About “coming out”

I recently read Julia Serrano’s Excluded, and it made me think a lot about assumptions, and about “coming out” – which is really only a thing because of other people’s assumptions, as the quote below explains:

When we are marked, unmarked assumption can be endlessly frustrating, as it seems to place the onerous task on us to “come out” to those who misperceive us. “Coming out” results not only in having to deal with the ramifications of being marked, but also with having to overcome the narrative (which exists in the unmarked person’s mind) that we were previously “hiding” or “closeting” ourselves, and are now “revealing” our true identity. Sometimes this narrative holds some truth for the marked person as well – for instance, a gay man who “comes out of the closet” may have felt like he was previously hiding himself but is now revealing the truth that he is gay. But other times, this narrative belies the marked person’s actual experience. For example, I may not be actively hiding the fact that I am transsexual, but when I drop it into casual conversation (e.g., “back when I was in little league,” or “back when I had a penis”) other people may perceive this as a “coming out moment”, rather than recognizing that they were the ones who were projecting cissexual assumption onto me all along. Also, the “revelation” narrative that others project onto me may invalidate my experiences and identity in other ways. For instance, if I tell someone I am transsexual, they may interpret that as me “revealing” that I am “really a man”, rather than accurately seeing me as a woman who has shared the fact that I am transsexual rather than cissexual…

Even if the so-called “revelation” is interpreted accurately, it still pretty much sucks for the marked person. As I have said ad infinitum by this point, when we “reveal” our marked status, we open ourselves up to attention, remarks, questioning, and so on. Further, we can never predict how any given person will react to these supposed “revelations”, so we must always be on guard and prepared for the worst possible negative reaction. Finally, if we are perceived as having just “revealed” our maried status, we may be bombarded by accusations that we have been insincere, inauthentic, manipulative, deceptive, and artificial, even when such allegations are patently untrue.

Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serrano (p. 195-196)

I’ve found the coming out concept irritating for a while: there’s a scene in the movie Love, Simon where Simon, a gay teenager, says that he doesn’t see why he should have to come out when straight people don’t have to. It’s played for laughs – there’s a montage showing scenes of straight teenagers coming out to their parents with a variety of negative reactions from the parents. And hey, I laughed at that scene too; it was well done, and funny. But. He actually has a point. It’s heteronormativity, and cisnormativity, and amatonormativity, that are the reason that people like me have to come out at all. And it’s not a one-and-done process, you’re doing it constantly. And the only reason you have to do it at all is that other people make assumptions about you.

Gender entitlement often takes the form of homogenizing assumptions about who we believe people are and how we expect them to behave in the future. This includes universalizing assumptions, such as expecting everyone we meet to be heterosexual, or cisgender, or monosexual, and so on. Other assumptions will come in the form of stereotypes that we project onto people belonging to a specific group. Sometimes our assumptions may match those commonly made in the culture at large, whereas other times our assumptions may be quite different (e.g., when queer people boast about having “gaydar” – the supposed ability to know for sure whether other people are queer or not without having to ask them). As I have discussed throughout this book, assumptions pretty much suck. Sure, sometimes the assumptions we make are correct, but often they are flat-out incorrect. And unfortunately, the burden always ends up being on the “assumee” (i.e., the person who the assumption is made about) to challenge any incorrect assumptions that are made by the “assumer” (i.e., the person who makes the assumption). Sometimes when I point out the incorrect assumptions that people make about me, it is no big deal. Other times, it can be slightly awkward or time consuming, and in some instances it can be downright awful. Because of horrible negative reactions that I have received in some cases (especially upon coming out to people as trans), I am often hesitant to correct other people’s incorrect assumptions about me. But this also has negative consequences: It forces me to keep quiet about this aspect of myself, which can be both difficult and disempowering. Furthermore, if that information ever comes to light at a later date, I may be accused of hiding the truth or deceiving other people. In other words, incorrect assumptions create a damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don’t situation for me…

Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serrano (p. 244-5)

For example, I date, or have dated, men, and therefore people often make the assumption that I’m a heterosexual woman. This is their mistake: all I’ve done is date a man, and look the way that I look, and they’ve made a number of assumptions:

  • That I only date men (and I’m therefore straight)
  • That I’m female (and therefore straight)
  • That I’m feel sexual and /or romantic attraction (and I’m therefore allosexual)
  • That I’m only dating that person (and therefore monogamous)

And yes, these assumptions would probably be true of many people who look like me, dating people who appear to be men. But they’re not true of me; some or all of them are not, in fact, true of a lot of people who might superficially resemble me in one way or another.

So there I am, being assumed to be a heterosexual woman by some person. And that means that, if I continue to interact with that person, I have to make a decision: do I “come out” to them? And that’s not an easy question to answer. I have to consider lots of factors:

  • How will they react?
  • Will they be angry or upset?
  • Will they cut contact with me? If so, how much of an issue will that cause?
  • Will they try to use this information against me (e.g. to out me in some situation or to some person that I’m not currently out to)?
  • Will they become violent or abusive?
  • If I live with them or require their financial support, will they throw me out or cut me off?

Every time I choose to come out to someone I’m taking a huge risk, because even if you think you know how someone will react, you can never be sure. (For example, I came out to someone I’d gone to school with, via email, and never heard from her again.) So I often don’t, depending on the situation. If I’m not going to see the person again, I probably won’t bother (the one exception being that I might ask them to use my correct pronouns).

And quite apart from the risk, it’s tiring. Constantly explaining who you are, and as Serrano says, opening yourself up to the questions, often very intrusive, of others, can be exhausting. Sometimes I’ll just let people assume whatever they want to assume, because I just don’t have the energy (physically or emotionally) to deal with it.

On the one hand, these assumptions are not my fault. I am just being myself, living my life, I’m not deceiving anyone. If anything, they’re deceiving themselves. But on the other hand, I’m the one who will suffer if they react badly to learning that I’m not who they assumed I was.

My “coming out” policy has pretty much always been that if someone asks, I will tell them, and if I think it’s relevant, I’ll proactively tell them. These days I’ve expanded that a bit, because I want people to use the correct pronouns for me, so I do tend to point that out without being asked. I’m also a big fan of badges, so I do have a large collection of badges that proclaim various aspects of my identity – which I consider low-key coming out that requires no effort from me apart from wearing the badge.

I do hate the whole “coming out” concept, in part, because it seems to imply that you owe the world the “truth” about your gender, sexuality, etc. It suggests (incorrectly) that you can do it once and then you’re out forever. And it definitely has the implication that if you are not out, you are somehow being deceptive, or you’re ashamed of your identity.

I don’t think that any of that’s true, though. In some circles, I’m very out as queer, as non-binary, as demisexual, and so on. In others, I’m not. But in the places I’m not out, or less vocally out, my gender and/or sexuality is, in my view, not relevant – and if it becomes relevant I’ll mention it. If I’m not romantically or sexually involved with you, is it any of your business what gender(s) of people I’m attracted to, if any?

I’m not a fan of coming out, and in particular, the pressure on people to come out, the belief that if you aren’t out to everyone you know somehow you’re ashamed of yourself or inauthentic. People have their reasons for not being out, some of which I mentioned earlier, and it’s a valid choice to not be out, or only to certain people. Your own safety (in all senses) is the most important thing, not some sense that you “owe” people the “truth”. Yes, it would be great if we could all be completely open about who and what we are, but that’s not the world we live in.

What I’d really prefer is that people in general stop making assumptions, or at least put less moral weight on them – i.e., if I’m not what you thought I was, at least stop thinking that makes me lesser. I realise that would require a complete social and cultural revolution, but why not aim for the stars?

I’ve been trying to do this myself: not assume people’s gender, sexuality, physical ability, etc. It’s hard – it’s pretty engrained to assume all these things, but I try, and the more I try, the less difficult it gets. Maybe we could all just try a little bit more to assume a little bit less.

© bardofupton 2019