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The Complexities of Coming Out

When I was in my early teens, I thought coming out was going to be my formative queer experience. I remember every queer character’s “coming out story” on TV or in movies and began to think about my own “coming out.” I studied these characters, at the age of 14, I thought my coming out would define me.

When would I come out? Who would I tell? How would I tell them? How beautifully brave would I be in announcing my sexual divergence from the norm? At the time, I didn’t realize that the only reason coming out is a “brave” act is because the world is unsafe for queer folks to be who they are. This idea of queer folks needing to be brave can be seen in most TV shows with a queer character from the early to mid-2000’s show. Think of the classic story of a queer student coming out despite adversity and being both celebrated and bullies for their public announcement (think plotlines like “Love, Simon” or “Glee”).

As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized this narrative surrounding coming out is not only unrealistic but actually can be harmful to queer folks. Further, I never got to have my “coming out” it was stolen from me through being “outed” which is a story that I will tell later in this post. Before telling my story, let’s unpack the outdated narrative of “coming out.”

It is my hope in creating this zine and blogpost, queer people, especially youth, realize that coming out is a choice, not a requirement. No one is more or less queer based on their coming out, and a coming-out story does not, and never will define your identity. Coming out (or not) on your own terms is a privilege everyone should be entitled to.

To be clear: You do not need a coming-out story to be queer. Every day, I decide how out I want to be. This is a choice you as a queer person should get to make, and no one should make it for you.

With that, let’s jump into it!

The "Coming Out" Narrative

The "coming out" narrative is a common storyline used in the telling of queer stories. It can look something like this:

  1. This person is "closeted," meaning they haven't expressed their queer identity to anyone. They are assumed to be hiding or otherwise disempowered.

  2. In an act of bravery (or, often, non-consensual "outing"), they boldly and publicly announce their queer identity.

  3. After "coming out," they are suddenly happier and more confident. (Also their "coming out" event also tends to be a learning experience for non-queer people in the story.)

This narrative assumes a linear experience of queerness, which is often not the case. Queerness is a fluid, ongoing, lifelong experience. The assumption here is that once you’re “out” that’s it. In reality, coming out is a complex, multi-layered process. Coming out in one space does not mean you’re out in “all spaces." You can come out multiple times in your life, to different degrees, in different ways - or never!

Why can the coming-out narrative be harmful?

The coming out narrative is based on the assumption that one hides, and then “comes clean.” Meaning, the notion of “coming out” is wholly dependent on queer folks hiding first. There are several other reasons this narrative can be harmful to queer people and their experiences coming out (or not) and navigating their queerness in the world around them:

The narrative of “coming out” can:

  • perpetuate the notion that there is a single way to be out and queer.

  • assume that one hides, and then “comes clean.”

  • force queer folks to choose between safety and being themselves.

  • perpetuate the “othering” of queer folks by highlighting our difference to straight/cis people. (Straight people don’t need to come out as straight, why do we need to “come out?”)

  • tell folks who don’t want to or can’t come out for whatever reason that their queerness is lesser than folks who are “out and proud.”

  • create fear and self-doubt among people questioning their identity, or folks wanting to shift identity labels from what they originally “came out as.”

Queer Bravery

There is a narrative around coming out and queer bravery that we must dispel. An example of queer bravery is the classic story of a queer student bravely coming out, or bravely dealing with the results of being outed (think plotlines like “Love, Simon” or “Glee”). What this narrative leaves out, especially in TV shows and movies is the fact that the only reason "coming out" is brave is because we live in a world where being queer is often not safe.

Safety for queer folks is situational at best. In a safe, queer world queerness would not be brave it would be the norm, meaning “coming out” would not even exist.

While this is brave because we live in an objectively homophobic world, coming out is not an act of bravery in itself. Being queer, in any form is not brave, it is who we are. While "coming out" in reality is brave (because we live in an objectively transphobic, homophobic world) being queer is not an act of bravery in itself. Being queer is who we are.

Selective Coming Out: What’s that?

Selective coming out is an intentional choice to only come out in spaces where you feel safe and respected in your identity. For example, being “out” with friends or with family but not being out at work. Often times this choice is born out of a need for safety and security (such as employment or housing, for example). Typically, "coming out" requires being selective, because many spaces are implicitly or explicitly anti-queer and transphobic.

How can we avoid outing people?

It is never, ever okay to out anyone “for them.” As someone who has been “outed” I can tell you first hand, it is a painful and possibly dangerous situation to put someone in. It is a breach of trust and consent, so how can we avoid it? Accidents are no excuse to defy someone’s wishes regarding their identity.

  • If a friend comes out to you, first and foremost thank them for their trust and vulnerability.

  • If you have questions, ask your friend if they have space and capacity for questions.

  • If your friend has space for questions, ask them what you can do for them in terms of not outing them.

What questions should you ask?

  • Are you out at work/home/school? (In what contexts are you out or not out?)

  • Are there any names or pronouns that you aren't comfortable with? (Are there any names or pronouns I should start using for you?)

Remember: Make it a habit to never gossip about someone’s sexuality or gender identity. Just because someone trusted you with this information, does not make it yours to tell. The following story is an example of someone telling what was not theirs to tell.

Al’s Not Coming Out Story: Aka, My Outing

As mentioned in the introduction of this post, I thought a lot about my coming out and in the end, I did not get to make that choice. I was outed to my family, meaning I did not get to come out on my own terms. I was 16 when I selectively came out as queer to my friends. I disclosed to those I was close with that I was “bi” (a term I no longer identify with) and even had started dating another queer person! I was met with support from my friends and began easing into being visibly queer at school, it was a privilege that I felt safe and supported enough to do so.

Despite being out at school, I was not out at home. To say the least, my home life was not ideal. My partner’s house had become a safe space and I felt like I could not afford to come out to my family. I needed my support, my safe space, and I did not want to add being queer to the list of issues I had with my family. So I was out at school, with friends, but not at home. This is the case for many queer teens.

When I was 16 years old and had been with this partner for 3 or 4 months, I had an argument with a teacher at my high school. This cisgender straight man above the age of 40 found great pleasure in being in power in a classroom and showing minimal respect to students, an unhealthy rude dynamic. I spoke out about this behavior, in front of the class and several students one, of which was my partner at the time came to my aid. This man was clearly threatened by a 16-year-old and yelled until he was red in the face. I later found out, he has heard me discussing the fact that I was not out at home with my friends. I was asking for advice as I wanted to breach this topic with my family eventually.

Fast forward I returned home from my partner’s house late that evening. I was used to sneaking upstairs when I got home, but not this time. I entered the house and was greeted by crossed arms and angry faces. My parents informed me that this teacher had emailed them about how my “homosexual relationship is a distraction in the classroom.” Not only was this false, but it was also a huge breach of student/teacher/parent boundaries.

My parents had asked me many times before this if I was in a relationship and I had lied for months. Lucky for me my parents are not homophobic. They were more upset about me lying about my whereabouts and relationship status than my queerness. There was a fight, crying, I was furious. My identity felt taken from me, as a punishment. I was not ready to come out yet here I was. I felt naked, and not in a good way.

I went to school the next day sleepless and furious, filled with a level of anger that was deemed by my teachers as childish. I went right up to this teacher enraged and he looked dumbfounded. That was the moment I realized, he did not understand what he stole from me. I was forced to at the age of 16 explain to him and other educators that his choice to out me to my parents in a different situation could have made a student homeless or gotten someone hurt. They did not take me seriously.

I reported it to the school administration and was told it was all a misunderstanding and promised that they do all they can to support queer students and that this was not an act of homophobia. My experience was a misunderstanding. My home life was not their concern. My experience as a young queer person in an unhealthy family dynamic did not matter to them. I am lucky that my family grew to understand my queerness and that we are in a better place. I am lucky and was still robbed of my choice to come out.

Because of this, I hate when people ask about my coming out. My experience of coming out was not beautiful or consensual. It does not define me and frankly, I prefer not to think about it.

What I wish I could have known was coming out is a complex, multi-layered process. I did not realize that as queer people, we are socially expected to come out not once, but over and over in different spaces places, and time. Coming out in one space does not mean you’re out in “all spaces” and for me as an adult, coming out every day as queer and non-binary is an exhausting activity that can put me in danger.

Respect everyone's unique queer identity and process of self-identification no matter what.

We already said this, but it is worth repeating:

You do not need a coming-out story to be queer. We can each decide how out we want to be, or if we want to come out. This is a choice every queer person should get to make, and no one should make it for you. Straight folks don’t have to come out, so why should we if we don’t want to?

Hope you enjoyed this combination of education and reflection, as usual, let us know what you think. How do you feel about coming out? Do you feel like it defines you?



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