Coming out makes life easier for The Straights, but not always for us.
I never “came out.” The only time I can remember telling someone I liked boys is the time I told my parents, but by then I’d been into boys for maybe seven years, I’d been in something like love with one of them, and everyone else in my life already knew. I told them I was into boys because: 1. I wanted to be able to tell them about the boy I something-like-loved; 2. I had warts on my butt and I needed to go to the doctor on their insurance.
But “coming out” was never really in my hands. In high school, before I’d ever talked to anyone about being into dudes, I got an anonymous call from a party, with a couple guys screaming into the phone asking me when I was going to “admit” I was gay. Another time, my parents got a call asking if they knew their son swallowed (which was only true in the abstract at the time anyway). Being gay didn’t really feel like an option in my town.
Besides, in high school I was still figuring out what it meant—my gayness was still growing. For a while I just watched porn and talked with guys about jacking off as often as possible. Freshman year of college, my best friend—I think a bit suspicious—asked me if I would suck my own dick if I could. Yes, I confirmed. And that felt good! That felt like a burden lifted. I had a girlfriend for almost all of college so it wasn’t always a pressing issue. But then, for whatever reason, it was, and I had to tell her. She hooked up with other boys too.
Everyone always said that men who were bi were actually gay and hadn’t admitted it yet. I believed them and spent many years certain that I was somehow lying to myself. This was compounded by the veritable chorus of haters who opined freely on my sexuality—straight girls telling me I was “really” gay, gay boys telling me I was “really” straight.
“Coming out” suggests a lot more than just telling people you’re gay or trans or any other thing. Of course, yes, I must have told all my friends at certain points that I liked boys, and now, I imagine, everyone knows that I’m queer. But I don’t think of any of this as “coming out” because it lacked that cathartic release we’re taught to expect from it—between my insistence that I was bi and others’ unawareness that such a thing was possible, the conversation only engendered more confusion for everyone. The initial revelation was only the beginning of what continues to be a process of self-discovery and communication. And that’s a good thing, for me.
Coming out is about everyone in your life but you. It gives other people a toolkit to understand you by. I remember feeling scared of the way people would speculate about boys’ sexuality as a way of explaining anything from social awkwardness (with the “right” people—bros) to social excellence (with the “wrong people”—girls). When you “come out,” everything is supposed to make sense because everything people didn’t “get” about you is now explained by this one, all-important fact.
This narrative teaches us that we all have an easily articulated—because label-able—sexuality. It also teaches us to stop growing. Listen to the zero-sum language we use talking about people’s sex lives: Chirlane McCray used to be a lesbian. And we have probably all heard conversations, such as this one, where queer men have their straightness erased in the most casual (but complete) way. There are so many sexualities and they all affect people’s self-perception and their treatment by society. Thinking in the black-and-white, static terms that the coming out narrative teaches us, it’s hard to conceptualize the truly subversive range of sexualities and the people who have them.
This is no accident.
In her speech, “Moving Toward the Ugly: A Politic Beyond Desirability,” Mia Mingus writes about two different types of identity. Descriptive identity is founded on the lived experience of a person—do you feel attraction to similarly-gendered people? Political identity is based on a person’s willingness and ability to see their identity in terms of the power structures and cultural influences that define and manipulate it.
One can have a descriptive identity without identifying as such. I know a woman who has migraines essentially every day; people with this kind of chronic pain often identify as disabled, but she doesn’t. And, of course, someone who does identify as descriptively disabled, for example, doesn’t necessarily identify as politically disabled. Because political identification requires analysis, doubt, and self-assertion, it is necessary for collective action, advocacy, and change.
Coming out helps a person go from having the lived experience to identifying as such—in other words, from being descriptively gay to identifying as descriptively gay. But we have seen that the narrative of coming out does not help us get any further, that it actively discourages political identification because it does not empower us to question ourselves or others beyond the labels we are handed. It also doesn’t help anyone who has feelings that are not already widely understood and categorized. I couldn’t come out because I had no word to use that people would understand or believe.
Further, the strict dichotomy of whether you’re out or not doesn’t really fit for a lot of relationships. OkCupid asks users, in two separate questions, if they are out to their co-workers and their family. The options (“no,” “partially,” “completely”) don’t really encompass the full spectrum of relationships. I never told the people at the restaurant I used to work at that I was queer, because it never came up. And no one in my extended family knows either, for the same reason. All my coworkers at my previous job know, however. “Coming out” would have us believe that my relationship with those co-workers is somehow more honest, when in fact the content of these relationships is appropriately suited to what each is.
None of this is to say that there is not a way to talk supportively and fruitfully with someone about their sexuality or your own. It’s just that so often the conversation circles obsessively around various labels: “But I thought he was straight!” “Wait, but you’re gay!” “So, what, she’s like bi?”
Let people tell you whatever they want to tell you about themselves and don’t try to tell them about themselves in return. Let everyone decide what their sexuality means to them. Coming out is too often a tool of policing other people, and there’s no liberation in that.