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."