Some thoughts on coming out

We have a lot of odd ideas about coming out of the closet.

For one, it’s not always clear when we begin being in the closet. Certainly many of the QUILTBAG people I know reported some subtle hints, the tiniest whispers of self awareness, long before they had learned about the concepts of gay or bi or trans. So is it the first time you learn the word, and realize “this is me”? Is it the point at which you identify with the term internally, but don’t necessarily express it? Was I in the closet when, at age six, I asked my daycare worker when it would be my turn to be a girl–only to be told that this was a “silly fantasy”? Was I in the closet at age 14, when I said I was tired of being a boy? Or did I only begin being in the closet between my “eureka!” and my first announcement that I would be transitioning, which would be winter 2013, to the friend who had made me confront the possibility during one of my TERF episodes?

Two: We’re always in the closet. Being QUILTBAG isn’t always visible. When I meet new people, I’ll sometimes get polite smalltalk about whether I’ve met any boys (nevermind that as an adult, I would be dating men), or someone will unknowingly probe into a part of my past prior to my transition, which can make things real awkward real fast. One time, a cis woman who was a new acquaintance at a function had expressed dismay that she forgot her pads and asked to borrow some from me, which probably took me a few extra seconds to parse out as to why I was being asked to begin with (she’s assuming I have a uterus). These things happen because we still tend to assume heterosexuality and cisgender identity, and also tend to erase the broad range of human intersex development in general.

In other words, we never stop being in the closet, because we have to constantly come back out of it to contradict the assumptions every time we meet someone new. Sometimes, if we’re bi+, we have to remind observers that a relationship can be heterosexual-passing but that doesn’t invalidate our polysexuality or result in us no longer being “gay.” (The difficulty in acknowledging what bi+ sexualities actually are is prevalent)

Three: Hardline prejudice against a minority is reduced by knowing a member of said minority. When people in positions of institutional power legislate against the QUILTBAG community, one of the strategies attempted by advocates is to put a face to the concept. It is easy to debate on gender variance or sexual orientation as if it were a theoretical, something abstract–harder (though not impossible) to advocate for its restriction through force or coercion when you are speaking directly to a QUILTBAG person. On the one hand, this produces a moral imperative to be out of the closet, because it results in fewer prejudiced people. …On the other, some of those prejudiced people will be prejudiced either way, and might murder you if they know you’re Queer-spectrum, which certainly punches holes in said moral imperative.

I liken it to a classic exercise in morality & ethics. You pass by a lake and see a drowning child. Are you morally obligated to save the child? The answer is contextual: Weak swimmers would likely only get themselves killed without saving the child, so the moral imperative shifts to finding help. If you happened to have rescue training, and were a strong swimmer, it is much harder to justify ignoring the drowning child. The only calculus considered there should be whether to attempt the rescue yourself or to find help.

It is an apt metaphor for being out. If you’re privileged in other ways, it can be less risky to be out of the closet, just as someone with both strength and training might be able to attempt a rescue. Of course the risk is difficult to quantify, and in general we should allow for any given Queer person to decide for themselves whether to be out. And it is definitely worth emphasizing that the risk-calculus only has to be taken to begin with because of the prejudices against Queer folk. In essence, the closet only exists because cishet folk build it, either through erasure or violence. Although we ought to concern ourselves with children drowning, imagine if there also existed a serial child-thrower who was continuously throwing children into lakes, and we focused all of our energy on the rhetorics surrounding the rescuers and none of our energy on the child-thrower. I think we could all agree that as necessary as the rescues are, there too exists a need to address the root of the problem: In this example, the asshole throwing children into lakes.

I’m all in favour of Queer folk finding empowerment in our coming out narratives. I will, however, still remind my cishet readers that each story is its own risk calculus, and advise that you separate one’s status as out or not from any kind of moral stance. In reality, whether or not one is out is largely a product of their environment, more an indication of dumb luck than anything else.

Above all else, remember this: You are part of that environment.



  1. anat says

    It seems that binary transgender people have 2 closets. One pre-transition where they are assumed to be their assigned gender, and one later (among people who only met them post-transition), where they are assumed to be cis members of their affirmed gender. Am I correct in my understanding? If true, how does the second closet feel? I can imagine awkward situations (although a cis woman will have plenty of reasons not to have a pad on her person, your hesitation might still give you away), but especially for a trans woman – also fear?

  2. Siobhan says


    If true, how does the second closet feel?

    In a word: Complicated. There’s a lot of Your Mileage May Vary here.

    So, like, I don’t go to the grocery store and scream to the cashier that I’m trans. If I’m at a function and a man is clearly trying to flirt with me, I’m not going to disclose on the spot (most likely because I won’t reciprocate his advances). It’s not like I wear a neon sign that outs me. For reasons of basic practicality, I do not always oppose the closet built around me, simply because I’d be screaming “I’M TRANS” at every person I talk to on a given day.

    On the other hand, I definitely didn’t come out of one closet just to hop back in another one. So I try to send signals through pride paraphernalia as a way to signal “not cis and not straight.” I have a rainbow ribbon I pin to my office casual blazers, as well as a few different bracelets when I’m on me time. And I’m mulling over getting the trans feminist symbol tattooed on the inside of my wrist. These help keep the closet door open but they only go so far.

    On the other hand, there are some trans women who don’t even consider nondisclosure long after their transitions to be closeting at all. This is related to the insistence that we are female, and are women. And since transmisogyny is really frickin shitty to deal with, I do not begrudge the women who take this choice of disappearing into the sunset and showing up somewhere without a single soul knowing their history.

    I don’t know what to feel. I’m pretty sure I don’t like it though.

  3. lorn says

    As with so many other things, coming out seems to be a process. One which early foreshadowing and hints might only become apparent in light of later events and understanding.

    If it is your intention to provide people who do not keep up with issues of sexual diversity an easier introduction to those issues it would be helpful to spell out the acronyms you use. This is often a requirement for professional publications and it is nearly reflexive for technical writers to parenthetically translate most acronyms on first use in each article.

    Example: The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) was consulted but declined to answer.

    Any question or doubt about what was being talked about, or whether CIA referred to the Central Intelligence Agency or Culinary Institute of America, was effectively laid to rest.

    TERF and QUILTBAG might be dirt-common references within your social group but they might be somewhat daunting and inexplicable to most of the wider public. I showed the article to one of the the ladies living next door and she agreed that coming out was complicated. She had some small objections to your assertion that: “In essence, the closet only exists because cishet folk build it, either through erasure or violence”. Her experience seems to have been was that the closet was mostly in her own mind and once deconstructed within herself the work on the outside was simple, if not always easy. (My interpretation of her words) Her her first substantive question was “What is a QUILTBAG?”. Neither she, nor her partner, who showed up in the middle of the visit (they are an older lesbian couple), had a clue.

  4. Siobhan says

    Hi lorn,

    It is not my intention to do introductory posts–at least, not all the time. There are many writers whose introductory works far surpass any capacity I have. That is why I recommend them in one of the pages under Housekeeping called “Required Reading.” You’ll see it to your left. The material there should show you the ropes on contemporary trans feminist discourse.

    Unless I have specifically marked material as introductory, I write for an audience with at least some familiarity with intersectional feminism and social justice more generally.

    Failing that, you can always ask. Or, you know, Google.