Coming out of the closet is a big deal and is often characterized by anxiety. What was once intensely private is now open and public. With just a few words, coming out can forever alter many relationships; coming out can cost someone their job, friends, or family. Despite how big an event coming out is there is no written ritual or ceremony for how to do it. It can be spontaneous or preplanned, but one of the most common ways to come out is gather up people who are close and then say “I’m gay.” We tend to think of this even as some kind of revealing, but with all the background concerns going on, I don’t think people are actually informing anyone when they come out. I don’t think “I am gay” is a statement, I think it’s a tacit question: “I’m gay, will you accept me?”
A natural approach to alleviate the difficulty of coming out is to try to create safe places and get straight allies to help. A good example of this outreach are the letters of acceptance family members have written and have gone viral over social media. I think this approach is laudable, but insufficient. So long as people who come out treat coming out as a huge life event—one that is told in hushed voices—then the very act of coming out supports the long term issues that make it difficult to come out in the first place. In short, the current way most people come out reflects two different desires: (1) the desire to admit to being LGBT and (2) the desire for it to not be a big deal. But so long as we treat being gay, or lesbian, or whatever else we come out about as something to admit, we directly interfere with not making it a big deal. We admit things we are not proud of or secretly ashamed of. I’m not sure how many people feel overtly ashamed of coming out, but I do imagine that most instances of coming out is prefaced by anxiety because there is this uncertainty as to whether or not the friendship can continue or the family remain intact. If we are truly trying to make coming out of the closet easier, we need to focus on why anything is admitted in the first place; we need to be concerned that there is a closet in the first place.
Being out is sometimes contextual: someone can be out to her friends, but not her family, her family, but not her coworkers. Public knowledge in one context might have different consequences than the same public knowledge in another. Being out in to family might mean acceptance; being out in the workplace might mean finding a new job. So there are many times when public knowledge, or lack thereof, about sexual orientation is fairly important. Further, the occasion for that making certain facts public can also be relevant: going to a school dance, going on a date, or bringing someone home for the holidays. So what makes this kind of public knowledge different than coming out of the closet? In some sense these events are when sexual orientation is relevant and not that big of a deal. Talking about, or informing, others about sexual orientation in these contexts, and others like them, starts a very slow change in how we think about sexual orientation. Being a member of the LGBT community is no longer something we have to confess or admit, but rather simply just another part of identity that comes out in the right way.
We thank returning guest blogger, Kurt Blankschaen, for contributing this post to Gay-Straight Relationships.