What Society Has Wrong About Coming Out
I want to talk about coming out. Obviously I should qualify that coming out is something that will be completely different for each person, and is not something that can be easily generalized. However, what has recently become clear to me is that society has got the narrative on coming out completely wrong. Whenever coming out is discussed, be it in casual conversation or in the media, there are usually two perspectives. Either coming out is something unimportant, to be casually mentioned to friends or family, or it is seen as something huge and emotionally draining, a dramatic plea taking up space and attention. Both of these views, based on very different societal expectations of LGBTQ+ people, paint coming out as a one-time thing, an experience that must be overcome for life to return to normality. In fact, the first time I ever cried about my sexuality wasn’t because I was ashamed or embarrassed of who I was, but because now I was sure, I realized I had to come out, and I only saw it presented as being something of an ordeal.
Before I came out for the first time (as there have and will be many times), I was steadfastly committed to the idea that coming out in itself was intrinsically homophobic. As a closeted queer girl, my rallying cry was “but straight people don’t have to do it”, arguing that forcing people to make a big deal of, or even announce publicly, their sexual and gender identity was simply reinforcing heteronormative stereotypes.
I was convinced that sexuality was not something to “make a scene” over, as all this did was simply reinforce differences that I was not yet fully comfortable with. I still understand that line of thinking, however, in June 2017, for the first time, I came out as bisexual to a group of close friends, and this caused me to almost completely reverse my views. It wasn’t how I had planned it, and we were all slightly drunk, but it was the perfect experience - it was relaxed, but we all ended up crying with happiness. The main reason it was so perfect was because I had reached a state where I wanted them to know the real me more than I cared what they thought about it.
And this is where I started to discover what is wrong with how society presents coming out, although I still didn’t fully understand it. The problem is that we are constantly given the impression that coming out is for other people, and not for us. Although coming out should be one of the few times in our life when we are allowed to be completely selfish, the emphasis, when coming out, is always on the reaction. Be it through classic media like film and television, or even through well-meaning advice on how to come out, we are always told to set it around the other person.
Take a look at online coming out advice (a stage I hope I was not alone in reaching), talk about the process of coming out with a group of people, or even watch famous coming out scenes. Each time, the focus is rarely on what the queer person is actually saying, but is instead on how others are impacted. Although I understand that when coming out, we want an understanding and accepting response, coming out should be allowed to be fundamentally selfish thing. When we have reached the stage where we feel comfortable enough with our identities to share it, be it with one person or many, without sounding egotistical, I believe it is something to first be celebrated, and then, later, it can be overshadowed by the feelings of those receiving the information.
I only began to notice the issues related to this hetero-centred approach after I had come out. This is because what I had never realized before is that coming out, even to a small group of people, introduces the question of queer identity, something that is resolutely queer-centred, decided only by oneself. I have always said, and still do, that no one should be defined solely by their sexuality, yet as soon as friends knew, being bisexual felt like a huge part of me whenever I was with them. It wasn’t that we constantly discussed sexuality, or that I had changed in myself, but I was now one hundred percent authentic whenever I was around them. I loved this feeling, but still felt that actually coming out was something to be terrified of or embarrassed about, so I continued doing it slowly to more people, individually. There was also the constant feeling that coming out was something that I owed to other people. Although I was doing it because I wanted to be out, that still wasn’t necessarily the main reason: I was also doing it because I didn’t want to feel guilty for not telling people, and I didn’t want, when I was fully secure with my queer identity, for people to feel I hadn’t trusted them.
I would plan entire conversations around how others would feel most comfortable hearing this information, ignoring that this should be an exciting time for me, a time of exploring my identity. What I also still seemed to be doing was avoiding the people I had known the longest. This conundrum is beautifully explained in the film Love, Simon, (which everyone should see, queer or straight). You don’t want people you have known and loved all your life to see you differently, or to change your relationship, yet coming out is explicitly recognizing that you are different. For me, the thought of an actual conversation only brought me stress.
Without sounding like a gushing film critic, another aspect of coming out that Love, Simon demonstrates fantastically is that the only important thing about coming out should be that it is all your choice. When, where, how and to whom should never be forced, as this is when coming out can seem shameful and detrimental, as you don’t get to say it your way. This is why being closeted, or only out to some people, is so hard for the queer community. To avoid a forced conversation, you yourself are forced to hide huge parts of your life from those who you love, fearing that as soon as they know one thing, they could deduce what you are hiding. This gets worse the longer you leave coming out, so much so that it becomes an onerous task to be completed, as society’s focus you feel more and more guilty. This is yet another issue, as reasons for not coming out are multitudinous.
I, and probably most people reading this, am lucky enough to not face torture, imprisonment, or death for being queer, as for many coming out can have incredibly dangerous consequences, but we are still at risk of bullying and discrimination. When considering coming out, you analyze everything someone has ever said about LGBTQ+ people, every tiny comment from fifteen years ago, that could be seen as homophobic, to try and judge how they will respond. Being fully open exposes oneself to the vitriol of the (likely) billions in the world who are still homophobic. And for me, for a long time, this was enough to make me hide myself. But it is no longer enough.
This past year and a half has been a glorious time of discovering my queer identity, as well as the always supportive queer community. It has been over a year of queer firsts: my first gay club, coming out for the first time, inadvisably falling for someone obviously straight, having someone else come out to me, joining a queer club. On their own, these are all significant, but when combined, they are making me the person I want to be. Despite the last year being one of the most stressful of my life, for many reasons, it has also been one of the best because I feel secure in my queerness, and therefore my identity. In discovering more of the LGBTQ+ community, it has also allowed me to define who I am. People often rail against labels, but they’ve helped me identify myself as my journey continues.
At school, without expressly coming out to most of my acquaintances and classmates, I simply acted as myself, as a queer women, and let people assume what they wanted, a freeing sensation. This allowed me to feel comfortable, despite residing in a world that is not just geared towards heteronormativity, but still virulently homophobic in many parts. Even better, although the last few months have been full of many stresses and anxieties, coming out has simply disappeared from the list of things I’m worried about. To be frank, I no longer care if it involves a difficult conversation, or if someone responds poorly, as I know that for the people who truly care about me, my sexuality is just another facet of who I am, and other people are no longer welcome in my life.
So, now, coming out can be seen as what it really is, as act of defiance and joy against a society that often seems to be screaming deafeningly against us. So, for those who I haven’t told, or who haven’t guessed: I am queer. I’m bisexual. I’m pansexual (and if you don’t know what that is please just look it up). I’m still working it out. Despite the heartache and stress often involved, coming out should be celebrated as an act that is fundamentally brave, whether you are coming out to one person or one thousand.
In this world, billions are still against any form of gay relationship, and coming out is standing up, and shouting, loud and clear, that you don’t give a fuck what they think, because being queer allows you a path to knowing not just that love is love, but working out exactly who you are- one of the few positive aspects of society’s expectations of coming out is that it forces you to really question exactly who you are. It also gives you the opportunity, which I have relished, to join a diverse and accepting community that ranges from drag queens and performers, to activists and artists.
I’ll finish with the words of a millennial queer icon...Captain Holt from the TV show Brooklyn 99: “Every time someone steps us and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place”.
So we must stand together, and make coming out something joyful, celebrating the bravery and beautiful individuality so many of us should be proud to display to the world.
By: Millie Lord