August’s been a good month for comings-out: Raven-Symoné, Ben Whishaw, Troye Sivan, Darren Young, Wentworth Miller, Chelsea Manning two days ago – am I missing anyone? Sivan, Young and Miller have self-identified as gay, and Manning as a woman; the press, annoyingly, have applied terms like ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ to Whishaw and Raven-Symoné, who to my knowledge haven’t specified their identifiers of choice, just as they did to Jodie Foster following her Golden Globes speech early this year.
Most of these announcements were refreshingly cliché-free: in YouTube videos, high-profile media announcements and storylines on primetime drama, comings-out often deploy received, predictable narratives about teary-eyed acceptance, Being Who You Are™ and loving yourself – none of which speak to every queer person’s life, and some of which enforce misleading or damaging ideas. I think it’s time we thought about reteaching gender and sexuality, with more self-criticism and precision, and that’s especially true of our approaches to coming out, and to the closet: shouldn’t we be considering the ways we’ve discussed them, individually and as a culture, and how those might be flawed or insufficient?
Queer theory is bashed as arcane, elitist and irrelevant, but we can’t not theorise what we experience: the closet metaphor, and the popular discourse we’ve built around leaving it, do prompt particular views of identity. I’m convinced exiting the closet isn’t enough: we need to smash it from the outside with new approaches and better ideas. With that in mind, I asked myself – what would I say now to myself nine years ago, on the edge of out? What would I, personally, tell queer teenagers and young people today, in contrast to popular and predominant tropes?
No single post could satisfy that question, but I came up with a ten-point list of answers.
- It’s all right to get pissed off. This might not seem an obvious start, but think about it: coming out, most of the time, is hard. Potential consequences – harassment, violence, rejection, denialism – make it hard, but so does having to do it in the first place. Your parents most likely taught you from birth that you’re straight, telling you that when you grew up, you’d marry someone of the opposite sex and procreate together, explaining sex as something mummies and daddies do, talking about ‘gay people’ as a them, not a facet of us: chances are, you just assumed you were straight by default, and realising you weren’t was a headfuck. However your loved ones react to your leaving the closet, they’re the reason you were in it to begin with, and the much of what makes leaving it difficult. I’m angry about that. Contrary to depictions of coming out in popular culture – dominated by tears, passivity and self-directed angst – you can be too. It doesn’t mean you hate them.
- Instead of ‘coming out’, you can just be out. You know that assumption any given person is straight – even people whose sexual or gender identities aren’t knowable, like babies or strangers? That assumption makes things harder for us. It’s why we have to announce we aren’t cishets to every new person we meet, why we get excluded from social discussions, why we sometimes feel like guests in our own homes. Once we know we aren’t, I sometimes think announcing so in dramatic, deliberate ways shores up the problem: the more shocking not being straight is made to seem, the more straightness gets reified as the default. Consider that, instead of sitting people down to give them the talk or making stressful, emotional speeches, you have the option of just getting on with things – of not formally declaring yourself queer, but not hiding it either. Jodie Foster did just that.
- There’s no set narrative you have to follow if you choose a deliberate ‘coming out’, of course – and for some people, that certainly is the best choice. It doesn’t need to be via a phone call, a letter or a sobbing sit-down confession: why not a blog post, a newspaper article, a piece of art? The story you tell might not fit popular patterns: it may not be true you’ve never had any interest in, or positive experiences with, the ‘opposite sex’; that if you’re trans*, you feel you were born in the wrong body; that you always knew you were different somehow. You may not feel different at all, which is fine. Anything you feel, in fact, is fine. If you don’t feel vulnerable or upset when you come out, you don’t need to be – you can be happy, confident, indifferent or angry and confrontational. There are reasons you might be any of these. All emotions here are valid.
- Identities needn’t be something you are. We’re constantly told being gay or straight (not to mention anything between or beyond) is just the way we are – that we’re ‘born this way’, that’s it’s ‘who we are’ or connects somehow to our finger length or number of older brothers. Identifiers like ‘gay’ and ‘bisexual’ are, in the end, just identifiers – words like ‘Whovian’ or ‘Directioner’ that we use as social emblems when we feel they best describe us, and very much the products of specific cultures. (There weren’t gay men or lesbians in Victorian London, but there were Uranians and sapphists; there weren’t gay and straight people in the 1600s, just some people who practised sodomy and some who didn’t.) Identities can therefore change – I’ve identified at various points as straight, bisexual, gay and (currently) queer – which can get interesting. Don’t let people tell you you’re really anything but what you say you are: you get to articulate your sexual or gender identity however works for you, and plenty of room exists for flexibility and creativity. If there aren’t words that express how you feel, make new ones up – we’ve done it with sapiosexual and protosexual and gynosexual - or, if you’d prefer, discard labels altogether. They are, after all, only labels.
- You don’t need anyone else’s approval. The ‘born this way’ argument, that we entered the world with predetermined sexual identities and have no choice in any aspect of our sexuality or gender, is pitched to apologise for us – to suggest that since we’ve no control over it, we can’t be judged morally or psychologically for not being cisgender and straight. Like plenty of popular coming out narratives, this doesn’t speak to everyone: personally, for example, I fit perfectly the image deployed by homophobes of someone who could engage solely in straight relationships but chooses not to. The argument we should be making is that in sexual and gender-based terms, people have autonomy, and no aspect of their sexuality or gender – include whatever choices might be involved – needs anyone’s approval or permission. The only consent I’ll ever need is my partners’, and you don’t need to defend your identity from the judgement of family, friends or authorities. Their judgement isn’t valid anyway.
- Telling religion to go fuck itself is okay. I’ve seen strong urges in LGBT discourse to reclaim religion: Lady Gaga singing God made us queer, LGB organisations working keenly with faith groups, suggestions Jesus was gay (no, really); I saw ‘encouragement’ at university for LGBT students to find churches that accommodated them, or pursue readings of scripture that got round its homophobic and transphobic aspects. While, being an atheist, I don’t find a nice God any less silly than a nasty one, I’m glad if personally this helps you through the night. On the hand, if you find yourself leaving your faith on top of coming out, you’re entitled to support, not pressure. I see LGBT people pushed toward liberal religion, in particular, in the U.S., where churches can bear huge social and community power, and religiosity is treated as a sign of sexual morality. It’s a reasonable conclusion their power isn’t deserved or legitimate; that an essentially random set of sexual and gendered taboos, based on unknowable ideas about theoretical beings’ whims, isn’t a good basis for ethics or social structure. If you decide religious bodies have no place dictating your sex life or gender, however nicely, you don’t need to feel bad about that.
- It isn’t your job to educate people. Straight people are going to get stuff wrong, and say things that piss you off. They’re especially likely to do this if you live outside the gay-straight binary – identifying for example as bi- or pansexual, asexual, queer or questioning – and cis people are almost certain to if you’re trans*. Much of the time, they’ll get defensive when you’re pissed off and insist you explain where they went wrong, but it isn’t your duty to school them, leading them by the hand through everything they need to understand but don’t, when you don’t want to. Schooling people takes patience, and can be emotionally demanding. We live in the age of Wikipedia and Google: not knowing about things has ceased to be an excuse, and if people aren’t aware of things they need to be, they don’t get to demand your time and effort helping them to understand. If you’d rather not deal with that, tell them to go and look up the Genderbread Person, Queeriodic Table or the Gender Wiki.
- You don’t have to wait till ‘it gets better’. You know all those YouTube videos, the ones Dan Savage started, with happy, successful LGBT people saying how nice their lives are to support and encourage queer youth? If I’d seen those when I was a teenager, stuck on a cycle of violence, harassment and self-harm, it would have done nothing at all for me, except perhaps make me feel worse still. When education is institutionally queerphobic, it’s an empty promise in false solidarity for someone to say that, since their personal life is now wonderful, you should assume yours will be too someday, sitting through further years of misery and torture while you wait. Someday be damned: you deserve safety and justice here and now. You are allowed to demand them from people tasked with your care, even if it means being angry, confrontational and aggressive.
- It’s not just you, even if it seems like that. Remember those points in (1) and (4) about our teaching people they’re straight, and identifiers just being identifiers? I’ve got a feeling most people are less straight than they see themselves as being, and those who identify as LGBTQ much rarer than those who’ve had, or could have, some queer experience. It’s easy to feel you’re the only one in your family, school or town who isn’t a cishet (trust me, I’ve been there), but the odds are, it isn’t so – and moreover, your being out might prompt other people to leave their own closets behind. Even though you might not see that happening, bear it in mind if isolation or loneliness are getting to you; openness and liberation about gender and sexuality are self-perpetuating, and once you’re out, you might start changing people’s thinking.
- You get to be part of something awe-inspiring. Being queer or trans*, especially once out, has its share of downsides – things can get difficult. At the same time, there’s a huge community of people who’ll be on your side, and that community, much of the time, is amazing. Collectively, we’re fucking with world’s preconceived assumptions about sexuality and gender, and that’s pretty exciting. We’re positive about sex in all its wild and wonderful forms, beyond mainstream sex education’s procreation-centric, cisheteronormative scripts; we’re home to incredibly varied relationship forms, beyond the heteromonogamous nuclear family; we’re traditionally relaxed about gender roles and open to warping, twisting and reinterpreting them – even doing this to gender itself. We have our own forms of language, literary genres and whole art forms, our own contributions to political and social thought . Much of this was born out of oppression and marginalisation, of course, but that doesn’t stop it being valuable or beautiful – in fact, isn’t generating ideas that disrupt and challenge social conventions, and building communities that do that, a pretty great response to getting stepped on by them? Our culture’s far from perfect much of the time, but it’s still an amazing one to have at your fingertips.
You don’t have to spend your life in the closet, no – but nor do you have to leave it a certain way, in line with expectations or stereotypes. You might even find that, as you emerge, it creaks and buckles till the door hangs smashed and swinging limply from its hinges, never again to shut.