Alex Blaze

Why come out?

Filed By Alex Blaze | July 27, 2007 3:17 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: coming out of the closet, Ellen DeGeneres, homophobic behavior, Judy Shepard, Lance Bass, New York Magazine

Having been out on some level since I was 15 (it had a lot to do with a cute boy who I called up and "asked out".... oh, those were simpler days), and, as you likely know, it isn't always easy. Or seemingly worth it. Or even rational.

Consider that coming out is basically taking on a label to make oneself politically legible and visible - coming out didn't make me like boys anymore than I did before, but it sure did stop a whole lot of people from assuming I was straight and suggesting women to date. And it got me some cooler friends. Besides that, I've lost a couple of jobs, been threatened with violence, upset my parents, and gotten even more annoyed when people suggested women to date.

So when I saw this New York magazine story earlier this week, the one about the closeted, rich, white, liberal men in New York City and the man whom Pam Spaulding said was closeted "because he wants to maintain the heterosexual privilege that comes with his marriage to his wife," my first thought was "Ummmmmm, yeah?"

Considering that, when adjusted for occupation and several other factors, the Task Force found that gay men make about 83% what the average straight man does, I really can't blame someone for being closeted. This UCLA study found that same-sex couples of either sex made about $12,000 less than their straight counterparts and were about 23% less likely to have a college degree. In fact, GLSEN found that LGBT-identified high school students were about twice as likely to not have any sort of post-secondary education on the mind.

And that's just when it comes to economic success. Queer-identified people are still more likely to be victims of violence, more likely to to be turned away from homeless shelters, more likely to be ostracized from their families. For what? A label?

These thoughts were swimming in my head as I read the New York magazine article. I suppose that a good reason this man should come out is that he can have a more open relationship with the men he sleeps with instead of just hitting Craigslist for a hook-up. Well, it sounded a lot like my sex life anyway, the sporadic internet hook up late at night when I finally get done with whatever it is that I'm doing. (Somehow this is going to throw me into the category of a bad gay, but let me just defend myself by saying that when I hook-up, it's quirky, fun, connecting, and satisfying. Did I just come out to be labeled as a bad gay?) In fact, when reading coming out narratives for research at one point during my three years of self-imposed celibacy in my early 20's (due in large part to major body image issues), I found that those who hadn't come out were often leading much more exciting sex lives than I ever had, more exciting than I probably ever will.

So we're back at the main question of "Why come out?" It seems to be inviting a whole lot of trouble for not so much return. Of course, there are other ways to measure that return in terms of ethics and honesty, comfortability with one's identity, and slightly more psychic coherence, but those material disadvantages to coming out can be quite strong. I remember hearing an Ellen Degeneres speech several years back after she just came out saying that if you're not out, it's just because you're ashamed of yourself. I went to see Judy Shepard speak a couple of years ago, and she said that if you should come out even if you fear losing your job because if you lose your job, you can just go out and get another one.

Of course, the previously mentioned statistics apply even more to those who aren't counted in them, as people who aren't comfortable with being out to a pollster asking about their income are unlikely to have more control over their lives than those who are able to be out to the pollster, and control is more often than not linked to money in this country.

Well, I'm not planning on jumping back in the closet at this age, even though the system punishes people who are out and I don't see that changing anytime soon. And while that label is something outside of me imposed upon me for sexual legibility, I probably understand Lance Bass, who just wrote this up for his coming out anniversary:

Happy Anniversary!!!!!....

TO ME!!!!!!!

So it was a year ago that I decided to let the world know who I really am... and I swear it has been the most amazing experience. Scary at times , but in the end the best thing I have ever done.

From the mouths of babes....

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Steve Ralls | July 27, 2007 6:48 PM

Granted, Lance Bass had a different coming out than, say, a 15 year old in Oklahoma would probably have. But, I do think your post missed one important point: If none of us had come out, things would be a lot worse than they are right now.

I'm a little young (!) to have experienced the pre-Stonewall days, but the historical data is unavoidable. Lesbians and gays were stigmatized, labeled as 'sick,' and sent for electroshock therapy . . . or worse. Living in the closet wasn't a nice experience, especially if you were assumed to be gay, and singled out because of it.

About a year ago, I attended a seminar in Boston with LGBT activists, and what we found was powerful, but not suprising. Coming out is the first step in impacting change, but not the last. In addition to just saying 'I'm gay,' LGBT'ers also need to share their lives with their straight co-workers, neighbors and friends & family. When they do, the data is clear: Heterosexuals begin to understand that LGBT people are really no different than them, and in turn, they are far more likely to vote pro-gay and stick up for their gay friends.

The same is true in the military. SLDN has seen, again and again, that in units where a service member is out, anti-gay harassment, threats, intimidation and taunts decline dramatically. But in units where a closeted service member is assumed to be gay, but cannot speak out to educate their fellow troops, harassment tends to be much more rampant.

No, things are not perfect (by a long shot) for LGBT people, but if we all moved back to the closet out of fear of being singled out and threatened, we help create a sort of 'self-fulfilling prophecy,' where are worst fears tend to come true.

There is great power in coming out, even if the risks are not non-existent.

I've actually only "come out"-- by which I mean telling someone (my cousin) "I'm gay" once...when I was 21. I simply live my life openly and honestly, just like everyone else. This, in part, is due to the nature of the relationship I was in from the time I was 23 until 2 years ago when it ended. My then b/f was the quintessential assimilationist-- hell bent on showing the world that he was just "the guy next door" who coincidentally "happened" to be gay; that we, as a same-sex couple, were equal to our hetero counterparts and therefore need not "come out" as a gay couple (after all, str8 people don't feel compelled to come out, he argued).

But they do....anyone whose been to a wedding or baby shower knows that. Anyone whose watched months of planning for the "big day" knows that heterosexuals LIVE for the moment when they can stand up and declare and affirm themselves and their relationships.

Another reason to come out, I've discovered, is that unless you do so people will label you incorrectly simply for their own comfort. There was a man at our church who insisted on thinking of my ex- and I as brothers ("How's your brother?" he would ask if he saw me standing alone) no matter how many times he was corrected. My Grandmother came to my house often for dinner and NEVER believed we were anything other than roommates no matter how many times I reminded her that MY bedroom was actually OUR bedroom.

As a teacher I work under "Don't ask, don't tell" conditions. In fact, one time our strudents were studying the holocaust and I overheard one of them say that he admired Hitler for killing fags. I went to my Director & informed her that I wanted to come out to our class. I was expressly asked NOT to. And while it may be easy for Mrs. Shephard to say "Quit your job," it was not that simple and is not an option financially. Besides which, in my field, the response would be the same no matter where I work.Ironically, we dealt with the student's homophobia by teaching a unit on the life & death of Matthew Shephard as a compromise to my protest. By the end of the unit that student said: "Well, Mr. C. I still don't approve of that lifestyle, but he did not deserve to die because of it." It may seem like a small step and maybe it is but it was one of my proudest moments as a teacher.

Lynn David | July 28, 2007 1:41 AM

I didn't even know what coming out was when I did it to a friend at 14. I just confided in him how much another kid in our freshman class turned me on. Wrong thing to do in 1969. Later on as a senior I tried to tell other good friends that I liked the staff side of the aisle. I couldn't do, fear ruled my being.

Coming out, especially to those you most care for should be done with care. Not only to diminish their reactions but to not create any "undo" controversy - some is likely to always occur... that's a part of coming out also.

But then in my case you can let it go for too long... like when i finally told a good friend I was gay. He looks at me and said something to the effect that 'Lynn, I was just telling my wife years ago that you were gay.' Whoops!

I'm a big proponent of the idea that visibility is going to make all the difference when it comes to altering attitudes and gaining equal rights....

Case in point... My partner and I along with our two sons are often driving back and forth from Indy to Northwest Indiana, and as our boys are fans of the truck stop experience, we are known to stop at the truck stop in Lebanon for a bite to eat.

Now, when we go in there, most all of the restaurant staff knows us and is familiar with us and the kids. It's obvious by now to these people that we are family and that my partner is my partner.

We've had truckers come up to us and tell us how well behaved our boys are, we've had one waitress in particular stand around and chat with us, the manager come by and talk to and joke with the kids, and so on. So, my belief is that little by little these are lasting impressions on people who come from small town not-so-diverse America. These are the kind of people who may be voting on something like SJR-7 in the unfortunate event that it makes to the ballot, or maybe they have a friend or relative come out down the road, or they read in the paper about an awful crime against someone based on their sexuality, or maybe they start to think about and challenge what the preacher said about homosexuals on Sunday morning.

Because that is what people do, when they see and engage with people who contradict their previous notions, they internalize those experiences... and, little by little, it changes attitudes.

I believe in person to person contact and visibility when it comes to attitudes and impressions rather than expecting that legislation is going to suddenly make people see the light and change their attitudes.