It’s the end of Pride Month. Usually I’m overflowing with words about queer topics, especially in June. I had a year of queer rage in 2022. And 2023 has me filled with even more rage. And yet this month, when I should have been able to say something I’ve had trouble saying anything. Every time I sat down to write, it wasn’t right. I’d read it back, and, whatever it was, it wasn’t very good. And then, finally, three days before the end of Pride Month, I realized what the problem was. I was telling the wrong story. I need to talk about coming out.
Let’s Just Say: Coming out is Hard When you’re this Much of a Homebody
Right now, not only am I isolated from Pride because of accessibility and ongoing COVID concerns, but I’m literally in a place where I can’t be out, even during Pride Month. And after almost thirty years of being out, that’s a really uncomfortable experience. I’m not handling it well. By which i mean that I was still trying to tell queer stories about things I care about: performative bisexuality; the anniversary of the removal of homosexuality from the DSM; past-due changes to the FDA’s blood donation guidelines. They’re stories I care about and still need to tell. They’re just not the stories I need to tell right now. Or the ones I can tell right now. The story I need to tell is about coming out.
Coming out is kind of a big deal. It’s one of the few nearly universal experiences for queer people. At some point you come out to someone, even if it’s just yourself. At the same time, it’s something that can, for some people, take a long time to work up to and that you will probably end up doing over and over again in different contexts throughout your lifetime, whether it’s your family, friends, colleagues, health care providers or other people. You do it, and you keep doing it.
Enough with the Coming Out Stories Already. Can we get One Queer Dishwashing or Auto-Maintenance Story?
The thing I worry about in writing this piece is that, so many times, queer stories focus on coming out to the exclusion of other queer issues… or to the exclusion of universal issues that queer people participate in just as much as anyone else. I don’t mind talking about coming out, but you start to feel like an orchestra that’s played Pachelbel’s Canon or The Stars and Stripes Forever one too many times.
Regardless, it’s the thing that non-queer people seem most interested in (other than the “how do you have sex” thing.) It’s the story that mainstream media focuses on when they tell queer stories (unless they’re telling a “bury your gays” story or a “depraved homosexual” story.) I’d love to convince the world that we’re more than our coming out stories, but there’s that whole “lives not lifestyles” thing. You know: the way queer people go to work just like non-queer people, and do the laundry and pay the bills just like straight people. Aside from coming out, many of the stories about the lives of queer and not-queer people are, in many ways, very much the same. I get tired of queer stories focused so much on coming out.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Coming Out Story: Karamo Brown from Queer Eye on Last Meals
But the coming out story is like any classic: you go through periods where you’re just over it, and then something comes along and reminds you why it’s worthwhile and beautiful to tell coming out stories. I was watching an episode of Mythical Kitchen’s Last Meals series with Karamo Brown from Queer Eye as the guest. Karamo and Chef Josh eat the foods Karamo had chosen for his last meal, and there was one part that made me pause and rewind the video several times to listen to again and again.
“I started letting people into my life, I don’t use the term ‘coming out’ because the act is actually letting people in..”
“Yeah, of course”
“Now I think this undue pressure we put on lgbtqia+ people to come out…
“As if they’re the problem for existing”
“Exactly. It’s like we should feel the power to know that I can let you in when I want and it doesn’t mean that I’m ashamed of who I am, it means that I’m respecting my boundaries and my space, and when you’ve proven to me that you’re respectful and loving of who I am authentically, then of course I’m gonna let you in…”
We Don’t Come Out; We Let People In
Don’t you love it when someone gives you the words for something you already suspected and that opens the topic up to you in new ways? It gives you the vocabulary to think about your life from a new perspective. In all of the coming out groups I led, mostly for teenagers who were figuring out how to come out to their responsible adults, there were two conversations that happened over and over again.
- You should be in charge of telling your own story. It’s not up to someone else to out you unless you ask them to tell someone. Of course the usual caveats about a kid being in danger and someone disclosing to another responsible adult apply.
- The first person you came out to was yourself. You had time to think about it, to process the information and get used to the idea. When you come out to someone else, they haven’t had the time to do that. They have their own feelings about it to process. This doesn’t give them the right to mistreat you, to blame you for those feelings or to expect you to be their therapist as they work those feelings out, but they do get to have feelings
Unsafe in the Hospital
Right now, as long as I’m in this hospital; this space where it’s not safe to be openly queer, that’s what I’m doing: rather than not coming out, I’m not letting people in. I’ve put up walls to keep people out, a sort of fortress to keep myself safe. People I see every day, and who do so many things for me, but still, I keep such a huge part of myself hidden. And I really do feel it.
I felt it when my ex-girlfriend passed away in April and I could only talk about how “my friend” had died. I felt it the other day when one of the maintenance people had to repair something in my room and took out the bolt that prevented the door from opening more than six inches. And I said (joking) “You could just leave it out.”
He reminded me that he wasn’t allowed to do that because it meant the potential for “unauthorized egress.” But the next day, when he returned to check on the door, he looked at me, shut the door without refastening the bolt that held it shut and said “Don’t sneak any boyfriends in here.” On the outside, I laughed. On the inside I cringed at the expectation of compulsory heterosexuality. In some situations it would have been safe to laugh and say “or girlfriends.” This situation isn’t one of them. And I knew it.
Life as a Secret Queer
With the exception of a couple of employees I know are gay because they dropped hints (I won’t say any more in case the wrong people read this) I’m in a place where I haven’t been in years: I’m not being my authentic self. I’m not a complete version of me. I haven’t been able to fully express to the people around me how upset I am about the overwhelming amount of anti-LGBTQ legislation that’s been passed here in Florida and all over the country this year. There’s no question it hurts to feel forced to hide this way.
But that idea of “letting in” keeps sticking with me. I’ve had a bunch of people come out to me in the last couple of years, and one of the first things I say to them is “thank you for trusting me enough to tell me that.” When it’s a kid who is coming out to me? I try to emphasize the idea that their coming out journey belongs to them, and if they want me to tell specific people, I will, but not without their permission. I’ll help them if they want, but the choice to share or not share is their own.
Listening to Karamo talk about “coming out” versus “letting in” clarified why it’s so hard keeping my identity a secret. It’s not that I’m not out; it’s that I can’t let anybody in. I want to be vulnerable; to talk to people as myself. And I can’t do that. Instead, I present this fake version of me who is always on guard. Always worried about making a mistake, always terrified of the consequences.
And there’s the rub: the thing that prompts people to come out in the first place is when the pain of staying in becomes greater than the fear of letting people in. But then, when you actually come out to the right people, you get to experience that rare, beautiful feeling known as queer joy. If you’ve experienced it, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t? I don’t know… imagine your whole self expressed and embraced. Imagine being all of yourself and that being enough. More than enough. I could really use some queer joy right now. But this just isn’t the place for it.
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