity or both. One is assuming the identity that has been built by others’ perceptions of them rather than the one they perceive for themselves. This is important to note. This is the reason that heterosexual, cisgender individuals don’t need to “come out”; because nothing is being repressed or hidden. They are already living authentically. Granted, that has a lot to do with cultural norms, privilege, and the distribution of power within our society. Hetero-, cisgender individuals are perceived by society to be the majority, to be “the default” state of being. Because of this, they have the privilege of being perceived in the same way that they identify. A hetero-, cisgender person can live true to their identity without having to actively try and change others’ perceptions of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
That was the lecture part. The next part is a little more intimate.
The act of “coming out” holds a lot of personal significance for me. I have had several “coming out” experiences in my life. And as is true for many others in the LGBTQ community, I will continue to have them throughout my life. When I was in middle school, I came out to my two best friends (despite not really having the language or the terminology to describe my sexual orientation). One welcomed me with open arms and congratulated me for having the courage to tell her. The other never spoke to me again. When I was in high school, I came out to a particular group of friends as well as my partner. My partner (who I am still with today) accepted me and said that this new knowledge about my sexuality would do nothing to negatively affect how much he loved me. My friends were for the most part accepting, with a small handful who decided to alienate, bully, and out me to others.
When I was in college, I came out publicly on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and my blogs. I also came out to my parents. This was the hardest coming out experience for me. In the 2+ years following my decision to live “out,” I struggled to maintain family relationships, was threatened with being cut off financially, was threatened with homelessness, received online death threats, was physically assaulted, and tolerated an almost constant stream of cyber-bullying from individuals I once called friends. I was also urged by professional colleagues and advisors to retract my coming out statement and to stop “perpetuating the idea that your sexuality is acceptable.” The social aspect of my life became so toxic to my mental health that I began to have daily thoughts of suicide and engaged in a number of self-harm activities including taking improper doses of prescribed medications, excessive drinking, cutting, and ingesting toxic chemicals.
I consider myself lucky; despite more than one suicide attempt during this turbulent period in my life, I am still here. I have since had one more coming out experience – coming out as a professional in a workplace setting. This was by far the most positive experience I have had. The organization that I work for is very pro-diversity and prides itself on encouraging employees to live in the healthiest, most authentic way possible. It even includes the language “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in its official Non-Discrimination Policy, putting it miles ahead of most Utah-based firms.
I am proud to say that I have lived “out” in all aspects of my life for the past 3+ years.
Coming out requires personal courage, resilience, and a great amount of positivity. There are easy, positive coming out experiences and there are difficult, negative coming out experiences. Each experience is different and there really isn’t a proven, faultless, fool-proof way to come out. There’s no way to determine if your coming out experience will be positive or negative, though you can make an educated guess based on a million diverse factors. No one can tell you when or where or to whom you should come out; that is a decision you can only make yourself. I would never encourage someone to come out if they are uncomfortable or scared of the idea of living authentically. It’s my experience that you need to be comfortable with the idea of everyone knowing – and potentially making critical judgments of your character based on the idea – that your sexual orientation and/or gender identity do not conform with their perceptions and preferences of who you are.
[NOTE: I also do not advocate coming out if you think doing so would add more danger to your life than it would happiness and fulfillment. Yes, coming out despite the threat of harm does take courage. Yes, it is very commendable. Yes, many great people have put themselves in harm’s way in order to further a cause or bring attention to a social problem. But, in my opinion, your life and happiness are far too important to reduce yourself to being someone else’s martyr.]
As an “out” member of the LGBTQ community and what I consider to be a generally good person, I feel that it’s my responsibility and privilege to be an ally to those who still struggle with coming out in their lives, as well as those who decide not to come out. But, allies don’t identify themselves; allies are identified by those they support. You can’t just call yourself an ally and make it so. Your actions and the perception of those actions determine whether or not you are an ally. That’s one of the reasons I don’t think it’s appropriate to “come out as an ally.” Announcing your support is wonderful and helps a lot of people. But I don’t know that we should be equating it to the act of coming out.
Now, I’ve recently been criticized for saying that allies should choose a phrase other than “coming out” when announcing their support of LGBTQ individuals this Saturday for National Coming Out Day. People have gone so far as to say that I must not want allies and that I am rejecting their support. That’s not what I’m trying to do at all, and I’m truly sorry if I have made people feel this way. My intention is not to alienate allies. I don’t want to diminish their efforts and actions; allies are and have been valuable support systems for LGBTQ individuals and powerful voices in the fight for social equality.
But – and there’s no polite or sugar-coated way for me to say this – it’s not about them. And allies shouldn’t try to make it about them. Selflessness is a very important part of being an ally. You shouldn’t support people simply to gain praise or be commended; that’s just an added bonus to doing the right thing. As an ally, it’s important to acknowledge that you are supportive of the movement, but you are not the movement itself. In order for true social equality to be accomplished, the LGBTQ community needs to be the most active, most involved, most visible members of the LGBTQ equality movement. Allies should not act as if they are the spearhead of the movement; that gives the opposition the chance to say that it was the majority – the heterosexual, cisgender community – who gained rights for the LGBTQ community, downplaying and invalidating all the work that the LGBTQ community put in to ensure that equality is achieved. We need allies, not saviors.
I know that’s blunt. I know that’s not what some people want to hear. But I believe it needs to be said and understood. Many people aren’t going to agree with me and that’s okay. As always, these are my thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. They may not be true for some; I understand that. But, I think it’s important to bring these kinds of perspectives to the table.
Please, feel free to leave questions, comments, concerns, thoughts, hopes, dreams in the comment section below. As this is a somewhat touchy subject and a virtually anonymous forum, please try to be kind if you do decide to strike up a dialogue. I do field all comments on my blog, so if I feel that your comment is hurtful or inappropriate, I may decide not to publish it. On the same token, that also gives you the opportunity to ask that I respond to your comments privately; all you need to do is leave me some way of getting in touch with you and let me know that you wouldn’t like your comment to be published.
I love you all.