I came out as gay at age 20, first to my parents, who pushed me into therapy, and then to my sister, who was so unsurprised that she yawned for five grueling minutes. I came out over time to friends, family members and co-workers, and the response was generally the same: awkward yet loving questions, pseudoaffirmations and the routine confession meant to convey fraternity. One family member told me about her two-year affair with a married man. Another took me out for pie and recounted his sexual encounters with fellow Marines in the 1960s. Confessions are contagious, and I couldn't stop the divulging of secrets.
At the time, I was a student at a university caught up in the hotbed campus politics of the 1990s: preserving affirmative action; expanding financial aid; and establishing ethnic, women's and queer studies programs, to name a few of the issues. I soon aligned myself with a crew of progressive student activists with ties to the United States Student Association. I emerged as the queer, working-class, Chicano spokesperson. It was the year that Ellen DeGeneres came out, and the year before Matthew Shepard was murdered 135 miles north of my university. I learned early on that coming out means more than confessing a lifelong secret or managing the reactions of others. It means coming to consciousness about the political, economic and cultural systems that seek to regulate our sexuality and place our livelihoods at the mercy of a culture war. Coming out means naming the complicity of institutions and everyday people, often silent and well-intentioned, and at times violent and unrelenting. I came out as analytical and ideological, justice-minded and defiant. I came out eventually as queer, and this process has never stopped.
For me, despite its personal meaning, the coming-out narrative has always felt incomplete as the assumed rite of passage for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people. Yes, many have rooted their awakenings in coming out, which can build political will among those who come to know us, and millions have paved the way for queer rights around the world by naming their identities and challenging their circumstances. But the narrative doesn't work for all of us, and it hinders the dialogue on fluidity, life circumstance and gender variance. Also, coming out is more commonly portrayed as a psychotherapeutic exercise for affirmation and less as a tactic for altering the relations of power. In this context, on National Coming Out Day, I ask: Has a narrow conception of coming out done more to limit than to liberate our sense of community as queer people? And what should we come out in support of -- not just from?
In the public discourse, the coming-out narrative relies on a series of tropes: an early awareness of sexual or gender difference, years of navigating an intricate web of lies and codes, the fear of being discovered and rejected, and then, one day, the catharsis of confession. We can observe this stock narrative in news stories, movement history (recorded bravely and painfully across the decades), literature and entertainment. (Sometimes the coming-out narrative is used in non-queer story lines, as in Walter White's character on Breaking Bad, whose five-season story arc saw him negotiate a double life as a meth dealer whose lies spun increasingly out of control.) The coming-out narrative maps our trajectories of self-discovery, courage, disclosure and affirmation. The caterpillar turns into the butterfly, and eventually it flies.
But were we all once caterpillars? And where does the coming-out narrative miss the mark? Many LGBTQ people led lives that were less mired in secrecy, while others saw their sexual and gender identities shaped by a person or a situation. Chirlane McCray, the spouse of New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, has spoken openly about her life as a lesbian, while noting that her 19-year marriage was made possible by "putting aside the assumptions I had about the form and package my love would come in." Love can destabilize our fixed, monochromatic notions of sexual orientation, monogamy and permanence. Yet how would the coming-out narrative make sense of these complexities? And if McCray never comes out as bisexual, would a faction of LGBTQ movement activists claim it as a loss?
These questions are rooted in a similar judgment that's unfairly cast on bisexual people who begin dating same-gender people later in life. My experience in the LGBTQ aging field has shown me that they are often typecast as former "closet cases" and affirmed for their new-found freedom. (Freedom from what, exactly?) It's no wonder that high percentages of bisexual people choose not to name it. We have no language for the liminal. "Love is an accident waiting to happen. Desire is a stranger you think you know," says a character in the play Closer, expressing a sentiment that's perhaps too nuanced for one-dimensional, identity-based constructs.
The choice to disclose one's sexuality or gender identity can also be ethically gray territory. Consider a transgender person who prefers not to disclose a transgender status and instead pass as male or female (or a more manifold expression). Or consider LGBTQ people who manage secret lives in the workplace for fear of losing their job security, or worse. Is that valid? It might also be that desire becomes more nuanced as we mature, and notions of privacy and identity become more profound, especially in a social media world. If we allow ourselves to mark which people see certain posts on Facebook, shouldn't we be allowed to exclude certain people from our queer lives? On this latter point, I level my critiques carefully. While I affirm a person's sexual and gender autonomy, as well as the importance of weighing the consequences of coming out, my activist heart lies with those who continually risk their well-being for society's benefit, and my existence owes a great deal to my elders and ancestors who lived and died for my right to live openly. Furthermore, experience has taught me that one person's right to privacy can often mean the invisibility of another person, such as a loving partner or an LGBT parent, as two examples. Finally, I recognize that many people cannot afford -- or don't even want -- to hide. I fight foremost for their rights.
But if our goals are to change minds and shift policies, and we recognize the power of storytelling in that pursuit, then perhaps we need a new dialectic frame. A colleague suggests that we reframe "coming out" as "letting in," as in letting others into our lives. He reasons that "letting in" better manages fluidity and the people we (surprisingly) love. The "letting in" frame allows for agency over what to disclose, to whom and when -- in gradations -- without assuming a fixed identity or that a private life conflicts with a public persona. If coming out is a confession, then letting in is a communion. We share our life stories, not just our secrets.
But storytelling changes minds, not necessarily politics. I propose that we think of coming out or letting in as a time for all of us to reflect on questions about the type of world we want to inhabit: What are the ways in which you've felt restrained by society's expectations regarding sex and gender? Did you ever meet someone who changed your life course and rattled you to your core? What are the sources and consequences of stigma, discrimination, rejection, violence and criminalization? Come out today as someone who will help rid society of these conditions, because whether we term it "coming out," "coming to terms," "coming to consciousness" or "letting people in" -- all frames worth contrasting -- we must ultimately correct what repressed us in the first place.
Start by telling your loved ones how you're unique. Tell them you have a story or two worth sharing. Ask for reciprocity. Remind them that you're not that dissimilar, and process those shared struggles. Tell them that the caterpillar knows its trajectory better than we think it does. Tell them that love emerges and flies. And we've got work to do.