still coming out

Today is National Coming Out Day — one day a year that celebrates the endless, sometimes joyous, sometimes boring, sometimes devastating process of coming out as queer, as gay or lesbian or bisexual, as trans* or genderqueer, as someone other than the assumed and accepted straight, gender-normative persons we tell ourselves we are supposed to be.

So, happy Coming Out Day!

The idea, once upon a time, was that this would be a day when we would support one another coming out to someone new — maybe we weren’t out yet to our parents, or to our grandparents, or to others in our extended family. Maybe we hadn’t yet come out to our dearest friends from high school or college. Maybe we weren’t out yet at work. Maybe we hadn’t told housemates or classmates. Maybe we haven’t yet actually come out to ourselves.

Maybe we had very good reasons not to be out — there are always reasons we don’t tell people about our sexual orientations, and at the top of that list is usually fear of violence and fear of rejection. Those fears didn’t come from nowhere. They rise in us naturally and wisely when we hear the stories of others in our community who were put out of their homes, left to fend for themselves as young teenagers, after their parents found out they were gay. We hear the stories of friends beaten for their queerness. We understand that there is risk to this demand to be seen and understood and accepted for who we really are.

In 2013, kids are still being put out of their homes for being gay. Kids are still targeted, harassed, bullied, shamed, beaten for their queerness — whether actual or assumed. Female-bodied queerfolks are still sexually assaulted by those asserting that the rape will straighten them out. We are still being queerbashed. We queerfolks still battle the idea that we are predatory, child molesters, hypersexual, and deviant. We are asked what made us this way. We are asked to keep ourselves quiet: why do you have to be so blatant?

Still, many of us, I think, when we come out to those we love and who love us, find that we are still loved and accepted after we have said the words. Often, our families and friends tell us that they already knew or wondered if we were queer; they were just waiting for us to say it. They wanted us to feel safe enough, or trust them enough. This coming out, then, eventually deepens our relationships with them.

Some of us aren’t met kindly — which is why we need a community around us to hold us up and help us heal until we are ready to go back out into the world again.

My own coming out didn’t follow a usual trajectory, and it’s full of trauma story, and I’m not going to tell it all here. When I was in college and participating in the queer student speaker’s bureau (for which we had another, certainly more interesting name), I told the sorority sisters who brought us in to give our presentation of Real! Live! Queers! that my coming out had been easy — it had been a surprise to me when I found myself flirting with, and then kissing another woman, but it felt so natural to me that I just let myself fall into it. It was No Big Deal. What about your family, the young women asked via 3×5 cards we pulled out of a hat (so that no one had to be seen asking questions of the queers). My family is fine with it, I said — there’s so much else going on for us, it’s the least of our issues.

That was sort of true, and also not even a little bit true. There are the coming out stories we tell, and the ones we don’t tell. When I first came out as queer, I was twenty and still under my stepfather’s control. I tried to keep my queerness a secret for as long as possible — I didn’t want him to have more information about me to use against me, and I didn’t want him to have someone else to take away from me. He found out eventually, of course, and told me that I wasn’t allowed to be in contact with the woman I’d fallen in love with. He (a psychotherapist — and, let’s not forget, rapist) insisted that homosexuals were narcissists with mother- or father-issues, and said I’d better just come home and work out things with my mom. That’s not what happened, of course — I did have to go home, but he had other things in mind for me to do.

Eighteen months later, I began the process of escaping from his control, and began coming out to myself as an incest survivor. Eventually, I was an out and proud queer woman. I transitioned to butchness, as so many queer women do, at least for awhile — sometimes because it feels authentic to their gender identity and sometimes because we want to be seen and recognized as actually queer.

I didn’t feel shame around my identity until I came out to myself as femme just over a decade ago. Back in my twenties, I’d read the old stories about folks coming out to themselves as gay — the men and women who stared bleakly into the mirror, tearing at their cheeks, saying to themselves, How can I be like that? One of those? One of them?

I couldn’t understand it. I came out in 1992, and the community I found myself surrounded by was full of joy and rage and power. We battled for acceptance on campus and then danced hard into the night. Who wouldn’t want to be one of these? I was proud and felt lucky — I get to be queer.

And then, when I was in my early thirties, I came to understand that butch didn’t fit me anymore, that I really was just a regular, gender-normative girl. Then I understood shame and horror. I was not proud to be a femme, not at the beginning. I’d worked so hard to be butch, to be visible, to be a real queer — and I felt I’d failed. It took a couple of years to find my pride in my girl gayness — that’s another post, another coming out story.

Coming out never stops, not if we’re lucky. We are always discovering new layers and possibility in ourselves — identity is always a story in flux. What coming out has presented itself for you this year? What’s your coming out story? Are there folks with whom you’re not out? Why? What part of your coming out story haven’t you told yet? Write into the idea of “coming out” this morning — give yourself twenty minutes, and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thank you for coming out — to yourself, first and foremost. Thank you for your generous presence when others come out to you. Thank you for your stories today; thank you for your words.

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