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Coming Out (Or Not) Is A Selfish Act?

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.

Thinking Critically

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.

Concluding Thoughts

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!

It Does Get Better — We Can And Have To Make It Better

I am not certain why the mainstream media have shown interest in the recent tragic losses of five queer youths, but this national attention is long overdue.  One suicide is too many suicides.  These that have occurred in just three weeks have been instrumental in reminding the country of the hostility young people face for being different.  While the focus on making changes in state-level and national marriage, family, non-discrimination, employment, and hate crimes laws has been important, we need not forget that we have, still, so far to go in improving the lives of everyday queer people.  Fortunately, that insight has been shared by others, including Dan Savage with his “It Gets Better” campaign, Ellen DeGeneres, and many celebrities via MTV.

I appreciate the many messages from everyday people and celebrities alike that it gets better, and I have added my own message “we have to make it better”:

We can see that change occurs year by year, even day by day.  But, it is in our efforts and the efforts of our allies that change comes about.  It does not magically happen; we cannot expect change while bigots work just as hard to resist change.  For most of us, as I have noted before, just living our lives out and proud is a form of activism.  We do the work of bigots when we inflict harm on ourselves, or deny who we are, or restrict our actions to avoid discrimination and prejudice.  For laws, hearts, and minds to change, we have to live our lives, stand up to injustice, and continue to fight on.  It does get better!

A Night I Will Never Forget: Seven Years Out Of The Closet

No, as the title might suggest, this is not a post about a party I had to celebrate the seventh anniversary of coming out of the closet, embracing and publicly announcing my (now) queer sexual identity.  Though it has now been seven years since I first told another soul other than my own, I want to share the experience of another, yet equally important and memorable event.

A friend of mine recently came out to his family, to which he received a less than positive reaction.  Given that I knew that I would be in town, I decided to check with my parents to see if they would be interested in having dinner with him and me.  It might sound a little strange, but my intention was to give him living proof that parents who may initially not react favorably to their child coming out can, with time, arrive at near-total acceptance.  My parents initially said yes, but with a touch of humor that made me wonder whether they were agreeing to do so only to appease me.  I did not get much more from my father, which is not unusual for him (a man of few words on emotional matters), but my mother later sent me a reassuring email, complaining that she found it unfair that LGBT children continue to have to deal with negative reactions from parents.

We met for dinner last week, everyone except for me (because I was on spring break) still in work attire.  The first twenty minutes or so were a tad awkward with obligatory questions about how my friend and I know each other, where everyone works, where everyone is from.  But, then the elephant in the room was finally addressed – let’s talk about coming out and parents’ reactions.  I was confident that my parents would have positive things to share with my friend, but I had no idea just how honest and positive their stories would be.  Both my father and mother talked about what shifted them from an initial negative reaction (why did this happen?  who is at fault?  what could we have done differently?) to one of acceptance.  The primary force responsible for this shift was their recognition that I was successful in my career (still in college at the time) and continue to be, and that I decided to accept and admit to them my sexual identity to be happy.

What came as the biggest surprise to me, they recounted things that have happened along the way over the last seven years that reflected back my own experience with those same events.  For example, my mom noted the time she and my father sat in our family room (a room we hardly use) in the dark, with her consoling my crying father (who, at that point, had only cried twice in his adult life – the other time being when my grandmother died.)  She highlighted how it appeared as though they were grieving my death.  This is exactly how I recall the event, so it was quite surprising and validating to hear that she experienced the event in the same way.  Finally, what I became aware of through their individual journeys to accepting me as I am is that it seemed that most of the work to reaching acceptance was within themselves.  For all of the battles over choice of sexual orientation, what I am doing, who I am sleeping with, what groups I belong to, and what types of things I do on the internet (like blogging), the best thing I did to help them reach acceptance was to continue to be successful in all other areas of my life and be myself – the rest of the work fell on them to wrestle internally with their moral beliefs, religious upbringing, and parental love.

In the end, my parents were quite warm with my friend and did their best to reassure him that he need not feel ashamed of his sexual orientation and that his parents may eventually come around.  My mom even offered to connect with his parents, but further down the road when they have had more time to digest the news.  Seven years ago, my father reacted as though I had died and my mother had to deal with her worst nightmares as a parent come true (she said she knew since I was five that I was “different” than other boys).  There were regular fights and silences that shrouded some topics.  Today, my father regularly sends me emails about the debates over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and same-sex marriage and my mother has looked into getting involved with Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG).

From this event, I feel confident to say that, with time, families can become accepting of their LGBT family members.  I should admit that I am not out to a lot of extended family, either because of their age or because we are not all that close.  And, I see this as part of the reason why I do not see coming out as the end all, be all for everyone.  I do not necessarily think that we should expect everyone to be publicly out, as the consequences for doing so are too great for some people.  We as LGBT people are not a monolithic mass; some of us have to worry about the loss of our racial and ethnic communities, or being banished from our places of worship, or being disowned by our families.  Although, in one of my ideal worlds we would not need to come out, at least not anymore than heterosexuals, another of my ideal worlds is not needing to have specific labels for people based upon their preferences, tastes, and likes.  In the mean time, it is important and powerful for those who can afford to to come out given the impact contact with LGBT people has on supporting LGBT rights, but we also should be careful to avoid setting that standard for all LGBT people as our experiences and backgrounds vary.

There, for once I wrote a post that wasn’t all negative!