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Feb 23 2012

Coming Out (Fourth And Final Part): Why Coming Out Matters

A closet. A metaphor. Articulating a concept of identity.

If coming out of the closet can sometimes be nothing more than an act of constructing a new false identity so as to further bury the truth of what you’re experiencing, if the closet metaphor only really adequately describes certain particular kinds of queer narratives but is dangerously and indiscriminately applied to all of them, if even when being “properly” used the closet still poses a constructed and particular identity that leaves one just as limited as before, if it dangerously posits a type of human experience defined by behaviour, action, relationships, love and pleasure into a category of person, if it totally fails to describe the actual complexity of articulating our endlessly changing states and degrees of trust and honesty we provide those in our lives, if we can’t possibly reduce this complex, shifting dance of how we present ourselves to a simple “closeted” versus “out” dichotomy, if the responses we receive to the act of “coming out” can terrify us to the extent that it takes us years to once again recover the confidence to confront the truth of ourselves and permanently compromise our ability to trust the love of others… why do we have this metaphor? Why do we continue to use it?

Because it’s still too bloody useful to abandon.

Regardless of the incredible inadequacy of the closet metaphor to hold up to the immense diversity of individually lived queer experiences, it serves us well as a collective community. What the closet is ultimately about isn’t really states of identity, not in terms of what about it is actually useful, anyway. Coming out is about visibility. And what visibility means when speaking about an individual life and narrative is something entirely and completely different from what visibility means for a culture, for a community, for a categorized, discriminated and oppressed group of human beings.

I described the issue of stealth the other day in part two. “Going stealth” is when someone who has transitioned decides to effectively cut all possible ties with hir past, bury the “trans” part of hir identity, and move forward with life as simply a member of hir identified sex, hopefully being understood as such in a wholly unqualified, unquestioned way by those around hir.

This is something that I, personally, cannot judge or hold against someone. It’s wholly understandable to me why people choose this. Sad as it may be, the truth is that we live in a world where trans isn’t simply seen as a particular adjective attached to someone’s gender, but instead as something that modifies, undermines and devalues that gender. When we’re known to be trans, we are considered just that much less to actually be a woman or man or however we identify. Furthermore, due to the rarity of people like us, and the intense exoticization and fetishization of our identities, “trans” ends up becoming the salient feature of our identities. We come to be understood first and foremost as trans, and only after that feature is recognized do the other aspects of who we are come into consideration. As much as I’ve abusively overused this particular means of describing it: we stop being recognized for who we are and are instead recognized for what we are.

As our society currently exists, and currently treats and understand gender, the only way for us to simply live a “normal” life and be fully, completely accepted as our gender and as ourselves, the only way to stop being in transition (it’s rather telling how our identity is defined by the word “trans”- putting us in this state of perpetual movement, existing forever in the act of crossing, never actually arrived, never actually determined, never at home… we are conceptualized not only as exiles, but exiled to the process of exile) …the only way to ever really move on, is to disguise our being trans. If we’re able, that is.

So I can’t fault anyone for choosing stealth. It is an entirely understandable decision for an individual life.

But what if we all did this? What if every trans person chose to stealth? As I’ve talked about before, this would create a situation where we no longer have any control over our own cultural visibility. We would only exist in general cultural perceptions at all in so far as we were outed. We would hand total control of those perceptions over to others, allowing who we are, and how we’re seen, to be defined for us. We would have no voice of our own. They would speak for us. We would have no face but the one they’ve projected onto us. We would have no presence at all except in our missteps. We would have wholly conceded what few scraps of actual power and self-determination we have. We’d be nothing but caricatures and phantoms, living in constant fear of being discovered and hence slotted into the perceptions they’ve crafted for us. We would never be able to assert our successes, our pride, our joy, our empowerment, our love or our hope… and every young person struggling with their gender would be terrified by the same images I saw, and come to the same darkly inaccurate conclusions I did: that you can’t really become a different sex, and “sex changes” are just for those people- the perverts and the deviants. They’d learn of us only through punchlines or pornography.

When I was offered the chance to begin writing for Skepchick it was not an easy decision to make. There was a great deal I had to carefully consider. I knew that I was exposing myself to a lot potential abuse and harassment. I knew it was a very big commitment. I knew that it would mean having to adapt to being a public figure, that female bloggers aren’t always treated with a great deal of respect, that I would receive the occasional death threat, that I’d have to deal with creepy e-mails from guys with crushes or sexual fantasies, that I could end up being tracked down and have people expose my birth name or whatever. I knew that if I were successful, it could drastically change my life, and that it would be difficult to get used to. But most importantly, I knew I was permanently compromising my privacy. I knew that I would never be able to fully go stealth. I knew I was consigning myself to being publicly trans.

But I decided to take those risks, because I feel like some of us need to do this work. I believe that the trans community needs to have a voice and a presence. I was being offered a platform, and I felt I had to take it. By myself I don’t really make much of a difference at all. But with lots of doing this, and being willing to take these risks and sacrifices, with enough of us making our lives just a little bit harder so that collectively the trans community can define itself and speak for ourselves, that makes a tremendous difference. With enough of us doing this, people can see what trans people are like, see that we’re human, that we struggle and feel and triumph and fear and hope just the same as anyone does. It allows people to understand us as a collective of individual human beings, each with their own quirks and idiosyncracies, talents and flaws. That we can be intelligent or creative or beautiful. That we can contribute to any number of fields. It attaches a human identity to what would otherwise be an abstract concept. I don’t have a link and I know how annoying it is when people say “I read a study that…”, but I read a study that recently indicated that the single factor most likely to positively influence someone’s perceptions of a given minority, and most likely to counter-indicate bigoted attitudes, was actually knowing someone of that group.

Having a bunch of trans people out and proud, and participating in a variety of communities (perhaps most importantly communities that aren’t specifically trans or LGBT, like skepticism or atheism, or the gaming community or punk rock or contemporary poetics or animation or comic books or anything), also provides the incredibly positive impact of showing people who are questioning their gender, or new to transition, that you don’t have to consign yourself to a particular kind of life. Being trans doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your dreams or ambitions or interests. You don’t have to stop being who you are… gender is only one little piece of you. You can transition and still play in a black metal band, or design RPGs, or be an oncologist, or paint conceptual portraits, or teach semiotics at a university. Each voice we add, each time we choose to take the risk of being both present in a community AND openly trans, we break down the preconceptions about what being trans is supposed to mean, and make it seem that much less limited, and that much more broadly human.

This is what the closet is really about, and this is where the idea is important. Of course, it goes so so so much farther than just transgenderism. It goes farther even than queer identities. Recently, the atheist community has begun to take its cue from what us LGBTQ folks have learned of closets and stealth and the power of visibility, and have begun the process of advocating “coming out” of the atheist closet as a means of individual empowerment and collective activism and progress. I can’t possibly be more supportive of this than I am.

As much as it always sounds a bit weird to say so, atheism is an oppressed minority. Comparing what’s faced by an atheist in terms of discrimination to the discrimination faced by trans people, queer people, people of colour, women, people with disabilities and so on definitely feels wrong and off, but it’s a difference of degree, not of kind. And in terms of the subject at hand, and what’s important to articulate here, that difference fades to inconsequentiality relative to the similarities. Atheism, just like transgenderism, is faced with the problem of being defined externally, of having what atheism is, what it represents and means, defined for atheists rather than by atheists. The discourse of atheism has been wrested from our own control and instead framed and dictated by believers (and those on the fence). The parallels between this process and the same process as applied to queer identities are frighteningly apparent… the same tragic choice exists in both, for example, between potentially sacrificing family and community and pushing forward for one’s own happiness, integrity and fulfillment.

Being quiet about one’s atheism, just like being stealth in terms of gender, makes things easier for an individual, yeah. So long as you don’t go around actually saying you’re an atheist, you can live your life relatively free from harassment, oppression, abuse or discrimination (unless you’re in certain particularly difficult settings, such as the military or only strongly religious institutions such as certain schools, colleges and universities). And just as in stealth trans people, I would not fault any individual atheist for making this choice in terms of their own life.

This becomes a much more tempting option when the act of vocally asserting one’s atheism is so thoroughly demonized within our culture. “God you atheists are so shrill! Always going around barking about your cynical beliefs! Can’t you just be quiet about it, keep it to yourselves and stop pushing your beliefs on everyone else?!” (just like gay folk are okay as long as they don’t act like it). This is, of course, exactly the kind of external determination and control of the discourse I’m describing. They’ve so thoroughly claimed hold of getting to define what atheism is that they’ve declared it inappropriate for an atheist to even suggest their own identity, much less actually begin to self-determine it, correct misconceptions, or begin working towards allowing what atheism is to be articulated by atheists themselves.

But if we all, collectively, decide to keep hush hush about our beliefs, we end up in a situation not much better than what would happen to a wholly voiceless trans community. There would be no positive atheist figures, no atheist leaders, no atheist magazines or forums or podcasts or websites or blogs. There would be no actual representations of atheism, only externally defined caricatures and mocking, cruel satire. There would only be the atheist as snobby, elitist, sneering, morally bankrupt, self-serving, vaguely nazi-esque social Darwinist. We wouldn’t be able to correct this, or assert our compassion, our ethics, our values, our investment in building a better world. Our movement would wither and fall apart within the span of weeks.

The internet has been an enormous benefit for atheism. We have gained an unbelievable level of traction over the past twenty years, having become a cohesive and powerful movement, with an extremely optimistic future ahead of us. This is not only because the internet allowed us to connect, communicate and organize, but because it removed control of media from a specific set of figures. Prior to the advent of the web, all media was controlled by editors, executives, publishers, programmers. These individuals were in control of providing the voice for small, hated, minority groups like atheists and… well, for trans people too (not so coincidentally, the internet has triggered just as much of a revolution in trans advocacy and the trans rights movement as it did for atheism). But the internet allowed us to have our own voice, and describe who atheists are and what atheism in our own terms, by our own self-determined definitions. We constructed our own community, rather than our community being defined by our expulsion from others.

The power of being visible, not by being found out but by asserting one’s identity, is absolutely essential in the struggle for any minority to attain equality, respect and rights. And this is what the closet is about, what coming out is about. Instead of waiting for someone else to point a damning figure and cry “atheist!”, we step forward and in our voice, in our own terms, assert ourselves as such: “I am an atheist. I do not believe in God or gods. But I do believe in…”

This gives us the power. It allows us to claim our position in the discourse. It allows us to determine our own identities and possess them, and allows us to find empowerment through our identities rather than only shame and hardship. It allows “the atheist” to change from the cynically empty caricature provided at the pulpit and in the Chick Tracts to a fully human being with fully human dimensions and depth. Human beings that believers know, that they love, with whom they share work or blood or tables. This is why coming out matters.

Coming out is a highly individual action, with highly individual and individually varied implications, struggles and consequences. Each person needs to make this choice for themselves (otherwise it’s meaningless and not really coming out at all), and negotiate exactly what does and doesn’t feel comfortable, and under what circumstances they feel right about. They need to examine their own levels of trust and intimacy, what feels okay, where they wish to position the various boundaries of identity, how they’d like to assert and define it, and how flexible they’d like those assertions and definitions to be. But they are defining that identity themselves, and ultimately while this an intimately individual process, it’s the collective consequence that is most meaningful. Beyond yourself, it will affect each individual in your life, and how they perceive each individual in their lives relative to whatever you’ve just outed yourself as. Individual lives and decisions, aggregating into social change. As is ever the case.

Invisibility may make an individual life a bit more convenient, but it never took a collective minority anywhere closer to equality.

Whatever your closets, whatever your identity, whatever your decision: make it an honest one, make it for yourself, and make it count.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    Anders

    Department of picknitting:

    We would have over total control of those perceptions to others, allowing who we are, and how we’re seen, to be defined for us.

    I assume that’s hand over total control.

    Your description of atheist plight is true for the U.S.A. (AFAIK), but not for the Nordic countries. It would be rather eccentric for a politician to speak about hir* private beliefs. The only people who do it are the Christian Democrats and they sort of have to. What do people from other countries say? How religious are Canadian politicians?

    I’d like to turn around the question asked – what if we all came out? How quickly would the old myths die, whether we’re talking about trans myths or myths about atheism?

    Yes, I think it’s immensely important that you do what you do, that people like Lana Wachowski and Chaz Bono do what they do. They show the world that it is possible to be fully open about sexual identity and yet be successful. Christopher Hitchens said that during his tour of the South it had happened many times that people said to him “I thought I was the only atheist in town.” After all, how do you know?

    1. 1.1
      Anders

      P.S. So… if we’re not supposed to call you brave for kicking a heroin addiction and the ass of a Y chromosome, can we call you brave for choosing a position you know would expose to all kinds of nastiness up to and including lethal violence? For doing what is right even if it isn’t comfortable?

      Just asking. D.S.

      1. TomeWyrm

        I was wondering the exact same thing. I can’t see myself doing what Natalie did; I would just go stealth and have everyone leave me alone instead of stepping into the spotlight.

        Bravo, and thank you, Natalie, for the amazing series, not to mention the entire blog!

    2. 1.2
      Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

      What Anders said. Further, being out helps questioners and people struggling with their own identities (whether gay, trans, or atheist) because knowing there are others who struggled the same way makes it easier to face those trials when they come. Knowing you’re not just some weird person who thinks strange things helps, because those thoughts are in others’ minds too.

      1. Anders

        Back when I was a scientist I did my research on something called Astheno-Emotional Disorder that would plug a hole in the DSM-IV. One of the things I learned was how important it is for people to know they are not alone. When we would tell them that we knew what they were talking about, that they were not imagining it, that we believed them… the relief, the happiness, the gratefulness. We still couldn’t actually do something about their symptoms but just being acknowledged in that way meant the world to them.

        So, yeah, what Katherine said.

        1. Dalillama

          What Katherine and Anders said. Also, on the subject of knowing that you’re not alone, and how helpful it was, I recall reading essays by Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela describing how important it was for them to know that they had supporters and allies on the outside while they were imprisoned by the governments they helped to overthrow. Prison is obviously an extreme case, but the level of social isolation that queer and/or atheist people can face in small conservative towns is pretty severe.

  2. 2
    jolo5309

    Dear Natalie
    You are awesome.

    I have nothing else to add

    John

    1. 2.1
      hall_of_rage

      +1. :)

      1. Rasmus

        Yep. Totally thought-provoking as usual.

  3. 3
    WilloNyx

    Fantastic conclusion to the series. Ends on a positive enough note that I didn’t cry this time. Thanks for these.

  4. 4
    keusnua

    Yes, the visibility aspect is so very important. I used to be somewhat trans-phobic. Basically because all I knew about trans experiences came from articles in the general media. And what was emphasised there was all about gender roles and gender presentation. It started and ended with those two aspects. As someone who is cis-female, but decidedly rejects gender roles, and does not have a feminine gender presentation, this felt quite a bit threatening. I mean, I like my body. I feel at easy in it. Were these people saying that I should either suck it up and behave and look like a proper woman, or commit to becoming a man? Neither option seemed attractive to me.

    Not until I read some accounts of actual trans people and their experiences did I get that the point was different. That being at ease, or not, with your body, and your mind, was what mattered, not all that other stuff. I read an account somewhere of a trans woman’s experience when she first went on hormones. About how something just felt right for her. Even before any physical changes could be seen in her body, her brain started feeling right. And then other accounts, similar and different.

    Reading these accounts made me realise that trans people where not some kind of gender police, and that their existence in no way threatened me, or invalidated my own identity. And I came to understand that I should probably be their ally, and they could be mine in my own struggle around gender issues.

    So cheers, and thank you for this blog. You are doing important work here, and will surely help some people to ‘get it’.

    1. 4.1
      Alethea Kuiper-Belt

      Oh yes, much the same for me. Not at all helped by the anti-trans attitudes of some of the 80s feminist movement, nor by the very heavy emphasis on gender conformity of the emerging 80s trans community. I really got on board in the 90s, when I got close enough to a trans woman for her to explain a lot to me – including the necessity (at the time) of persuading doctors ad psychologists that you were serious by adopting an ultra-femme presentation. She was very much a feminist – and also, to my wry amusement, she moved right out of the heels & frou-frou and into the jeans, flats and only light makeup as soon as she’d got her surgery done.

  5. 5
    jamessweet

    Thanks so much for being so open and sharing. I don’t want to go into details for fear of offending, but I have held some attitudes which I’m sure would be considered transphobic. Your description of your struggle, and the human face you put on what transgendered individuals go through, has been invaluable to me, and has given me a lot to think about.

    On a related note… as a white heterosexual male (oh yeah, and cissexual — new word for me!), I have learned over the years to approach most any topic involving privilege with the utmost humility. Even my experiences as an atheist don’t really prepare me entirely to understand issues such as these, since I live in a medium-sized city in upstate NY where being an atheist is just not really that big of a deal.

    I’ve found that one thing that has helped immensely is giving myself permission to be wrong — to acknowledge that I’ve held, and probably to a certain degree still hold racist/sexist/homophobic/cissexist attitudes, and that I don’t need to adamantly deny that in order to still be a good person.

    It makes it much easier to read your story, and when confronted with something in it that challenges my earlier preconceptions, to just accept that and contemplate what it means and how it fits into my worldview… rather than reflexively saying, “While I’m not prejudiced, I’m totally progressive about this stuff! So she must be wrong!” As absurd as it is to think someone like me would understand trans issues better than you, I think that’s a trap that people fall into far too often — because it’s easier to believe that absurdity than to admit to ourselves that we might have hold prejudices and misconceptions.

    I can’t promise to go away and never say or do another cissexist thing again. But your story, told so eloquently, has really shifted how I see some of these issues. It’s a lot to digest. But just: thank you for being so open. It really matters.

  6. 6
    Ace of Sevens

    I just had a similar argument over at Libby Anne’s place, with one person wondering what to say to homophobes and another taking the position that we should avoid them because it isn’t our job to change their minds, just to look out for ourselves. My position was that somebody has to make it their job to change minds or it isn’t going to happen. I wouldn’t like a place where we all look out for ourselves by leaving others hanging.

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