National Coming Out Day inevitably produces with it, every year, a barrage of viral coming out stories. These stories of individuals, confronting an unfathomable oppression and claiming their true selves are meant to be celebrated, lauded, and encouraged. Queer folk and allies alike love sharing and appreciating these quasi-heartwarming videos that exhibit individuals at their most vulnerable moments. Tears shed and exuberant happiness floods the screen as the parent, guardian, sibling, or friend reassures their loved one that they will ‘love them no matter what’. An incalculable weight has now been lifted off their shoulders and society now welcomes them with open arms! Unfortunately, this is not the happy ending that the audience has been waiting for. In fact, beneath the external presentation of what was just witnessed is an ever-growing list of problems that regularly go unnoticed when an individual comes out.
It certainly seems like there’s an increasing ‘acceptance’ of the gay identity in some communities, families, and social circles. Although, this gay identity needs to fit the criteria of a certain heteronormative shell, (monogamous, coupled, cis-gendered, patriotic, passive, etc.) which happens to ironically mirror an accepted heterosexual member of society. This newfound ‘acceptance’ comes with expectations, some of which completely ignore the person that is coming out. This article will be exposing these expectations as being equally as problematic as non-acceptance.
In some instances, there is an expectation that because the individual is in an ‘accepting’ environment, then they should not have to stay in the closet, in which they are literally expected to come out. Take for instance the story of a man who will be given the code name Ben. Growing up in a large town that on the surface level appeared to be accepting of all walks of life, Ben never worried that his peers wouldn’t accept him. Ben could not come to terms with accepting himself, which prevented him from opening up to his friends and family about his sexuality. Ben finally decided to come out to his closest friend, whom immediately proceeded to make Ben feel guilty for not coming out sooner. “Why didn’t you tell me before? Why haven’t you told anyone else? You should do it soon. Why is it taking you so long?” were all seemingly legitimate questions to Ben’s friend, but not so much to Ben. In fact, Ben experienced immense amounts of guilt and anxiety upon hearing the comments spewed by his friend. While it’s not arguable that queer folk embracing their true selves is a great thing, being forced or held to a time-constraint is not so much. Nobody wants to be rushed into coming to terms with their repressed identity, regardless of the environment they’re living in.
Another example of expectations following ‘acceptance’ is when the individual coming out is told they are obligated to tell others, those individuals deserve to know. For example, Skylar comes out to their mother. Skylar’s mother then questions Skylar if they have already came out to their father, in which Skylar responds “No, I haven’t been able to just yet”. Skylar’s mother replies, “Well you need to tell him right now, he deserves to know”, immediately suffocating her child with her value system that leaves no room for Skylar’s liberation. What could possibly be more manipulative than convincing queer folk that their sexual orientation/identity needs to be broadcasted for other’s benefit? Straight folk, you are not entitled to the orientation, identity, or self of the queer individual in question, regardless of your relationship to them.
The shift has been made from, caring that the individual is gay, to caring about who knows, or in other words, caring about everyone except the individual who is coming out. It’s important to recognize how this shift from not accepting homosexuality, to ‘accepting’ with expectations, does NOT shift the balance of power between heteronormative society and queer folk. In other words, straight folk, you are no better than your non-accepting peers when you establish conditions upon your acceptance of queer folk. This new shift yet again, creates an additional power dynamic between heteronormative society and queer identities, which in turn shows how just simply ‘accepting’ queer folk does not change or dismantle any forms of inequality. With this falsity exposed, it now begs the question; if coming out further reinforces the power structure between queer folk and heteronormative society, why do we continue to do it?
On the surface, coming out might seem like a form of liberation for queer folk, and for some individuals it very well is. With that said, the actual process of coming out in some ways is counterproductive in breaking free from the heteronormative shackles that we wish to be released from in the first place. Understandably, many queer individuals come out as a means of self-identification and empowerment. I am in no way counteracting that reasoning, but understanding that coming out encompasses a much broader social horizon than just your personal self is vital. While self-empowerment is important, we need to transfer our focus from the queer individual to the larger queer community. What should be accomplished, you seeking personal acceptance for yourself, or dismantling the structures of inequality that force queer folk into these situations in the first place?
You’re right if you’re now thinking the bigger picture should be assessed. What is the tradeoff to crafting big announcements and spectacles out of coming out? That is, adhering exactly to what heteronormative society wants us to do, have us categorize ourselves as the ‘other’, using labels they created to define ourselves, and validating the power structure that has been institutionalized for generations. Payson exemplifies in an essay, “Furthermore, the claiming of a socially constructed identity, even if meant to be a rebellious act, is exactly what is needed in order to solidify the creation of that identity. As already established no one could have identified her/himself as homosexual before some social authority told her/him that s/he was”, (Payson, 2004, p.1).
Heteronormative society has already decided what is ‘normal’ and what is accepted. Coming out doesn’t push any limits of these norms, it simply reinforces the norm of homosexuality being an ‘abnormality’; why else would it need to be exposed? Spade and Willse explain in their writing, “Freedom and Equality are not achieved when a practice crosses over to being acceptable. Instead, such shifts strengthen the line between what is considered good, healthy, and normal and what remains bad, unhealthy, stigmatized, and criminalized”, (Spade, Willse, 2013, p.1). Queer folk are forced to come out in an attempt to keep the balance of power in check, and this power dynamic is only reinforced when coming out shifts from being unacceptable to being semi-acceptable depending on the circumstances. Understanding how this fluctuation in coming out barely scratches the surface of dismantling the structures of inequality between heteronormative society and queer folk is principal, regardless of how heart-warming the ‘coming out’ video is.
Straight “allies”, understand that your conditions and expectations around queer identities are nothing more than muted signs of homophobia. Queer folk, be cognizant of the responses you receive from your straight friends and family. What may seem like a harmless and friendly reply can have deep-seated homophobic ties and governing beliefs. Understand your larger social involvement and how it impacts not only you, but also queer folk everywhere. If you so choose to come out, do not be bond by the very structures that were put into place in an effort to oppress you. Define yourself, with or without the acceptance of your straight peers, and embody that identity unapologetically.
Anthony Vigliano is a Senior Psychology student at Stockton University.
Payson, J. (2004). Inside and Outside the Closet: Coming Out and Binary Social Structures. Knowing the Body: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Sex and Gender.
Spade, D., & Willse, C. (2013). Marriage Will Never Set Us Free. Beyond Capitalism.