Is "Coming Out" All It's Cracked Up to Be?

Is "Coming Out" All It's Cracked Up to Be?
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I nearly shook my computer to death upon reading Noah Michelson's article on Jonathan Bennet, which advocates for the obligatory "coming out" among influential gay people. While "coming out" is radical and helps bring visibility to the needs of LGBTI people, idealizing it is troubling for several reasons.

1. Coming out is a political act, but it's also an expectation of the straight patriarchy. When people declare themselves publically as gay or lesbian, they place themselves in rigid categories that, historically, have been the targets of active discrimination. This discrimination is pervasive and real, even in progressive urban settings like Philadelphia, where a group of "well-dressed" white youth can attack a gay couple because they think that's okay. Coming out is a control mechanism that distinguishes the "abnormal" (non straight people) from the "normal" heterosexuals, reinforcing the dualism between homosexuality and heterosexuality that makes separate and unequal treatment possible.

2. Coming out is hard to do if you aren't comfortable with rigid labels. While many people feel comfortable identifying as gay or lesbian, there are those who don't. Bisexuality is something that is often questioned or admonished because it makes it harder to put people into boxes. Some (including Sigmund Freud) would argue that bisexuality is humanity's natural sexual state. What prevents us from embracing bisexuality are fears instilled by society and generations of thought that have taught us that sex with people of the same sex is bad and that the heterosexual male-female couple is the ideal one. When we cast all that fear aside, it's easier to see that it's okay to fall on a fluid spectrum of sexuality. Labels can make that possibility hard.

3. Coming out isn't fun. For me, coming out over seven years ago didn't remove the weight of the world from my shoulders. Instead, it annoyed me beyond belief. In response, my father suggested that I reconsider my decision (as any professional wrestler at the time would), my mom started drinking more cosmos than usual, my older brother and close friend cried, my younger brother said he was shocked, and a childhood friend felt offended that I didn't tell her earlier. Only one friend looked me in the eyes and said, "You are beautiful," which might be the best thing anyone can offer in that situation.

For some people, I had done something wrong by telling them, since they clearly didn't want to know. For others, I had done something wrong by not telling them. Yet for some reason it was my responsibility to tell them. I hated that. I came out reluctantly, not feeling like I owed anyone anything, though they all seemed to be demanding something.

Ask yourself if you can remember the last time a straight person came up to you to break the news that he or she was heterosexual. No straight friend or family member of mine has ever done that with me (and here I am, riled and offended beyond belief). That's because their status quo sexuality is protected, exempt from being showcased for public display or derision.

4. Privacy is a vital human right. The right to privacy is enshrined in international human rights law and in constitutions worldwide. The fact that Michelson discards privacy is alarming, particularly when the right to privacy is what paved the way for major advances in gay rights like the ground-breaking decriminalization of homosexuality in Ireland in 1988 and ending the practice of discharging gay men from the armed forces in the United Kingdom in 1999. People's sex lives are theirs to enjoy, and no laws or obligations should force them to discuss personal information if they don't feel comfortable doing that, regardless of their motives.

5. Discrimination against gay people is real, even in unexpected places. In the United States, 18 out of 50 states currently offer no state-level protection for LGBTI employees (let's raise our glasses to the land of the free!). In the movie industry, one only has to look at the casting of recent blockbusters to see that informal gay discrimination is alive and well. How many movies out there have leading actors who are openly gay or lesbian in real life? Why do straight actors get praised for playing leading gay roles, when we don't let openly gay actors play leading straight ones? When can gay characters be their own people, rather than stereotyped secondary characters with predictable mannerisms and forms of speaking? (Let's not even mention the absence of trans actors on the silver screen, because that would be going way too far...)

For young actors like Jonathan Bennet who have played straight roles, there is still real incentive not to limit one's career possibilities when sexual orientation-based discrimination continues to influence casting decisions. Even if all gay and lesbian actors did come out, that still wouldn't change the way the game is played unless it is accompanied with serious political activism and structural changes within the heterosexual patriarchy that guarantee just practices based on equality.

The purpose of this piece isn't to deter people from coming out. Many of us who have done it wouldn't take it back, though I might have added a few more words and even a karate chop or two. The fact that people can and do come out and inspire other people to do the same is empowering on the individual level. But we do have to question the limitations of "coming out" and whether or not it should be the ultimate goal of LGBTI movements. A more utopic alternative might be a world where we all question the social constructions that have made "coming out" an obligatory act. It could be a world where heterosexuality isn't placed on a pedestal at the expense of all other forms of sexual expression. It could be a world where we don't derive shock value from another actor or athlete's coming out story or cast people's sexual orientations into question just to boost the ratings of bad reality shows. It could be a world where, instead of calling each other out, we call each other beautiful and leave it at that.

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