Today (October 11th 2012) was the annual National Coming Out Day.
I have mixed feelings about this day. About this holiday.
About this celebration of a narrative that leaves so many in the dark, feeling alone and abandoned by those whom they once viewed as their “people.”
When I was younger, I celebrated in the exultation of “coming out” and being “out and proud” with the rest of the community. I loved the camaraderie I loved how we were finally “taking back” some power. I felt like the only way to be proud of my identity was to be out and in the face of every person I knew about my identity.
I was foolish.
I didn’t have the capacity back then to understand exactly how impossible that narrative can be to identify with. I didn’t understand the moral, personal, intellectual, or safety implications inherent within the narrative of coming out. I was getting high off of the residual energy of my compatriots for whom the narrative fit like a glove.
I can hear you now, dear readers; “Narrative? What do you mean, narrative?”
Like many ways that we have of organizing our world, we use a script here. One is either inside of the “closet,” the implications of which are that ze is hiding and in the dark, unwilling to “come out of the closet” into the light, to share their colors and patterns with the world. This is a story, we represent it with the metaphor of the closet. A person has either come “into the light” or has yet to do so (or, more uncommonly, retreated back into it).
We tell a story, one that is so romantic that often we never see exactly how insidious it is.
The closet narrative is, by it’s very nature prescriptive. There is no choice to participate in this. The conversation is always “I’m so proud to be out” followed by veiled (and sometimes explicit) statements of excitement for the day that “everyone can be out.”
Seriously, how self-important does someone have to be to decide that their journey is so intensely intrinsic to the human experience that every single human being must go through it in order to be fully actualized?
That’s a load of privilege, right there. Let’s deconstruct that basic idea:
MY experience (being out) is the experience that eventually EVERYONE will have (everyone can be out). That’s what that says.
I don’t know if it’s a white thing, if it’s a heterosexist thing, if it’s a religion thing, if it’s an age thing, or what -ism it belongs to (or MAYBE it’s becoming it’s own -ism). I honestly don’t know. I DO recognize it as the basic undertows of “itism” (that is, the creation of an “it” category for a person based on an -ism belief) which is dangerous because of how wholly we accept the narrative.
How can we fix this?
We need to take it from being an implicit narrative, and understand (and expect) that it is an elective narrative. At no point do we expect others to identify with it unless they explicitly identify with that narrative themselves. Anything less than that, and we still run this horrific chance of prescriptive identification and taking away a person’s choice and personal identification.
This is just one of the points that makes this narrative problematic.
There is no in-between for the closet narrative. One is either in the closet, hiding and fearful, or one is out of the closet, proud and courageous. There is some leeway here. A person can be “out” in one social circle and “closeted” in another. There is some shame associated there, though. If you’re not out “yet” (and trust me, I’ll get to that in a moment) then your journey must continue to lead you there. There is no end except for being fully out.
And that is, ultimately patronizing. That ideal of outness exists in a vacuum of circumstance, where everyone should be able to be out and damn the consequences. It doesn’t take into account that someone could lose their livelihood, can lose the roof over their head, can lose the entirety of their emotional support and all of their family.
I’ve encountered these attitudes in the past to “combat” those “minor inconveniences” (not my words):
Get a different job.
Move somewhere else.
Your family/friends suck if they don’t accept you right away.
And you know what? That’s ridiculous. How patronizing can someone get? Get a different job? Wow, what about my passions and goals and dreams; what if *gasp* my professional aspirations ARE more important to me than my romantic aspirations? What if this job is the ONLY JOB in the world that I want to do, and “being out” is simply not an option in that field? How dangerous is the mentality “well queer people just can’t do this because they can’t be out and do this?” Move somewhere else? That’s just blatantly classist. Not everyone can AFFORD to. I’ve known way too many people (especially queer folk, unfortunately) who are living paycheck to paycheck and barely surviving. “Just moving” is not a choice; it would take away hours from work or sleep (which they’re typically short on in any case), and require the ability to pay a down payment on a new place…
…which many people cannot afford. Many people cannot afford to squirrel away money into the bank while still paying their bills and for their groceries. I count myself as blessed that I can; and I always, always challenge others when they talk about how lazy people who don’t do that are. Can’t is a more appropriate word.
And are you completely willing to give me a brand new social circle when I no longer have them because they can’t handle the idea of my identity? What if I was OK with that dissonance? What if it wasn’t an active hate that they had for my identity, but just something that they didn’t think about? If I was comfortable with where our interactions were at, why would I need to change it?
That leads me to my biggest problem with the Coming Out Narrative: this narrative assumes that it is important to every single person to be out.
Let’s dissect where this comes from:
Because this is important to ME, therefore it is important to EVERYONE.
In a word: privilege. This viewpoint is unexamined and blatantly privileged. It invalidates and erases the experience of any individual who is not the self.
And anyone who says “hey wait, I do not grok this; this is not true for me” is swept to the size as a complainer, or just plain odd and not worth listening to. Like every. underprivileged. group. ever.
How can we fix this?
Honestly, I don’t know if we CAN. I think the only way to fix this about the narrative is to stop using the narrative. Or at the very least, stop assuming that it is the baseline experience, and start accepting that there IS NO baseline experience.
There is NEVER a baseline experience that fits all people. That said, every individual has a baseline experience. Self awareness stems from knowing one’s baseline experience, and identifying where and when one does not recognize that it is different from others’ experience.
And shouldn’t that be what we celebrate? Shouldn’t we be celebrating comfort within our identities instead of comfort in discussing them? Let’s have a National Identity Day where we exult in the fact that everyone is different, and that’s ok.
Because that’s what I always thought National Coming Out Day was supposed to be for, not bland statements of pride and longing for a narrative to fit the entirety of the world that barely fits “most.”