Coming out: it’s complicated!
Coming out is usually portrayed as a path to true liberation and the ultimate way to honour oneself in totality. But is it for everyone?
Queer folk are encouraged to let their family, friends and sometimes co-workers in on their sexual orientation and gender identities so that they can live free of fear or shame.
Coming out has been made synonymous with having pride in being all of who you are, openly and honestly. Furthermore, authenticity is said to be the foundation of all closeness and if we want better relationships, we must keep learning how to be more authentic.
Researchers at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Louis H. Lafontaine Hospital in Montreal said in a study that, ‘Lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals who were out to family and friends had lower levels of psychiatric symptoms and lower morning cortisol levels than those who were still in the closet.’ In other words, people who were out exhibited better levels of health than people who were in the closet because they didn’t have the added stress of keeping such an integral secret.
The researchers concluded that ‘Coming out is no longer a matter of popular debate but a matter of public health.’ Therefore, if society wants its citizens to be well, they must be accepting of marginalised groups.
The Importance of Coming out
A great part of why coming out has been romanticised as the gateway to a better existence is to encourage more people to take the step. Apart from improving your overall health as stated above, it is also encouraged for the multitudes of people living in fear, many more engaging in risky behaviour fuelled by the secrecy – and because not every queer person is invisible, having an out and proud community to fall back on could literally mean the difference between life, and death.
Visibly queer people are those who are automatically labelled or viewed as queer because of their self-expression and general appearance. They, therefore, have to deal with everything that comes with being out, whether they like it or not. This is why when more invisible queer people come out, they help build a community for those who are out by default.
In the larger scheme of things, visibility is helping normalise queer life, which is arguably the most important tool towards equality. For example, Tessa Thompson, who is an openly bisexual Hollywood actress is set to play Marvel’s first openly LGBTQI+ superhero in her starring role as Valkyrie in ‘Thor: Love and Thunder’. While this may not seem like a big deal, it actually signals how queer realities are easing into mainstream consciousness.
Additionally, being ‘Out’ and ‘Proud’ is supposed to make it easier to find a tribe and a point of reference in an otherwise combative world.
Before we launch into the reality of coming out, it is essential to point out that this analysis is based on the initial or more impactful confessions. Should you choose to come out it is a process; it is a series of difficult confessions over a lifetime which can be met with homophobic attitudes and discriminatory practices.
The reality of Coming Out
The idea of being ‘Out’ and ‘Proud’ undercuts a lot of what comes with it, while shaming those who disagree with it being a necessary step. While it may be an ode to unconditional self-love that could possibly be given to an intolerant, gender and sexually segregated world, we should also look at why it is NOT for everyone.
Loss and Grief
Every other self-care meme these days will tell you how you should cut off the people that do not support and care for you in the ways you need them to. As empowering as that sounds, it does not go on to detail how that could turn your world upside down or how emotionally harrowing severing intimate relationships can be.
By coming out to your family and friends you risk being shunned, losing your livelihood, losing your support system and in more cases than are reported, becoming homeless or impoverished. Should you manage to retain your basic needs you would still have to grieve the relationships lost. Grieving people who are still alive is a surreal and intensely hurtful experience.
Moreover, getting sent away from home or losing your livelihood could change the entire path of your life and even thrust you into poverty. Do not put a match to your life to end up setting fire to who you are.
Given the importance of visibility and how often queer people are forced to defend their right to love and expression, it’s no wonder that being openly queer has become a political statement.
It’s never just about the individual, it’s about the movement; all visibly and openly queer people have been turned into one big monolith. The repercussions of this are that the individual somehow becomes a representative for all, and their actions and decisions are seen the same way.
This comes with a lot of pressure and expectation – especially in places with illegal and therefore vulnerable communities like those in African cities and towns. Some of these expectations include leading the charge, for instance, to push the movement further.
Because of their bravery, the hopes, dreams, and reputation of the community are pegged on them, and that cross isn’t one that many can carry.
More 20% than 80%
Some queer people do not consider ‘being in the closet’ as a burden. These individuals are often invisible and consider their sexuality a portion of who they are, not the only portion. For them being queer is more 20% of themselves, than 80%.
Of course, because of their invisibility, they have the luxury and privilege to move around society unencumbered and can, therefore, relegate their queerness to the background.
Wahura*, one such individual talked to us about it saying, ‘Yes, my invisibility gives me a choice and no, I am not naïve to the fact that being queer touches all aspects of my life, but so does being African and a woman. I am all these things at all times in all their varied complexities.’
‘Which is why I know that a politically charged proclamation (declaring her queerness) that doesn’t expand what little space I hold – given ALL my identities – does not serve me.’
For most transgender people, living authentically means keeping their gender history private, particularly if they have self-affirmed their gender identity for a long time. For others who transition later in life and in full view of those around them, they are out merely by existing.
Both are however part of a demographic that experiences the most sexual-based violence. Keeping their history and identity private is a safety measure that cannot in any way be downplayed.
At the end of the day, the decision to reveal one’s queerness is a personal decision based on a host of things. A supportive social environment plays a huge role in whether or not to paint your rainbow for the world to see.
Do you think coming out to your friends and family is important, or dangerous?