Note: I wrote this piece last year and am resurrecting it here, with a few additions.
This is the week of the March on Washington. Or, wait, is it the March Through Washington, a city that will be missing most of its lawmakers and the now Nobel Peace Prize Winner President Obama himself on the day of? I won't waste too much time writing about something that seems designed to be little more than a publicity event for a few celebrity queers except to say that my best hope is that the mostly, I suspect, younger crowd that's going to go will come away with a sense of the greed and manipulation of gay politicos, fat cat organisations, and power brokers. And that their hunger for public engagement will eventually be channeled towards more substantial and radical critiques than simplistic calls for "equality" that don't go beyond the usual Holy Trinity of Hate Crimes Legislation, Marriage, and Don't Ask Don't Tell. And that some might want to ask why a march organised as an LGBT-no-Q-thank-you March makes no significant mention of HIV/AIDS or the persistent violence towards and surveillance of queers and why it seems, instead, bent on wrapping itself in a blanket of normalcy designed to get phobic straight people to tolerate us just a leeeeeeettle bit more.
So here's my point: The march is on National Coming Out Day. The neoliberal fetishisation of identity means that public embraces of the "LGBT" acronym is just another way to increase inequality by pretending that individual identity and relationships matter more than policies that might benefit everyone. In this context, National Coming Out Day takes on the aura of a sacred rite of passage for an entire nation. It's a way to prove that its collective self is tolerant towards its lesbians, gays, bisexual, and transgender citizens.
Public discussions around sexuality evoke simplistic narratives about gays versus conservatives, and we automatically assume that anything gay is part of a leftist or progressive agenda. I have no doubt that celebrities at this event will be trumpeting their profound love for their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Those queers who don't toe the line of normalcy or who actually think that marriage or war or more jail time in the prison industrial complex might actually be terrible and dangerous for us all will be shoved to the side, if they're allowed in at all.
As an out queer lesbian who sleeps with men, there's never been a space for me in the acronym and I don't imagine that my kind will be allowed on any of the stages. But that's not my real problem with National Coming Out Day.
I understand the need to come out, and its strategic and psychic importance for those struggling to find their place in the world. I can see the advantage of having a day on high school and college campuses where we actually talk openly about what what it means to be queer. But coming out ought not to define queer identity the way it does today. By placing so much emphasis on the act of revealing, of exposing ourselves to the scrutiny, judgment and, yes, even acceptance of those around us, we are implicitly arguing that to be queer is, in effect, to always have to come out. That positions queer identity as an always darkly imagined Other, the thing that must, on the stroke of midnight of October 11 every year, emerge and perform a ritual cleansing of itself.* Most of all: When we come out today, what are we coming out as and for?
Consciously performing the act of coming out implies that I identify with a larger "gay community." I'm privileged to live and work among like-minded queers and straights (I use all terms loosely). But I've long felt disconnected from the mainstream "gay community" and its notion that "coming out" is a political act of great meaning and significance.
As someone once said to me, "We [queers] used to be the most interesting people in the room. Look at us now." Indeed. We're not just less interesting, but politically conservative. Let's consider the main causes of the "gay community/movement" today -- and why I won't come out on its behalf.
Gay marriage. I'm against the idea that marriage should grant rights and benefits, and I don't think couples - gay or straight - are special people who deserve to be rewarded for their "commitment." Gay marriage is an emotional, social, and cultural issue - by all means, argue for it if you'd like to have your relationship validated by whatever forces you deem important. But don't turn it into a social justice issue by pretending that it's about establishing parity and equal rights for everyone. When gays argue for gay marriage as the way to establish health care and guarantee benefits, they're essentially giving the finger to anyone - straight or gay - who chooses not to inhabit the institution of marriage.
Gays in the military. I'm a militant pacifist, so the idea that I should be able to fight in wars or to help establish the U.S. rule of law in other countries is repugnant to me. We now live in a war economy where recruitment into the armed forces is just another term for "job security," so I'm sympathetic to those who feel compelled to join for economic reasons. But I'd like to work on building a society where peaceniks, like a former student of mine who joined because she couldn't afford not to, don't feel compelled to join the army in order to pay off loans - whether they're gay or straight.
Hate crimes legislation. Hate crimes legislation only serves to enhance penalties, and can even lead to the death penalty. The basic idea behind hate crimes legislation is that people who somehow demonstrate prejudice towards a group (by yelling "fag" during a robbery, for instance) deserve to be punished much more and that the threat of longer sentences or even death will deter similar crimes. In its support of hate crimes legislation, the "gay community" demonstrates its bloodthirstiness - it's not enough for us that someone should go to jail for murdering, beating, or robbing us (crimes for which there's enough punishment); we'd like to expand the prison industrial complex by forcing them to rot in prison for the rest of their lives or be hanged or electrocuted.
"Coming out," as defined by the U.S "gay community," has also become a dangerous export. We've recently decided that there's an international gay community that has goals and ideals in common across borders, and we have no qualms in asserting that "gay rights" are the same everywhere. In fact, what counts as "gay" in the U.S. may be same-sex desire that can't be defined as such elsewhere. For instance, some men in India might have sex with each other but still see themselves as "straight" and continue to live with their wives and children. According to our logic, such men just need to come out and be happy under rainbow-hued umbrellas, an attitude that's both simplistic and dictatorial.
There is, of course, a need to establish solidarity with queers in countries where homosexuality and same-sex desire can be punishable by law. But as gay activists and writers like Joseph Massad and Bill Andriette have shown in their nuanced work, asking for help for queers elsewhere is a fraught enterprise. U.S. feminist groups like Feminist Majority and women like Laura Bush ignored the needs of Afghani women by demanding that the U.S. bomb Afghanistan to help liberate them from the men of the Taliban. Similarly, U.S./Western gays put queers elsewhere at risk by defining acts of oppression as exclusively gay.
"Coming out" may be freedom for some here but for others across the world, it's either a non sequitur or a dangerous calling out that puts their lives in jeopardy. Coming out is increasingly part of a commercialised notion of gay identity to which a lot of us can't subscribe, especially in light of the mainstreaming of gay community.
So when you come out as either a straight ally or as part of the LGBT community, ask yourself: On whose behalf am I coming out? What, exactly, does this community represent?
If you're someone to whom a co-worker comes out, don't be content with simple declarative sentences like "I support you!" or "So am I!" Instead, this year, don't be afraid to ask them where they stand on the particulars. Ask: So, do you really think that married and coupled people deserve more benefits than single people? How can you be against the war and also for fighting in the military? Do you really think that putting people in jail for long periods of time for what they think or say during a crime is a good idea, especially since most people in jail are the already disenfranchised, including the poor? Does "coming out" mean the same in vastly different cultural and political contexts?
What if your co-worker tells you you're being homophobic just for asking these questions? Well, then - that just means that he or she is coming out as a jerk who won't engage with you on a serious level. And that's okay. The best thing about National Coming Out Day, if you ask these questions, might be your discovery that we can be just as nasty as the rest.
Related materials (click for links):
The Guide's interview with Joseph Massad, author of Desiring Arabs.
Bill Andriette's piece on the Iran hangings of, which is also an excellent analysis of US queer politics and its (often misguided) relationship to geopolitics.
My interview with Arsham Parsi, head of IRQO (Iranian Queer Organisation), which touched upon the issue of Western queers agitating on behalf of queers elsewhere.
* Yes, I'm aware that Coming Out Day isn't always meant to be taken literally; let's just go with the metaphor here.