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.