Coming out, Part I
Most of my family, until very recently, didn’t know that I am a lesbian. It’s not that I’m ashamed of it or anything, but that I really resent that I have to inform them in the first place, like they have some sort of right to know. As far as I am concerned, they don’t. I don’t bother to hide it, and it would have been really obvious if I ever decided to bring another woman to a family event or into the house. It just isn’t something that I feel that I should disclose to people, as I highly resent that heterosexuality isn’t something that you have to confess, but homosexuality is.
I don’t define myself by the gender of the people I associate myself with romantically, and I hardly see why anyone else should. I am, however, aware that when people become aware that I am a lesbian, that often becomes the only defining feature of my existence. Much like any marginalized identity is considered more noteworthy than who a person is as an individual, homosexuality is considered more important for generalizing about the traits of any person than something like their hobbies or personal aspirations. Think about how we refer to people that we don’t know by name. There’s “that tall chick” if we’re talking about a tall white woman. Or “that black guy” if we’re talking about a black male. In the first case, the person is defined first by their gender — the most important personal identifier in a culture that considers gender the most important aspect of individual identity — and then by a physical trait. She is not defined by her race, unless she is in a group where her race is noteworthy. On the other hand, the second person is defined by his blackness, because we define the default human being as white in most circumstances. Thus, it is noteworthy that he deviates from that norm, and we identify him with that deviation.
The point here is that gender, as it identifies people, is a dichotomy. People are either male or female to the general population. Everyone has a gender (or is assumed to have one, regardless of their self-identification), and that is used to define everyone. Most other traits do not work that way. While maleness is often regarded as a norm, in which femaleness is the defiance — as can be seen in the tendency to define all of humankind with the word “man” or general pronoun “he” — this is much more readily apparent in general conversation when it comes to other social identities. Race, religion, nationality, weight, and sexual preference are all traits in which a dichotomy may or may not be used, but there is at least one value that is defined as the norm and thus, not noteworthy, while all other values are considered deviances.
Here’s some examples of how this plays out in the real world:
- That (average-weight) guy vs. that fat guy
- That (straight) man vs. that gay guy
- That (white) woman vs. that black woman
- That (American) person vs. that Polish person
- That (Christian) kid vs. that Jewish kid
What happens is that values like average-weight (which may or may not be average, depending on what is arbitrarily defined as acceptably average), heterosexual, white, Christian, and American are invisible. They are not noteworthy, because we simply assume that everyone is heterosexual, white, average-weight, Christian, and American until that person is proven otherwise by their appearance.
However, not all values are apparent via appearance. Things like nationality, religion, and sexual orientation have to be disclosed or forcibly discovered (or “outed”) by others in order for those deviant values to be used as identifiers — with or without the consent of the people identified, correctly or incorrectly, by them. Such is the case with homosexuality. There really is no reliable way to determine sexual preference by observation. Sure, some people fit the stereotypes of homosexuality. But for every homosexual that is “caught” because they fit the expectations people have of them, there are hundreds more that engage in everyday interactions without anyone having the slightest notion otherwise.
I am one such person. I’ve been told that I don’t come off “as a lesbian”, whatever that is supposed to mean. I more or less adhere to patriarchal beauty standards by the chance of genetics and personal aesthetic choices that tend to be perceived as more feminine than masculine. I adhere enough to those norms that even if I defy them in small ways by my mannerisms or wardrobe, the average person would not have any reason to suspect that I have little to no romantic inclinations towards men.
Thus, I feel constantly pressured by a very real social expectation that I either deviate from the norm in easily identifiable ways so that everyone can pigeon-hole me, or disclose my sexual preferences to anyone that I have more than a passing social interaction with. This expectation, plain and simple, pisses me off. I expect that many, if not most, homosexuals feel similarly.
I feel as if I must behave or dress in such a way that people may easily label me as “deviant” and then freely discriminate against me or make bigoted assumptions without fearing that their judgment is erroneous. I also feel that if I don’t chose to do the former, I must verbally inform them of my deviance from their expected norms, so that they are not “fooled” by my “deception”. In this way, my social behaviors are either classified as visibly wrong and abnormal or invisible and deceitful.
This plays out in regular social interactions. My family used to often inquire as to the state of my love life, asking if I had meet “a nice boy” recently. This they did with the assumption that I was both heterosexual and actively looking for a romantic partner. Since I am not the former, and sometimes not the latter either, the question simply didn’t apply to me. Thus, I was either forced to lie, obfuscate, or confess. This expectation left me with such anxiety that I often dreaded family events.
That example is pretty tame considering the usual consequences. If I do dress and act like a stereotypical “dyke”, I am harshly alienated in public in ways that are inhumane, degrading, and currently acceptable by both social and legal norms. I may be called a “faggot”, I may be excluded from job opportunities. I may be taken less seriously, or feared. That is the consequence of defying norms. On the other hand, if I dress as I choose to and act as I currently do, I “pass” as straight. I don’t do this by design or any explicit desire to closet myself, I do it because I like skirts, flowery tops, and cute shoes. I do it because I am not very assertive in pubic, and I paint my nails when I feel like it. That is just who I am, and who I am, apparently, is mostly read as “straight”. But this, inevitably, is eventually seen as a deception, sometimes by even my homosexual peers. I am accused of confusing or playing with heterosexuals, who are discomforted by the realization that they made the mistake of treating me like an actual human being until they knew I was a deviant freak. I am accused of hiding my “identity” — as if coming off as a lesbian in pubic was more central to who I am than my personal fashion inclinations. I am exposed to danger by men threatened by the fact that they have no access to me sexually, or thought they had access until I informed them otherwise. I am also exposed to danger by employers, acquaintances, and academic peers who feel like I have fooled them into complacency for my inherently disgusting nature, and thus, compromised their own comfort, safety, and moral values.
Out of frustration for the state of these injustices, I find myself torn between refusing to disclose any of my romantic life out of jealous spite, or visibly identifying myself as gay in such an obvious and blatant fashion that people assume I am “shoving it” in their faces. I find myself wanting to piss people off. I want them to feel deceived, I want them to be uncomfortable. This is because I am always deceived and uncomfortable, and there is nothing that I can do about it. I am always deceived when I assume that people are expected to treat me as an equal human being, and then fail to. I am deceived that we are a nation, founded on equality, when my day-to-day existence undermines that lie so utterly. I am put in situations where I am forced to out myself or lie. I am forced to distrust people who may disclose my preferences to a bigot with the power to deny me what is I am due. I never get to feel like I can trust or feel comfortable with the vast majority of people out of no personal choice of my own. That is the reality of being homosexual in a world in which that is considered deviant.
It’s pretty poor compensation that I can make people momentarily discomforted and unsettled in very small inconsequential ways of their own design, while I have to put up with enough Catch-22s to make me paranoid, anxious, and withdrawn out of fear of very real, very dire, and sometimes very dangerous social consequences. That is the nature of oppression: heterosexuals can choose whether or not homosexuality threatens them. They can give up the internalization that deviances to a standard they have placed themselves as the center of threaten their very existance of as individual. I can’t. I can’t wake up one day and say that heterosexuality as an institution and identity doesn’t threaten me. Because it does. Heterosexuality is defined as the negation, oppression, and alienation of homosexuals. That is what it is, and how it is defined, by institutions of power that I do not have any direct access to. I cannot redefine heterosexuality as a social superstructure or pick and choose what parts of it I want to adopt in my life. I am explicitly, irrevocably, and undeniably, excluded from heterosexuality and all the privileges it grants, and there is nothing whatsoever I can do to change that without putting herculean effort — effort not asked of heterosexuals — to cause massive institutional change.
That’s another power of priviledge: the opportunity to ignore the status quo. The heterosexual may chose to ally themselves with homosexuals and open themselves to a small portion of our vulnerabilities. Or they may quietly defy norms in small ways that do not directly threaten the institutions, but at least do not directly threaten homosexuals themselves either. Examples of these kinds of heterosexuals are those who are willing to picket for gay rights alongside gays, or those that simply live their lives enjoying the priviledges of heterosexuality — such as marriage — without enjoying the priviledges that directly deny homosexuals similar rights — such as refusing to vote for state propositions that ban gay marriage.
I don’t have that kind of luxury, not really. Sure, I can just go about business as normal, but that business includes enough unsavory reactions to who I am that I either have to be vigilant enough to preempt, or strong enough to ignore if I can. That kind of mental discipline takes effort and not a small amount of paranoia and alienation. This strength and vigilance is not required of heterosexuals, unless they too are the members of other alienated identities, but I assume that the vigilance required is different.
That vigilance and strength is symbolized and made palpable by the social phenomenon of “coming out” and then living “outed”. Choosing to come out, or being outed, takes so much strength and mental energy that is never asked of heterosexuals. It’s a vertible gauntlet of self-doubt, anxiety, and stress that is like nothing else. I’ve heard that it’s easier to come out than it is to live closeted. I say that’s bullshit. It’s not really easy to disclose a “secret” that has been constructed as something worthy of disclosure in the first place by its position as a defiance to the norm. It’s simply more of a relief to know that you don’t have to hide anymore, that you don’t have to fear the reactions of people close to you. Going “out” is not a one-time thing. Not even the most “flamboyant” of “queens” gets out opt out of outing themselves again and again. This is because homosexuality is treated like it’s something shameful that must be hidden. Much like nobody wants to assume that a stranger is a murderer without explicit evidence, so too to even the most liberal of individuals refuse to assume that someone isn’t heterosexual unless they have stated otherwise. Yes, people actually do behave as if being gay is a dirty little secret that it would be wrong to accuse someone of. Innocent until proven guilty; straight until proven gay. Being accused wrongly of a crime is precisely how people react when they are accused of being gay. How many times do people loudly deny that they’re a “faggot” or a “sissy”? How many times have those labels been thrown around as if they were indications of dire personal faults? How many people go to great lengths to prove to everyone that they are not sissies or faggots? Most people! Most people, if they were accused of being gay, would deny it quickly and unequivocally. They may or may not tack on a “not that there’s anything wrong with that” as a half-hearted objection. If there wasn’t anything wrong with that, they wouldn’t be so devastated with the assumption of homosexuality that they had to immediately correct that assumption. If they really thought there was nothing wrong with it, they would have neither confirmed or denied it in the first place!
Homosexual individuals don’t come out once and then live their lives knowing that everyone knows and that they don’t have to hide. I have to continually out myself to everyone that ever gets close enough to me. Because everyone will assume that I am heterosexual until it is explicitly shown or said otherwise. And you I bet that they will never just come out and ask me. It seems funny to say this, but I actually prefer it when people ask me my orientation before they assume I’m anything at all and ask if I have a boyfriend. They want to know for their benefit, after all. I don’t lose or gain anything by them knowing. Their ignorance is of far more consequence to their assumptions regarding who I am than my ideas of myself. It comforts them to know, not me. I honestly could care less. I only want them to know because hiding is a pain in the ass and their frequent assumptions regarding my nonexistent heterosexuality are annoying and alienating. But it doesn’t end there. I have to juggle a mental list of who knows and who doesn’t for the rest of my life. Plus, I have to worry about if the people who know are going to tell other people or reveal it to people who I don’t want to know.
I was faced with this recently when a close family member who does know told family members that didn’t know without my permission. She claimed that she was “not ashamed” of my sexuality, so when they asked about whether or not I had a boyfriend, she informed them of my orientation. Then, I was faced with the prospect of seeing them for the first time, knowing that they knew, in front of other family members that didn’t know. That encounter will go down in history as one of the most awkward and anxious family events of my life. I hated it, and resented that I had to worry about who knew what and who was going to disclose what, and say what, and think what, and judge what. I’m surprised I didn’t have a panic attack right then and there. It was horrible. That situation was only surpassed by the endless anxiety of Christmas, in which I wondered the entire time if my father — who snooped through my private things without my consent and found out himself — had told the rest of his family. Then I had to wonder if they were being particularly unpleasant shits because they knew I was a big fat dyke and didn’t like it or just because they were extra special assholes for no reason at all. And the entire time, I was wondering if I should ask if they knew, because if they didn’t, then they would. But they seemed content to not ask me about it, if they knew, which was infuriating.
Thanks for keeping things about me from me, dude. That’s really mature and fair of you. I really highly doubt that your qualms about it being awkward for you are worse than how awkward it is for me. You know, the person who is actually concretely affected by this shit, day in and day out. But I forgot! The unearned comfort of heterosexuals is oh-so-much-more important than the very minimum of human decency and respect owed to homosexuals. My bad.
The point is that I really didn’t give a flying fuck whether or not that family member was “ashamed” or not of my sexuality. Her opinion, frankly, in that situation didn’t matter. It’s my secret to tell or to hide, not hers, and being in that situation out of no decisions of my own made me equal parts depressed, anxious, and really pissed off. I can never be completely out. That’s not the nature of homosexuality. I always have to decide who I’m going to “act gay” around and who I can’t. I’m not going to correct someone that interviews me for a job that I’m not straight. I’m not going to tell my gossipy older relatives who I know are both conservative and bigots. I simply don’t want to put up with their shit. I’m not going to scream it from the rooftops. I’m not going to walk into a restaurant holding the hand of a woman I desire and pull out a soapbox and say, “YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE! I AM GAY, SO YOU CAN STOP WONDERING AND RUBBERNECKING AND GET BACK TO YOUR DINNER!”
I didn’t come out. I came out, then came out some more, and remained closeted, and told white lies, and denied, and came out, and came out, and ignored questions, and came out, and denied some more, and simply let people have their assumptions. I have to chose who to trust and who not to. I chose wrong. Hell, I came out to the internet and my friends before I came out to my parents. Then my father snooped and told me he knew. Then he may or may have not told other people without my consent, which made the holidays hell. Then I told my mother. Then she told more people without my consent. Then I decided to keep my brother in the dark because he’s an immature fuck, and would probably say something really stupid at a bad time. Then I decided that my work doesn’t need to know either as long as I’m not dating anyone that I want to take to social functions. Then I start to trust and admire professors and realize from their off-hand comment about “that lifestyle” that I can’t trust them and have to be careful what I say around them if I want a recommendation letter. Then I have to lie awake at night and wonder if a recommendation letter for graduate school is more important than some basic fucking dignity, and if I’m betraying myself and gays everywhere by being a coward.
And around and around it goes. I tell the wrong people, I get the brunt of the consequences. So far, every single person I’ve told except my friends has done something I didn’t want them to with that knowledge and put me between a rock and a hard place. Does that make me want to trust people? Fuck no. I’m not a trusting person. I don’t like strangers, I don’t like casual social events. I don’t tell people about my personal life. I zealously guard my personal space and my time. Then, I get told that I’m paranoid. Yeah, okay. I get stabbed in the back by most of the people I trust, and I’m paranoid? I have to worry who knows and won’t tell me they know, I have to worry who suspects and won’t ask, I have to worry who is clueless and will react badly, and I have to worry who knows and has done something stupid with the information.
Ugh, this shit is so fucking frustrating! It’s horrible because straight people have no clue. They have no clue the endless anxiety they cause whether or not I trust them. My nightmare doesn’t end when I let them in. It isn’t any better if I don’t. I know now why my peers invent slurs for heterosexuals. Breeders. Deep down, I want them to feel the sting of social rejection. When I’m petty and upset and anxious — which is about half of the time — I want them all to know how much their ignorance sucks. I want them to suffer. I hate their privilege, and I covet it at the same time. I wish for the days back when I was kid and the extent of my sexuality was that I had private parts that were fun to play with and horrify the adults. It seems horrible to say, but I know why people — after a revolution — go through the homes of their former oppressors and rape and pillage and assault and burn. Not that I’m saying that I would do that (because I wouldn’t), but I wouldn’t judge those who did it harshly, pretend that they are monsters. Because I know, intimately, the seductive catharsis that would be making them suffer just one fraction of what they have gained off our oppression.
And I end the first part of this series with that thought. I hope to have captured the rage, the anxiety, and the horrible gut-churning fear of what it means to me to be homosexual in American society. I want to expand this series, next time, with the concrete social mechanisms that I think are responsible for the alienation I feel. Then, I’ll finish up with a third post about my personal experience coming out, and what it meant to me.