Last weekend, my partner and I went to a thrift store run by the local LGBT community center. As we had on previous visits, we perused the store’s library. I followed my usual routine: LGBTQ books, sociology (mislabeled, in my opinion), health and medicine, history — areas of personal and professional interest that I search at any bookstore. I found myself hoping for that one book, that one queer book that I would secretly read and enjoy at home.
“Wait,” I thought. It was an LGBT thrift store; there are several LGBTQ-themed books. And, it is 2013 now, so LGBT issues are discussed and written about rather publicly these days. I no longer have to find pictures of and stories about people like me in that one queer book in the store. Those were the days of the closet — not just my own, but the collective closet all LGBTQ people stayed in until recently. Obviously, much of the infinitely long road to full equality and acceptance lies ahead, but much progress has been made even in my three decades of life (and one decade out as a queer person).
But, I actually felt a little disappointed that queerness is no longer my little secret. I felt the tiniest twinge of nostalgia. I cannot really explain why, for being in the closet was an awful period to which I would rather die than return. I suppose the only seemingly rationale explanation is that I miss the control I felt, or convinced myself I held, over the knowledge and visibility of my sexual identity. At 17, finally unable to deny who I was any longer, I started coming out to certain friends and family — but, I decided whom to tell and when. Of course, people talk, which I also factored into the coming out process. And, aside from two male “friends” (who had a rather homoerotic friendship with one another), the reception was generally positive. (Well, family took some time, but have come around completely.)
Out There, Everywhere
Now, I do not feel I have that control anymore. By virtue of my research and the kinds of courses I teach, students and colleagues typically assume I am gay. These aspects of my professional life that presumably reflect my personal life are publicly accessible, and even recorded through course history, and my publications and conference presentations. Recently, when I printed out the midterm exam for the gender and sexualities course I am currently teaching, I felt exposed — any colleague could pick up the exam from the printer and assume it must be mine. “Right, he’s the sexualities guy…” (read: he’s the gay guy). With what I presume are few out LGBT faculty and/or professors who teach courses on sexualities at my university, it feels as though a spotlight is permanently directed on me.
Further, the introduction of institutions’ involvement in my romantic life has been a bit jarring for me. By jointly signing a lease on our apartment, and opening various accounts jointly, my relationship with my partner is “official” — with various people at these institutions privy to it, and free to make whatever assumptions about us. Each time maintenance or some sort of service person comes to our home, we have to worry what they will think and assume, and how they will react based on those assumptions. And, now as my university moves forward in aligning with federal recognition of same-gender couples, but constrained by state law that prohibits same-gender marriage, I once again feel I have no control over my own sexuality.
While I want access to these various institutions and the associated benefits, and recognition as a committed couple with my partner, I also regularly fear assumptions, microaggressions, and other forms of hostility. These are the very things I typically guard against by controlling who knows what and when about my sexuality and relationship. I suspect other queer people may feel a bit unsettled by this patchwork of homophobic prejudice and discrimination interwoven with acceptance and recognition. I feel I am hyper out at work, where my queer identity, relationship, and scholarship are recognized and affirmed, but my partner and I are vulnerable to intolerance off-campus and are reduced to “roommates” by state law. This is a strange and unsettling liminal space for me as a queer person.
As quickly as LGBT rights have been advanced in the last decade, it feels a bit out of our hands as queer people to predict what lies ahead. I suspect the entire country will have marriage equality before 2020. But, will LGBT people feel any safer in public, walking down the street hand in hand with their partner? The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) will eventually be passed to protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, as well as trans* people, but transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic violence will remain a pervasive reality for us. There will be greater acceptance for LGBT individuals (to varying degrees) and same-gender relationships, but a pretty solid disdain for queer sex. And, my greatest fear of all is that we will begin hearing the retort to demands for LGBT rights — “but, you can get married now!”
Yeah, as sick as it may sound, I kinda miss being 17 and out to the chosen few. Things were clearer, more consistent, predictable, and easily controlled.