Rebecca, graduated from MA(hons) Religious Studies in 2014 and MSc in Religion and Society (Sociology) in 2018, she now works at the University of Aberdeen.
National Coming Out Day was founded back in 1988 and is celebrated every year on October 11th. In this blog I want to discuss the pros and cons of “coming out”. There are many to consider and this is a topic that exceeds the limit of a blog. For that reason I am going to focus on four aspects of coming out.
As the purpose for Coming Out Day was for raising awareness, liberation and visibility of the LGBTQI+ community this is the first “pro” of NCOD. At a time when the fear of the AIDS pandemic was spreading, a homophobic gaze cast across the queer community. Coming out could be seen as an act of rebellion to the narrow minded and fearful dominance of heteronormativity. To this day coming out can allow for liberation against the constraints of societal expectations. It is the act of coming out which brings me to the first “con”.
The very idea of "coming out" suggests that there is a default normal that we need to come out against. There is a constructed societal expectation to be straight and coming out is seen as the alternative. Which brings into question - to what extent we need to “come out”? Am I expected to come out to my immediate family, my extended family, my friends, my colleagues, every time I check into a hotel with my wife? Coming out is an act we spend our lives repeating. I’m gay, I’m a lesbian, I’m bisexual, I’m pansexual, I’m asexual, I’m a trans woman, I’m a trans man, I’m non-binary, I’m gender fluid, I’m a bear, I’m a femme, I’m a combination of…
We are raised with a delusion of a binary understanding of sex and gender. To live and survive within this we reduce ourselves and others to labels. It is this reason why I personally prefer to use the term “queer”. It is possibly easy for me to say, “I am a lesbian”. However, by acknowledging the term queer as an umbrella term for “not heteronormative” the inclusion and solidarity of the term "queer" provides safety to those who either struggle to define themselves or who simply don’t want to, and those who don’t feel a need to provide an explanation. I’ve heard a lot of people from the LGBTQI+ community who think the word “queer” is derogative (having grown up in a home where this term was often used as a homophobic slur I understand this) but further exploration into the origins of the word highlights the originality of the term queer as a synonym for gay was in the gay community, with the reclaiming of the word in more recent years. Not gay as in happy but queer as in f*ck you.
Judith Butler, whose work is known around the world, states:
“To claim that this is what I am is to suggest a provisional totalization of this ‘I’. But if the ‘I’ can so determine itself, then that which it excludes in order to make the determination remains constitutive of the determination itself (2008, p167)."
So, what else does national coming out day do that is good for the community?
Promotion and visibility of the LGBTQI+ community provides an increase in support and awareness of the struggles and oppression. Promoting support for the LGBTQI+ community then ripples through society through dedicated days like NCOD. Larger institutions may change a logo to include a rainbow. On the surface is a small and often considered token gesture. However, the universal symbol of a rainbow is one that has an impact. As more companies do this, their procedures are challenged, and their equality and diversity are scrutinised for evidence of their support. You may show your support on days like NCOD thorough a Facebook post or a tweet, and then your friend’s younger sibling, your cousin, your colleague sees that– and they recognise themselves and/or become an ally. Awareness and understanding leads to support and inclusion. Schools may celebrate national coming out day and although someone may be too scared to come out at school, that very support shows an acceptance, a crack down on homophobic bullying, a challenge for queer teachers etc. The act of solidarity and support, no matter how small, is a step towards a more inclusive society.
This brings me onto the final con I wish to discuss. The simple fact that coming out is not safe. We are far from a world where we can all lead our lives safely from prejudice, discrimination and violence. Coming out can be dangerous - for some more than others. Days like National Coming Out Day may seem blind to this or enforce a pressure but that is not what the day was intended for. As a cis-gendered, white, gay woman, when I came out there was confusion, and arguments, and friends who left. So, I could say – come out, it isn’t that hard, I got through it! Which is no different than hearing someone say, “my gay friend doesn’t think that’s homophobic”. However, this narrow-minded take is one that is dangerous, one that reduces the community to ONE experience, and one which suggests that one member of the LGBTQI+ community represents everyone's experiences. This completely disregards the individual experience and the intersectional impact of others. Coming out is something personal, something hard, something that is unique to the individual.
Note from author: After completing this blog, I read it to my wife for her opinion and explained that this would be shared on the Universities social channels. I casually mentioned that I would request for it to be anonymous so that any feedback there may be isn’t directed at me, a current staff member at the university whose details are easily found on the website. My wife laughed and pointed out the powerful irony that an openly gay woman writing about coming out, I am still guarded and constantly aware and prepared for the impact of coming out… even to strangers via a blog.