Yesterday (October 11) was #ComingOutDay and I shared some thoughts on Twitter. Here is that thread in blog post form, lightly edited to address a few typos.
Twitter wants to make EXTRA ‘SPECIALLY SURE that I know it’s #ComingOutDay so I thought I would say a few words about what my coming out experience(s) have been like. I have spent a lot of time in the past couple of years reassuring newly-out queer adults (💗🙌🌈💗) that our process of “coming out” can be both like and unlike the mainstream cultural narrative of coming out.
First I want to say: Coming out is sometimes unsafe. If it’s unsafe for you, I hope you care for yourself as you can in the moment. You still count, and you still matter. I hope in future it will become safer and more possible to come out to at least some people who love you.
Also: here’s a thread I wrote earlier in the year about how coming out can still be hard and scary for many of us. That doesn’t make you any less queer. That’s structual cisheterosexism still making our lives difficult.
So in this thread I thought I’d describe my coming out experience as a Midwestern queer kid during the 1980s-1990s. Keep in mind that I didn’t have an email address until I was seventeen. I had the public library and my parents’ bookshelves. The avenues for finding queer thought, queer options, queer community as a young person have changed radically since that era.
Some queer folks can look back into their childhood and find strong evidence for having been “born this way.” That’s a favored narrative for many reasons. But it isn’t a narrative that has been particularly useful to me. Sure, I was born “this way” in the sense that I was born me, and likely always had the capacity for same-sex as well as other-sex desires. But I also didn’t experience the gender policing many queer adults remember from childhood. I wasn’t made to feel non-normative in that way.
As a queer adult, looking back, I would say that my experience of passionate same-gender friendships might fit into a pre-history of queerness. I remember since early childhood imagining an adult life that involved establishing a home and family with another girl. Sometimes a boy. (And, you know, sometimes both.) But I didn’t have the language for same-sex desire/romance/relationship until I was about eleven and some girls at a sleepover were giggling about using the word “gay” in a Scrabble game. So I asked my mother for a definition — which she provided in very straightforward, not anti-gay, terms. It would be a few years later, in my early teens, when I began to observe that — unlike some of my friends — I didn’t feel romantic interest exclusively towards boys. Although the way I interpreted my feelings, at that point, was that I struggled to tell the difference between friendship and dating.
What does “coming out” look like for someone who hasn’t ever really been deliberately in the closet, but also hasn’t had the language to talk about who they are that resists presumptive (cis)heterosexuality? It’s a slow and halting process. As a teenager, I gathered more language. I read my mother’s edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves that had a whole chapter on lesbians! Our library had a copy of Annie On My Mind in the teen paperback rack (thank you librarians!). ElfQuest comics had gay and poly elves.
A piece of this story I often reflect on is that while I personally knew very, very few (out) queer people in our community, I knew a lot of single people — and single women specifically — who had created lives for themselves without following the dictates of the marriage plot (and/or parenting). One aspect of queer adulthood that I think we don’t talk often enough about is that our milestones and families often look and feel very different from the heteronormative imaginary. Sometimes they’re the same, or similar. And that’s okay too. But often they’re not! And for a child or young adult looking to grown-ups for possibilities … it felt in the early 90s (and I suspect often still feels today) like none of the life paths out there quite fit.
From 1997-2005, I was a commuter college student, living off-campus and working plus attending school part time. My campus was a hostile environment for queer people and feminists (I was vocally the latter, quietly the former). This is the period I think of as my “over-invested ally” period. I had no problem identifying as a lefty feminist, but I skirted the edges of campus queerdom because I lacked enough coherent evidence to identify as lesbian or bisexual (the options that felt available). I had no partnered sexual or romantic experience to point toward as evidence of my desires. It was all nebulous internal knowledge (knowledge I would tell any person today, who asked, is absolutely valid evidence … and anyway you don’t need a case file to identify as queer!). But at the time, it felt to me like you needed to prove the negative of being “not straight” (and I imagine many people feel a similar need to assemble their casefile for being “not cis”).
Me circa 1997-2007: It would be super awkward to go through the process of telling everyone you were queer and then have that be WRONG.
(Yes, 2019 me agrees with you that’s … not how this works.)
How does the concept of “coming out” (of hiding) fit into a story like this? The language and act of “coming out” can be found in the gay liberation moment of the early 1970s. It was originally a bold and brave call to political assembly. If you were a queer adult in the early 1970s you had lived through an era of intense persecution that had the goal of placing you outside the body politic. Claiming the public square was raucous street theater demanding that we be seen. This is also why Pride was, and continues to be, so important. Taking up space in public, being loud, being visible, is a political act:
I think a lot, though, about how those Big Coming Out acts we engage in as members of a queer body politic work in tandem with all the Little Comings Out we engage in as individual queer people. And how “coming out” is, maybe, in those quieter moments, more of a coming in — or settling in — to the self.
In order for me to make the shift (circa 2007-2009) from being an over-invested ally who understood herself to be “mostly straight” to being a queer bisexual I had to engage in so many small acts of letting that case file mentality go. I had to reject the straight-until-proven-queer framework that is cisheterosexist normativity at is most pernicious. I had to let go of the fear that unless I tried and failed at being straight I couldn’t properly prove I wasn’t.
I know this experience isn’t unique to bisexual folks. But I do think, perhaps, that understanding yourself to be queer involves less self-gaslighting doubt when you very obviously are not interested in people with whom you would appear to be in a heterosexual relationship. In a cisheteronormative world that prioritizes hetero desire, if you have some desires that seem to match up with that script, those desires can drown out the queer ones through cultural amplification. If my passionate friendships with men are read by the world around me as romantic, but my passionate friendships with women are read as platonic, it can be very hard to overrule social expectations and say: NO I LIKE THE LADIES IN A SEXY WAY TOO.
In the end, my Little Comings Out happened through so many moments like this:
*The day I referred to “my girlfriend” in front of a colleague.
*The day I said “we” meaning queer people.
*The day I said to my mother, “I’m falling in love.”
To me, being queer is both about the Big moments and the Little ones. It’s about finding your way through the cacophony of straightness to the right queer harmony that resonates with you. And it’s about acting in solidarity (whether visibly or not; visibility isn’t always safe) with others under the queer umbrella.
Coming out — in big ways, and little ways, helps us find one another, fight for one another, find language that helps us illuminate our souls.
Welcome home. 💗