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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!
I feel heartbroken by the news that George Zimmerman walks a free, “innocent” man after murdering Trayvon Martin. It is difficult to digest that the state of Florida, among other states, has granted license (which mostly benefits whites who kill Blacks) to “stand your ground” (i.e., murder). So, while there is no doubt Zimmerman killed Martin, he was found not guilty within the content of these broad self-defense laws. Indirectly, Florida and these other states have legalized the practice of hunting and killing of Black Americans.
Post-racism my ass!
Parents And Racial Socialization
In addition to the collective outrage and sadness that followed the not-guilty verdict, I noticed other, unexpected responses. One, in particular, caught me by surprise, but probably should have been expected. Because Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old when George Zimmerman killed him, many Black parents (especially mothers) have expressed great concern for protecting their children. Some have asked specifically how they can effectively prepare their children to navigate a world where they could be murdered for carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea — that is, if they are Black.
Throughout US history, Black parents, like all parents of color, have socialized their children in a way that is explicitly racialized. This aspect of Black parenting, sometimes referred to as racial socialization, entails practices of preparing one’s children for the current realities of racism and race relations and, for some, instilling a strong sense of racial pride. So, the concerns raised by Black parents following the murder of Trayvon Martin and, again, following the conclusion of George Zimmerman’s trial, are not new.
But, the messages transmitted by Black parents to their children does change over time, reflecting the current racial climate. In their 2006 Social Psychology Quarterly article, “Race Socialization Messages across Historical Time,” sociologists Tony Brown and Chase L. Lesane-Brown assessed the content of Black parents’ racialized socialization practices over time: specifically pre-Brown v. Board of Education (before 1957; Blacks born between 1879-1940), Civil Rights protest (1957-1968; those born in 1941-1955), and post-protest (1969-1980; those born 1956-1963). The earliest cohort — those coming of age before Brown — were more likely to hear messages about deference to or fear of whites, or about color-blindness. Those coming of age after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement were more likely to hear messages of racial group pride, individual pride, or no race-specific messages at all.
Racial Socialization, 1980 To Today
What about the racial socialization of those born from 1964 to today (Blacks under the age of 50)? Black Americans who came of age in the 1980s were socialized during the time of conservative President Ronald Reagan, The Cosby Show, and heightened poverty. Those who came of age in the ’90s witnessed the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court (following the hearings of his sexual harassment against Anita Hill), the brutal beating of Rodney King by LA police, and the Million Man March. My cohort — those coming of age between 2000-2010 — has seen the election of Barack Obama (and other “Firsts” like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice), the ugly (mis)handling of evacuation before and relief after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the end of busing and subsequent resegregation of schools, and the beginnings of successful attempts to undermine and dismantle Affirmative Action policies.
What about the current racial climate — Black youth who are coming of age during the present decade (2010-)? It appears to be an intensification of the racial/racist schizophrenia of the prior decade. While President Barack Obama was reelected, there were heightened efforts to suppress Blacks’ vote. Recently, declaring racism dead or nearly dead, the Supreme Court gutted much of the Voting Rights Act. Affirmative Action programs continue to be challenged and scaled back. Blacks are disproportionately represented in prison and throughout the criminal justice system. While hearing claims that America has reached a post-racial era, the vast majority of Black Americans report facing interpersonal discrimination (Kessler et al. 1999); this is complemented by legal law enforcement practices that unfairly target people of color (including Stand Your Ground laws) and other forms of institutional racism.
Racial Socialization, Discrimination, and Crime
But, is instilling a strong sense of racial pride and preparing one’s children for racial bias effective? Yep. Prior research has suggested that the damaging effects of racial discrimination, particularly to one’s health and well-being, are buffered by a strong, positive racial identity (Paradies 2006; Pascoe and Richman 2009). This is true for racial socialization broadly, but also supportive parenting in general (Simmons et al. 2006).
Interestingly, racial socialization also partially mediates (or explains) the relationship between racial discrimination and criminal or delinquent behavior (Burt et al. 2012; Caldwell et al. 2004; Martin et al. 2010). Unfortunately, as a result of the anger, depression, hostile view of interpersonal relationships, and disengagement from conventional norms that can follow exposure to discrimination, victims of racial discrimination may be more likely to engage in these kinds of violent or illegal activities. But, Black parents’ successful efforts to instill a strong sense of racial pride and prepare their kids for racial bias can interrupt this chain of events.
For, what unfolds is much worse. With racial disparities in (hostile) interaction with the police, in arrest, in the courts, and in sentencing, the risk of imprisonment is multiplied. And, once release from prisons (at least for felonies), one’s livelihood and well-being are further jeopardized by the simultaneous stigmatized statuses of “ex-con” and Black. In certain states, that comes with the loss of key aspects of citizenship, namely the right to vote (another right that is already threatened by racial discrimination).
The sheer vastness of racism’s reach are difficult to comprehend. From birth to death, one’s life is persistently shaped and constrained by racism; even the racist treatment one faces within one institution (e.g., education) can influence such treatment in one’s navigation through other institutions (e.g., criminal justice, politics).
And effective racialized socialization can minimize some of this? That is an unfair, heavy burden to place on the shoulders of parents of color. And the era of supposed post-racism has made the job of Black parents even more complicated. How do you explain to your 12 year old that he could be President, a doctor, a teacher, or an engineer by age 40… or living in poverty, HIV-positive, in jail, or dead by age 25? How do prepare your child for racist violence, like the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, alongside the “progress” that has transpired in the past 60 years?
And, what could Trayvon Martin’s parents — Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton — have done to prevent the tragic end of their son’s life at the young age of 17? Told him to lay off of junk food? Don’t walk alone at night? Dress like characters on the uber white show, Friends? Or, stop being Black? Any of these suggestions are victim-blaming; and, unfortunately, parts of Zimmerman’s trial seem to put Martin on trial (for his own murder).
When racial socialization is not enough, and the law actually gives bigots a license to hunt innocent Black teenagers, what protection remains for people of color in America?
It is hard to hope for any answer other than, “nothing.”
Bowleg, Lisa, Gary J. Burkholder, Jenne S. Massie, Rahab Wahome, Michelle Teti, David J. Malebranche, and Jeanne M. Tschann. Forthcoming. “Racial Discrimination, Social Support, and Sexual HIV Risk among Black Heterosexual Men.” AIDS Behavior.
Brown, Tony N., and Chase L. Lesane-Brown. 2006. “Race Socialization Messages across Historical Time.” Social Psychology Quarterly 69: 201-13.
Burt, Callie Harbin, Ronald L. Simons, and Frederic X. Gibbons. 2012. “Racial Discrimination, Ethnic-Racial Socialization, and Crime: A Micro-Sociological Model of Risk and Resilience.” American Sociological Review 77: 648-77.
Caldwell, Cleopatra Howard, Laura P. Kohn-Wood, Karen H. Schmeelk-Cone, Tabbye M. Chavous, and Marc A. Zimmerman. (2004). “Racial Discrimination and Racial Identity as Risk or Protective Factors for Violence Behaviors in African American Young Adults.” American Journal of Community Psychology 33: 91-105.
Kessler, Ronald C., Kristin D. Mickelson, and David R. Williams. 1999. “The Prevalence, Distribution, and Mental Health Correlates of Perceived Discrimination in the United States.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 40: 208-30.
Martin, Monica J., Bill McCarthy, Rand D. Conger, Frederick X. Gibbons, Ronald L. Simons, Carolyn E. Cutrona, and Gene H. Brody. 2010. “The Enduring Significance of Racism: Discrimination and Delinquency Among Black American Youth.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 21: 662-76.
Paradies, Yin. 2006. “A Systematic Review of Empirical Research on Self-Reported Racism and Health.” International Journal of Epidemiology 35: 888-901.
Pascoe, Elizabeth A., and Laura Smart Richman. 2009. “Perceived Discrimination and Health: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Psychological Bulletin 135: 531-54.
Roberts, Megan E., Frederick X. Gibbons, Meg Gerrard, Chin-Yuan Weng, Velma M. Murry, Leslie G. Simons, Ronald L. Simons, and Frederick O. Lorenz. 2012. “From Racial Discrimination to Risky Sex: Prospective Relations Involving Peers and Parents.” Developmental Psychology 48: 89-102.
Simons, Ronald L., Leslie Gordon Simons, Callie Harbin Burt, Holli Drummund, Eric Stewart, Gene H. Brody, Frederick X. Gibbons, and Carolyn Cutrona. 2006. “Supportive Parenting Moderates the Effect of Discrimination upon Anger, Hostile View of Relationships, and Violence among African American Boys.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 47: 373-89.