A zine exploring the social-historical context of “coming out."
I’m a big believer that “coming out” shouldn’t have to be necessary. This is a belief that began around the time that I “came out” in high school when I was so stuck between the feelings of wanting my identity to be considered, recognized, and known, while simultaneously not really wanting anyone (especially the people I did not know well) to think too hard about my body or my sexuality.
I came out semi-reluctantly (and very nervously) on National Coming Out Day, which is October 11th. This day offered both an excuse to publicly “come out” while also imposing a kind of looming deadline. But I did come out, first to close friends, then my family, and then to loosely “anyone” through Instagram. I was a sophomore in high school and I “came out” as bisexual (which I rarely identify as today). I’m privileged that I was not “outed” and that I did not lose any of my social safety nets through coming out. I still had a home (and parents that were so cool with it) - so many people lose that when they come out or get outed.
And that “coming out” story was fine for a few years until I realized that I might have to “come out” again because something changed, or rather queer terminology and ideologies became more accessible. Except it felt different this time, in that I no longer had any desire to publicly announce this identity, and I also had a feeling that there will be another time when I need to “come out” again in the future.
My understanding of gender and sexuality changed from something that is static and fixed to something that is in a state of constant change, like a really long book. “Coming out” every time I noticed a shift in my gender expression, attribution, or attraction would be like alerting everyone when each time I turned the page of a book. And the book is really long and never going to end. Why would I keep telling them? I’d rather just go on going through the book. And maybe I could tell them about the general gist of the book, like what page I’m at, but describing the book one page at a time as if that page is representative of the whole book is too much.
This is not to say that “coming out” is a bad or useless thing to do. Coming out is extremely important and often liberating. It just shouldn’t be the only way to "be queer" or the default process in our society that queer people have to navigate. This is what people mean when they say “Don’t assume someone’s gender,” or “Don’t assume someone’s sexuality.” Because once that assumption is made, especially on a societal level, then the burden of correcting the assumption falls on queer people, and that’s just not it. In high school, I remember feeling like it was just unfair and uncomfortable. These days, I have the tools and abilities to be critical of the way our society operates and the overwhelming presence and pressures of cisnormativity and heteronormativity.
This zine is about what I didn’t know in high school, and what lots of queer folks are never given the privilege to learn, hold, and think about, which is that “coming out” is often violating, because it is rarely done on one’s own terms, and is too often an act that is performed through lenses of transphobia and anti-queerness. We want to emphasize that this zine series should not work to invalidate or diminish anyone’s “coming out” process, because coming out can often be incredibly necessary and important to queer folks. All of this is a closer look at the why’s and the how’s of it all. Why do I have to come out? How are gender and sexuality constructed? Why does identity change over time?
Before we dive into it, some vocabulary to go over:
Coming out - The act of claiming (often publically) a queer identity.
Outed - The non-consensual act of publically revealing someone's queer identity.
Heteronormativity - The societal assumption that people are heterosexual by default.
Cisnormativity - The societal assumption that people are cisgender by default.
So why are people expected to come out? The short answer is, cisheteronormativity (which is the societal expectation that people are bot cis-gendered and heterosexual naturally, or by default). The long answer is a bit more nuanced. Queer people are often made to carry the burden of creating space and recognition of their identities, due to these misinformed societal expectations. Cisnormativity and heteronormativity work in tandem to produce a compulsory expectation of one’s identity. These social ideas are also backed up by science, policies, media, religions, social roles - the list goes on and on. Together, these small, misinformed ideas create the big, problematic idea that queer identities deemed deviant from the norm. It is this idea that often endangers and “others” queer people, and it is this idea that creates the necessity of “coming out.” If one is deviant from the norm, it is up to them (and others) to notice, identity, and often recalibrate in response to the deviation. However, in a world where cisheteronoramtivity did not exist, there would be no norm to deviate from.
“Coming out” hasn’t always looked like this. For most of history (and in many places today) coming out was not an option: it was (and is) too life-threatening. Most people never came out in Western societies, where they were used primarily as a medical diagnosis. Additionally, the terms homosexuality and heterosexuality weren’t even conceptualized until the late 19th century in Western cultures. In other words, there was nothing to "come out" as. "Coming out" became popularized in the late 20th century, as celebrities began to publically "come out." Queer identities became more visible in popular media, and "coming out" became a viable option for some people. In Western societies today, there exists a narrative that “coming out” is necessary to being queer, or is an essential step in becoming confident or powerful while being queer. This narrative can be harmful to people who cannot or don't want to"come out" publically.
Another important aspect of the queer experience to consider in this analysis of “coming out” is that identity fluctuates, or changes, over someone’s lifetime. Gender and sexual orientation are not innate or biological. They are fluid and situated. This means they can change over time. This occurs in part because gender is situated in your social landscape, which is an intricate way of saying “You become what is available to you” - Matisse (@mxmatisse) from TikTok. These days, queer identities are more recognized and represented in our culture than ever before, which allows for people to recognize within themselves and take up identities that may have otherwise been inaccessible to them. Queer identities, much like other social identities like race, class, gender, and ethnicity, are tied to the social landscape that we are all collectively imagining and navigating. And that social landscape changes all the time, and the social identities that exist in and because of that social landscape shift in tandem. It can be imagined as a cycle, with each factor impacting and connecting to the previous (see page 4 of this zine). Anne Fausto-Sterling, a biology and gender studies researcher, said it best: “Gender is a location on an ever-changing landscape.”
For most of history (and, realistically, in most spaces today) our social landscape is dominated by cisheteronormativity. In queer spaces, or any place working to acknowledge and dismantle cisheteronormativity, folks can explore their gender identities and sexualities in ways that feel more organic and authentic. For some people, this looks like an ongoing exploration and evolution of their queer identity, which may look like “coming out” over and over and over again. Unfortunately, the dominant societal expectations still treat queerness as a deviation from the norm.
How can we shift this societal expectation away from cisheteronormativity?
To begin with the obvious, don’t assume everyone is cis or straight. This is not the default or “natural” state. People are not inherently or biologically cis or straight.
Recognize that queer people are not the only people with gender, pronouns, and sexual orientation. Cis people have a gender identity, and straight people have a sexual orientation.
Validate and celebrate the fluidity of queer identities. Allow for and expect your identity to change as you change, and grow as you grow.
Don’t “out” anybody. It's non-consensual and often traumatizing.
To close out, I think it’s important to recognize the gatekeeping that often occurs in queer spaces, especially regarding identity and “being out.” You are allowed to “come out” or “stay in” to whatever degree or capacity feels most comfortable to you. And being “out” is not a measure of your queerness.
Thanks for reading till the end, and stay tuned next week for Part II of this series, where Al is going to explore the complexities of coming out, the “coming out” narrative and queerness as a non-linear experience.