This Friday, October 11th, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* (LGBT) communities will be celebrating National Coming Out Day. Beginning in 1988, one year after the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, LGBT people have recognized this day as an important moment to publicly come out or celebrate those who are already out. The social climate around sexual identity, gender identity and expression, and same-gender relationships has quickly shifted toward tolerance, especially in the last few years. So, coming out (as LGBT) has become easier, with LGBT and queer youth coming out earlier and earlier in adolescence.
Coming Out (Or Not) As A Selfish Act
Considering the growing acceptance for LGBT people, does it seem silly to stay “in the closet” (i.e., hide one’s sexual and/or gender identities)? Last week, I attended a talk by LGBT rights activists Judy Shepard; since her son, Matthew, was murdered in 1997 because of his sexual orientation, Judy has done speaking engagements all over the world to promote understanding and acceptance for LGBT people.
I was surprised, though, that she characterized staying in the closet — at least in one’s own family — as selfish. She argued that, by hiding who one’s “true” self (in this case, one’s LGB sexual identity), you are robbing family members of getting to know you completely. To be fair, she started her talk by noting some things she would say would not resonate with everyone. But, she emphasized her argument about selfishness for about ten minutes. (Other than that, I loved her talk!)
Funny, because as my mother first struggled with my (then) bisexual identity when I came out in 2003, she told me coming out was selfish. She suggested that it forced her and my father to adjust to this new me. Since this was fundamentally about sex in her mind, there was no need for me to share such personal details with my parents. (Now, over a decade later, my parents accepts me as a whole human being, and have apologized for the understandable rough time they had to go through after I came out.) Earlier this year, a football player (selfishly) argued that coming out in the NFL is selfish because it takes attention away from the entire (otherwise heterosexual) team.
So, a queer person is selfish if they never come out to their families. And, a queer person is selfish if they come out. I guess. Maybe, at the core, being queer is selfish?
Heterosexuals And Cisgender People Are Selfish
I am flipping this “selfish” accusation to highlight the selfishness of heterosexuals and cisgender people who 1) automatically assume every person is heterosexual (i.e., heterocentricism) and cisgender (i.e., ciscentricism), and 2) actively pressure LGBT individuals to become heterosexual/cisgender.
That one has to come out as LGBT in the first place is the product of the assumption that, from birth, everyone is heterosexual and that their gender identity is aligned with their sex-assigned-at birth. A common parenting strategy is to assume one’s child is heterosexual (and cisgender) until proven otherwise; and, for parents, that includes actively demonizing queer people, communities, and relationships.
When LGBT people decide to come out (or are forced out), our heterosexist and cissexist society does not throw up its hands and say, “well, I tried.” At the level of microaggressions, we are asked whether we think our sexuality or gender is a “phase,” or are interrogated about the traumatic events that led up to a deviant sexual/gender identity. We are encouraged to “try a little harder” — maybe you have not found the “right” girl, or should consider joining the military to “toughen up.”
Though veiled as innocent suggestions from a place of concern, we receive comments that suggest we should give being “normal” a second chance. Of course, this ignores the long internal process one goes through, first wrestling with one’s identity and then weighing the potential costs of coming out. It ignores that we already have “tried” heterosexuality and/or being cisgender many, many times for many, many years — that is why we have finally decided to come out as LGBT.
More severe manifestations of heterosexist and cissexist selfishness are punishing LGBT people for being different. The soft approach of re-recruitment did not work. So, the big guns have to come out. We are subject to discrimination in schools, the workplace, public accommodations, healthcare, the criminal justice system, the government, religion, etc… Countless queer people have been verbally, physically, and/or sexually harassed or assaulted. Countless queer people have been killed because of their sexual and/or gender identity. Heterosexism and cissexism are not secure enough to co-exist alongside a small minority who are not heterosexual and/or cisgender; so, queer people must be eliminated, erased from the past, present, and future, and forced to assimilate.
Shaming queer people — yes, I am calling this a form of shaming — for coming out, or not coming out, ignores the consequences of these actions. The true selfishness is demanding that an oppressed minority disclose everything to you when you want it, and hide everything when you don’t want it, while you ignore the oppressive forces that shape and constrain their reality.
As a sociologist, I must emphasize that individuals’ actions exist within a larger social context. In this case, LGBT people’s decision to come out (or not) must be viewed as an individual act within a larger heterosexist and cissexist society. Our agency or “free will” to act (or not) is shaped by opportunities and obstacles posed by interactions with others, institutions, and larger social systems (e.g., cissexism).
As a Black queer feminist sociologist, I must emphasize that the pressure to come out — whether from LGBT community leaders or heterosexual and cisgender family members — ignores the unique pressures and consequences for doing so among queer people of color, working-class queer people, queer immigrants, disabled queers/queers with disabilities, and queer religious minorities. For LGBT people who are disadvantaged in other ways, the stakes may be higher for coming out. For example, LGBT people of color risk being kicked out of their families, and lose larger ties to their racial/ethnic community; the former may be less damaging in the long-run for white LGBT people, and the latter is a non-issue for whites.
So, not only is demanding that queer people (don’t) come out selfish, it is arguably racist, sexist, classist, ableist, and xenophobic because it presumes a common set of experiences for all LGBT people.
My intention is not to demonize particular cisgender and heterosexual people. But, I do take issue with shaming queer people for either coming out or not coming out. Simply existing in this transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic society of ours is a brave act that constantly requires deciding how to
navigate survive in this world. There is no one good path because every decision we make comes with costs and consequences. Sometimes, for the sake of survival or protecting our livelihood, we cannot afford to be out. Sometimes, we consider the risks, but decide it is still more beneficial (for ourselves and others) to be out than not. And, in general, the decision to come out (or not) is not always ours to make.
Without having first-hand knowledge of the reality of being queer (i.e., that is, being queer yourself), it is unfair to question the decisions that queer people make. If you — talking to cis and hetero people here — feel the need to be critical, set your sights on the systems of oppression that shape and constrain every aspect of the lives of trans*, bi, lesbian, gay, and queer people. We could use more of that kind of critique, anyhow!