11 October 2007

Cleaning My Closet

In honour of National Coming Out Day, I was recently invited to present some remarks, with others, at a community forum on “coming out.” My fellow panelists dutifully stepped up to the plate and presented the precious and at times incoherent details of their individual coming out stories. Personally, I demurred on my own details, giving an overly intellectual reading of coming out as a sign (as in semiotic sign), partially because on some level the whole experience seemed too private to share with strangers, as odd as that may sound. My reticence was informed as well by a caution that was reinforced by the difficulty the other presenters had in speaking about coming out. Generally, in my experience, coming out does not easily lend itself to linear narrative strategies.

Obviously, this isn’t about being in the closet, in the literal sense. I have been out since I was 17, in various guises from mad queen to bear cub, and as most LGBT people can attest, one is constantly coming out, over and over again, on a daily basis. The decision to drop a revealing pronoun in multiple administrative and institutional contexts is coming out, being with another gay or lesbian person in a public setting is coming out, laughing out loud with a butch dyke in a restaurant is coming out, as is perusing the cosmetics counter with a knowledgeable eye at Macy’s and not flinching at the harridans in Kabuki make-up, all mouths and eyes.

To be frank, one of the things that has always annoyed me about Coming Out Week/Day/Month is the relentlessly cheerful teleology behind it: “Come out, and you’ll be up to your ankles in ice cream! Honest!” The truth, as always, is a shade more complicated. Coming out is a nuanced and complicated series of interlocking decisions that shift and slide in unique ways depending on the individual. There is the revelation to the self, the tenuous contacts with others of similar precision, and the various levels of openness with family, co-workers, peers, strangers, as well as the institutional and administrative apparati that determine our lives, from insurance forms to campus directories. In the end, the “coming out” that seems to be central to National Coming Out Day is not the end, but the beginning.

Twenty-one years on, coming out feels both over- and underrated. To be gay or lesbian is to constantly bump up against a society that in subtle and not-so-subtle ways devalues your humanity. It is a daily struggle for affirmation, although this makes it sound melodramatic. What I mean is that the conscious lesbian or gay man must always strive to maintain fluency in parent culture norms as well as the specific and unique characteristics of LGBT life. We are socio-cultural polyglots. What, for instance, is the meaning and value of men loving men and women loving women in our society, on sexual, social, political, and economic levels? LGBT folks can’t agree on a singular answer, although there are numerous and productive threads in that discussion, and heterosexuals, when they care to listen, tend to be bewildered.

And who can blame them? For the discussions and arguments and debates that occur between lesbians, gay men, and transgender people are often contentious, revealing different moral and ethical systems that are not complimentary, and often are in direct conflict. There are precious few models for what lesbian and gay identity really looks like, outside of stereotype. We are lifting as we climb, building as we destroy, in tension with what society tells us we should be, how we see ourselves in relation to those images, and the flickering projections of gay pride and shame that surround us in our pixelated media and ghettoes of the mind. We ourselves are bewildered, as we salvage what we can from the piles of discursive rubble, building a home in the abyss, as The Fierceness used to say.

Before Stonewall, the sense of coming out was related to the debutante. Coming out meant acknowledging yourself as a fellow traveller before the secret demimonde of lesbians, gay men, butches, bull daggers, and queens of the City, to other LGBT people and the nascent LGBT community. This sense of coming out is markedly different from our contemporary usage, which generally means proclaiming yourself to unknowing or unfriendly straights. I prefer, in some ways, the previous usage, not only because it honours the LGBT community, but also because it speaks more to the gay men and lesbians we become than the drama of tear-stained eyes of shocked parents, or the flinch of the functionary. Today, we commonly tend to understand coming out (again, to straight society) as “I love you in spite of…” rather than, as in the case of the previous usage, “I love you because…” But isn't the latter so much more beautiful?

My girlfriend La Connaire and I used to joke that LGBT identity was like the famous film Freaks, where the “normal” woman is joined to the tribe of circus performers and carnies by the chant “One of Us, One of Us, One of Us!” But there is a ring of truth to that sly appropriation. Becoming LGBT is a process that begins with coming out, but one that reaches fruition only much later, and in the company of fellow travellers, the brothers and sisters who form community norms, boundaries, and expectations. I came out shortly after arriving at Prestigious Eastern University, but I didn’t start becoming the gay man I would eventually become until I met my clique of gay men of color, queens and butches who would mould me, train me in the dark arts of faggotry, the sophistry of inversion— the language, the pose, the stance, the look, the critical relation to the world. Ironically, in becoming gay, I also became a man, for this fierce tribe of men inculcated me into masculinity, the sexual hunt, the inchoate desire.

Twenty-one years on, however, it is also easy for me and others like me, fluent in faggotry and Dykotomies, relatively comfortable professionally, living in a big cosmopolitan city, to forgot the horror of the closet, the torture of the closet, the soul-killing suffocation. For being in the closet doesn’t mean you don’t know who and what you are (or might be). It actually means being highly conscious of that different state, and choosing to suppress it, to smother it in its crib, to deny the possibility. Whether this is through a straight marriage of convenience or worse, not allowing oneself the possibility of love, it is an ersatz version of life. Even with all the problems and challenges of LGBT life, being conscious of one's self and working within that consciousness to get, in the words of Mica Paris, “a little more perfect,” is preferable to the peculiar form of self-mutilation that is the closet. There certainly is no single path to enlightenment, but one must start someplace. And for many of us, that starting place is beginning the journey of becoming LGBT that is marked by "coming out."


MM said...

Tus reflexiones me llegan al alma.
You are such a good insightful writer.

DrT_Trist@yahoo.com said...


Here's a great contribution from two lesbian women to commemorate the National Coming Out Day :
Coming Out in an Evangelical Church - Wow!

You can also go directly to FaithoftheAbomination.com. Their story will be told in a documentary film. I feel this will be groundbreaking for the GLBT community.

Dr. Crazy said...

This was an amazing post, and I actually talked about it specifically in my lit and sexuality class today. You are awesome Oso Raro. (And you should know that everybody in my class laughed at the "you'll be up to your ankles in ice cream" line - and most of the students I teach identify as straight :)

One of my students actually asked how I found you. Clearly I just demurred and said that there are a lot of great college profs who blog :)

Lesboprof said...

I enjoyed this post so much, especially that you end remembering the stifling feelings of closetedness and the initial discoveries of sexual identity. I attended a conference once with a whole bunch of lit crit types (no offense intended, of course) who spent a great deal of time discussing the need to disabuse LGBT students of the idea that there is such a thing as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender identity, as such. It was just a social construction, a meaningful yet intangible abstraction that is more deployed than innate.

And while I get the whole critique of identity, I came to the meeting from a school in the deep South, where many queers were hidden, scared, and barely breathing in their closets. And the idea that there was an identity to cling to, however fragile, a community with a history of which they could be a part, was intoxicating and life-giving.

So, I cautioned them about taking away the concept of an LGBT identity before students could even profitably form one. As you say, these identities and their formation is an important thing in our own development as queers... whatever that means.

Cero said...

I have decided that one of the reasons the deep south (which I am now located south of, gott sei dank)
is so deeply twisted is that so many people are so deeply closeted.

Max said...

Odd Bear (me gusta traducirlo así, mejor que como strange o peor aún weird), as you say, “one is constantly coming out, over and over again, on a daily basis.” However, for each outing there is a new closeting at stake. And as much as one goes out of various closets (being non-gay, that is a closet I don’t really fit in), one gets—unwittingly—into other ones, from which it might not be so easy to get out, for one may not even realise one is inside them (these closets do not have an “National Day” to come out of them—a marketing problem, if you will). If “being in the closet doesn’t mean you don’t know who and what you are,” just the correlative opposite may be said of being out-of-the-closet: it doesn’t mean you know who and what you are. For the self-affirmation that denies acknowledging the non-sharable character of such an experience in its vain attempt to proclaim it, to reach others (as in the litany of intimate narratives deprived of an intimate context to be told), can also be seen as a “peculiar form of self-mutilation.” After all, self mutilation isn’t necessarily to be equated with claustrophilia, for claustrophobia is, after all, a phobia. Besides, there’s much fun to be had in closets. The thing is to know how to choose the appropriate one, and for how long to hang out… oops! I mean, to hang-in.

adjunct whore said...

i hardly no where to begin in response, other than to say this is unreal--beautiful, personal, intellectual, political--in a far less elegant form than your own, fucking amazing.

your claim that coming out is a daily experience is wonderful, not the experience, but your description. and i agree that the singular "coming out" narrative seems entirely too personal to share.

i know that we straights (or bi, in my case) are fairly dumb and clueless about such things, but some of us not only care deeply but are more often than you might expect not baffled.

Carol Guess said...

Gorgeous post. You strike a balance (as lesbo prof noted) between serious critique and sincere compassion.

I'll point this out to the students in my Queer Lit class.


Bad Decision Maker said...

This post was great. It made me think a lot and resonated with me. As other people have commented, I like that you critique the whole coming out narrative, but also recognize the difficulty of a closet and people whose situations/positions are different than yours.

"Coming out" has been an interesting process for me for a few reasons; a major one of them being my privileges - straight privilege from being flexible (my word because bisexual is gender-exclusive and inaccurate for who i tend to be attracted to anyways) and just looking pretty gender conforming; long white girl hair, etc. Not being in any relationships makes it hard to just drop a pronoun (and even if I was in a relationship, the pronoun might not make my queerness obvious) without further discussing sexual desire/identity in a way I might not want to with family, coworkers, etc.

I have at some times felt like an outsider in the queer community, and like I didn't have a right to be there, either because of my own baggage or other's reaction. Sometimes I don't believe myself. I recognize this has a lot to do with my position of privilege and the parts of straightness, or at least choices, I have, but I don't really fit in as straight at all anymore, if I'm being myself. I am definitely not trying to whine about having no community, because many queer (and straight) people/communities have embraced me, but am agreeing with your idea that it doesn't always lend itself to a clear linear narrative.

MaggieMay said...

I'll just repeat what A.W. said above: a fucking amazing post, oso. I hope that IRL you are putting some of your blog work together for a book of essays; it's powerful, powerful stuff that deserves a wider audience than the blogosphere.

Rent Party said...

I echo maggiemay but then I've said it before, I believe.