After the first time I came out to a friend, I struggled a lot with deciding whether, when, and how to tell people about my sexuality. Like a lot of people, I was hesitant for many reasons, which mainly boil down to the fact that it can be really scary to be honest with people and have absolutely no control over how they react. At first, I saw each coming out experience as an obstacle successfully overcome. Looking back on it now, I think I came out to many people for the wrong reasons. By no means do I regret conversations I had with friends, and I’m very grateful to have such supportive people in my life, but I realize now that at the time, I saw coming out as a marked test of my courage and self-acceptance rather than a voluntary decision to share a part of myself with people I care about. I felt compelled to come out to people simply to prove that I was capable of it – that I wasn’t too cowardly or too ashamed to tell anyone. Without necessarily realizing it, the language we use when discussing the topic of coming out reveals and reinforces unfair assumptions about queer people.
Particularly, the phrase “coming out of the closet” and the line of thinking surrounding it basically, well, piss me off. The overarching problem I have with it is what it implies about the people who are then labeled “closeted”. It completely disregards the very valid reasons people have for not coming out and paints them as cowardly or secretive, as if they have a moral duty to make their personal identities public. The prejudiced mentality dividing society into heteronormative and other is exactly what puts queer people into the “closet” in the first place. What I don’t understand is why the responsibility is put on queer individuals to come out of the “closet” and not on society to unpack and revoke the mentality that shoved them in.
Perhaps even more frustrating than the establishment of the “closet” itself is the way queer people are subsequently shamed for being “closeted”. Queer people are expected to legitimize their identities by coming out. In other words, a queer person’s identity isn’t considered valid or honest unless other people, and especially non-queer people, are made aware and approve of it. I saw this skewed logic a few months ago when I came out to two of my friends. One of their first reactions was to ask why I hadn’t told them before. In the moment, my nervousness blinded me to the assumption they had made: that they had the right to know my personal identity. While they were very positive and well-meaning, I couldn’t help but be upset about their all-too-common mindset imposing on me the artificial duty to come out. Now that I’ve had time to think on it, I really wish I’d called them out on that BS.
To reiterate, I’m wholeheartedly in support of queer people voluntarily choosing to come out and I know it can be very empowering and worthwhile; my point of contention is in how people who choose not to or have not yet come out are stigmatized and pressured to feel like they have an obligation to.
Half a year ago, I was pushing myself to come out to friends because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. Now, I’m finally taking the time that I needed to sort out my own thoughts. It’s taken me a while and it’s an ongoing process, but I’m immeasurably more comfortable with myself now. I’ve learned that nobody is ever entitled to know my personal identity, my decision to come out is singularly mine, and it has absolutely no bearing on my courage or the legitimacy of my identity.