On National Coming Out Day, Louise McCudden takes a critical look at “coming out” culture, and how it fuels heterosexism.
Before I was ‘out’, I was in the closet. So goes conventional wisdom. Only I wasn’t, not really. I wasn’t telling the whole truth but I was telling the truth. I didn’t lie; not in any real conversations with people who mattered to me. People simply assumed I was heterosexual. And I didn’t correct them. People assumed I was heterosexual but they also used to joke that I was acting like I fancied this girl or that girl. They thought it was an insult. I didn’t. So I didn’t correct those people, either. I didn’t correct anybody. Sometimes because I was too scared. Sometimes, frankly, because I couldn’t be bothered.
There was a time when I felt like that was me being a Bad Queer. Letting the side down. Not doing my bit to demonstrate self-love and fabulousness. Listen. If you’re young, or even if you’re not so young, and you’re nibbling around the edges of coming out, let me whisper you a secret. It’s okay to not feel fabulous. It’s okay to not always feel powerful self-love. There’s nothing wrong with you. The real world is pretty queerphobic, and you live in the real world. If you want to tell a person, or people, or everyone, that you’re one of us, then go forth and be loudly queer, because that’s wonderful. But it isn’t your job to do that.
Let me whisper you another secret. I don’t believe in “coming out.” I mean, I’m not “in the closet,” if that’s what you’re thinking. I haven’t actively lied about or hidden my romantic and sexual desires for people who share my gender since I was about fifteen. If my orientation comes up in conversation, then, hey, I’ll mention it. And the truth is it comes up quite a lot these days because in my old age I’ve got quite sappy and I mention my girlfriend in pretty much every other conversation (look I’m in love, deal with it). But to anyone who has assumed I’m straight because, well, it simply never came up, or because you saw me kiss a boy once, or because I wear pink lip gloss when the mood takes me, I am doing the world’s greatest shoulder shrug right now because, well, I can’t help you.
If you want to tell a person, or people, or everyone, that you’re one of us, then go forth and be loudly queer, because that’s wonderful. But it isn’t your job to do that.
I see a lot of heterosexual, cis people celebrate “Coming Out Day” by lamenting how sad it is that more people don’t come out, and that being visibly LGBT+ is important because it helps end stigma, and it helps others. But “coming out” is exhausting, stressful, scary work. And it’s only necessary in the first place because of cis-sexism and heterosexism. How is it right for LGBT+ people to do the heavy lifting of dismantling something that is not our fault?
Don’t be that person who cheers on LGBT+ people to “come out” from the sidelines, that person who demands to know whether other people are cishet or not, that person who feels hurt when LGBT+ people in your life don’t tell you everything about who we are. Don’t. Be. That. Person. You have no right to know anyone’s orientation. It’s not your business. And if they haven’t told you, maybe there’s a reason.
Lots of LGBT+ people will feel happy to inspire others. But it is unlikely we feel like doing it every day of the week. LGBT+ people aren’t obligated to do anything more than go through the world existing in it, and not harming anyone.
So if cheering people on to come out doesn’t help, what can you do to make it easier for us? It’s actually quite simple. Don’t assume people are heterosexual or cisgender. That’s it.
Well, nearly. You should also make sure you don’t get insulted if everybody doesn’t automatically assume you are heterosexual and cisgender. Be, or work to become, comfortable with the idea that it should not be uncomfortable or insulting for it to be a possibility in other people’s minds that you might be LGB or T. If you don’t like the idea of being read as gay, or as a lesbian, or as bisexual, or as trans, consider why. Be honest with yourself, and sit with it. When others take offence because you didn’t assume they were hetero and cis (and I promise you, people will), don’t apologise. Ask them what they find insulting about you not making assumptions about them. Ask them why they would expect people to know they’re hetero and cis. Make them sit with it too.
And if you do get genuinely anxious at the idea that others may mistake you for an LGBT+ person, know that the anxiety you feel is not unfounded. Then consider what it might be like to actually be LGBT+. What, exactly, are you anxious about? That people may laugh at you? Respect you less? Make assumptions about you? Get weird ideas in their head about your sex life or body parts? Be violent towards you? Kill you? Sexually assault you? That anxiety, that fear, that anger that somebody might read you as LGBT+ is real; hang on to that discomfort, sit with it, and remember it next time you want to pop champagne corks at us because we’re disappointing you by not being out everywhere, all the time, at the tops of our voices.
For people who do genuinely want to “come out”, if a designated day helps them find a way to do that, then cool. That’s wonderful. I’m not knocking it. You do you. But what I’m saying is, if you don’t want to do that, if you don’t feel safe, if you don’t really care whether certain people know that you’re LGBT+ or not, that’s okay too.
If you do get genuinely anxious at the idea that others may mistake you for an LGBT+ person, know that the anxiety you feel is not unfounded. Then consider what it might be like to actually be LGBT+.
Besides, a coming out day? That’s like having a “National Put Clothes on to go Outside Day” or “National Go to Work Day.” A single day is hardly enough. “Coming out” isn’t a thing that you do once. It’s a thing you have to do over, and over, and over, and over, and over again for the rest of your life. You have to do it when you meet new people. You have to repeat yourself with people you’ve told many times. It often takes a few conversations, especially with family members. And then there’s the people who simply forget; they forget your partner’s name, they forget your name, they get your pronouns confused. And it’s back to square one; you have to “come out” all over again.
It’s lovely to support people who really do, in their hearts, want to jump up and shout from the rooftops about their queerness. But “coming out,” and allocating a specific calendar date to do it, seems a misguided focus. Making it easier, making it safer for LGBT+ people to visibly exist shouldn’t be a thing for us to do. It should be a thing for cishet people to do. If you’re hetero and/or cis, and you want to do something cool for LGBT+ people on National Coming Out Day, try this. For one whole day, don’t assume anyone is heterosexual, and don’t assume anyone is cis. If you can do it for one day, try it for a week. Don’t assume anything. Don’t assume that people in same-sex relationships are gay. Don’t assume people in different-sex relationships are heterosexual. Don’t ask people to put themselves at risk, to trust you, to formalise their otherness by “coming out” to you, giving you the chance to be all lovely and queer-friendly and awesome. Don’t just show up to our hard-earned party and chuck glitter around. If you’re here, you’ve got to help sweep up the mess, too. Do the dishes. Kick in some doors. Do the work. Do the work – and then tell your friends about it.
Follow Louise on Twitter (@loumccudden)