The Tyranny of Coming Out

13 May

I was recently asked via formspring whether I’d come out to my parents, and if so, how it went. The answer is both simple and complex*, but before I get to that, let me start at the beginning, with my philosophy of coming out in general.

In brief, I think coming out is a necessary evil. In not-so-brief, I think coming out is a tyrannical byproduct of a ruling-by-exception culture of sexuality. We need to reevaluate our blind acceptance of the necessity of sitting down to explain romantic gender preferences to friends/family/co-workers/entitled strangers. When was the last time you saw a straight person forced to submit to a battery of questions about his or her sex life by people who claim to love him or her?

The idea that I, as a queer person, owe an explanation of my sexual preferences to anyone (be that my parents, my coworkers or the “gay community”) is flawed. Yes, I understand that education is a key part of any social justice movement. Yes, I understand that people who bother to get to know awesome queer people like myself are statistically less likely to commit hate crimes and more likely to vote for aforementioned social justice. But I do not exist to serve as a “teachable moment” for straight people.

The awesome “this ain’t livin’” blog has much to say on the teaching role that disadvantaged groups are so often thrust into by well-meaning (or not-so-well-meaning) privileged people:

“There is a common expectation in social justice movements that people experiencing oppression should educate other people about their oppression; that, in fact, one the things they need to do, as activists, is to use themselves and their experiences as teachable moments. This even as people living in marginalised bodies protest that one of the key parts of activism is self education, and that, in fact, people who want to learn things should seek out that information on their own rather than demanding it.

So while I get that every person who goes through the formal “coming out” process makes it easier for the next person, I still can’t find the motivation for making an example out of myself, particularly when doing so can be dangerous, both physically and otherwise.

*Stay tuned for the actual answer. And feel free to ask me more random questions via formspring, Twitter, email (adventuresinmediocrity at gmail dot com)or Facebook. I promise to answer them all, so long as they are not too creepy.

18 Responses to “The Tyranny of Coming Out”

  1. Arvind May 13, 2010 at 3:47 pm #

    Great post! I try as much as I can to learn by listening rather than demanding that any marginalized party owes me an education on their plight. But yeah, it is pretty exasperating to see how often privileged folks do that.

  2. Sarah May 13, 2010 at 5:28 pm #

    Thanks for stopping by, Arvind! I know that most people who express curiosity are not actually doing it out of any malice, and I used to be extremely patient explaining every little thing about what it means to be bisexual (which basically meant I was explaining what it means to be a lesbian, because no one cares about the details of my het relationships) but I no longer have the patience. I do often find myself asking a lot of questions of people from different backgrounds than myself, and wonder sometimes if I’m too forward – I like to think that we’re all doing our best.

  3. Abhishek May 13, 2010 at 6:39 pm #

    I felt something similar advocating for bicycles as transportation. My blog sounded like an angry rant for the longest time but it was necessary to show people the real picture too. In my experience, self education is rare. Most people are tolerant on some issues (if I can lump bicycle advocasy and gay rights as isssues under the same umbrella). Bicycle commuting haters are not as organized and don't have a common voice (church) like gay rights opposers do. 

  4. Sarah May 14, 2010 at 12:10 am #

    I think bicycle advocacy and gay rights absolutely fall under a similar umbrella if you think of it in a "going against the grain in a way that challenges every aspect of the way society/the world is set up" kinda way.

  5. Kalvyn May 14, 2010 at 9:01 am #

    I was, until very recently, in a polyamorous relationship involving my wife and I, and another couple. I was in favor of coming out. My wife on the other hand, was very much in favor of secrecy. There is a lot of prejudice towards relationships involving more than two people, very much akin to the stigma of gays.After much soul searching, the other woman involved and I decided to dissolve our marriages and pursue our own relationship together. We both would have preferred to continue the fourway, but our spouses were insanely jealous of us, and never let us be together, even after we allowed them sexual time alone.The kicker is, my now ex-wife has been telling every one that I was "cheating on her with her best friend" and they think I'm scum. Yes, we were doing it behind their backs. But we weren't doing anything behind closed doors that hadn't started out in the open. It's hardly cheating when we all four have been sleeping together on and off for five years. Now, I'm fully prepared to tell everyone the truth of the matter to exonerate myself, except that my wife wants it to remain secret because of public prejudice, and if I tell people what the situation REALLY was, I risk further retaliation on her part. I'm losing everything; my house, my job (my wife and I work in the same business) and my reputation, all to protect her privacy about our lifestyle. It hardly seems worth it.Polyamorous relationships are decidedly tricky, to be sure. But one thing good has come from this. I still have a woman who loves me for who am really am, and at least we know the truth.

  6. Sarah May 14, 2010 at 2:29 pm #

    Oh yes, polyamory is yet another form of relationship that is not accepted by most societies. It's unfortunate but true, and probably very complicated by a general unwillingness of friends/family to wrap their noggins around your feelings of pain.A friend of mine who is involved in a polyamorous relationship recommended a book to me, called "The Ethical Slut ," and I'd recommend it to anyone interested or involved in a poly relationship. Even for people who aren't interested in poly relationships, it's a great resource for ideas on how to deal with feelings of jealousy, and loving without restrictions."Yes, we were doing it behind their backs. But we weren't doing anything behind closed doors that hadn't started out in the open. It's hardly cheating when we all four have been sleeping together on and off for five years."I don't know that you're fully absolved of the cheating label. If your wife removed her permission from the situation, then it became nonconsensual nonmonogamy rather than consensual monogamy. Either way, it sounds like an awful, unenviable situation, and my heart goes out to you both.Let me know if you'd like to borrow the book if you're in the Portland area, or I would be happy to mail it to you if you shoot me an email.

  7. Kalvyn May 15, 2010 at 9:35 am #

    I'm not absolved of the cheating label. I am a liar and a cheater. I admit it, and I will have to live with that the rest of my life.

  8. Sarah May 16, 2010 at 3:28 am #

    I wouldn't go too hard on yourself. If we lived in a society that was more accepting of all the different forms of love, neither you nor your wife would be in this situation. You don't have to shoulder the responsibility alone. And, just so you know, I'm here if you want a sympathetic ear — either on here or IRL.

  9. Hattie May 23, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

    I'm watching a lesbian relationship break up, this one involving kids. The desire of one partner for untrammeled sexual expession makes anything resembling stable family life for the kids impossible. Worth thinking about for anyone who is into exploring their sexuality as their #1 aim in life.

  10. Yonmei May 24, 2010 at 6:51 am #

    Well, I agree with you that coming out is forced on us because we live in a heterosexist/homophobic society, and that's a bad thing.OTOH, because we live in a heterosexist/homophobic society, the alternative to coming out is continuing to lie to parents, friends, and family. And I can't see that as a good thing. Obviously one may not be particularly close to parents or family members (I never came out formally to a bunch of relatives I see maybe once every two or three years: I just didn't care enough about them to bother). Obviously it would be better if people didn't assume that if they don't know your sexual orientation you must be straight. But they do, and I don't want to be assumed to be straight.

  11. Sarah May 24, 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    I don't think that the only alternative to coming out is straight-up lying. What about a less-formal coming out, like, say, using the word "partner" if you are in a relationship, or casually using the non-het pronoun while discussing dating prospects, just like a hetero person might do? I'd like our society to normalize the coming out process so it's not a big deal. Of course, I'd like a lot of ridiculous things like world peace and free bagels.In reality, that sort of casual coming-out must be predicated on a relationship with a fairly sophisticated party where one would be discussing these things as a normal course. If one does not have that sort of relationship with the party, then formal coming-out is likely to be awkward and painful for all involved. That's where I agree with you — if you're not particularly close, it's not your responsibility to inform them of your sexual preferences.I guess I'm lucky in the fact that the people I care about most, I'm close enough to to where I didn't need to formally "come out." Our relationships and politics were/are such that sexual preferences were as casually discussed as favorite mocha flavors or weekend plans.The workplace, OTOH, is a whole different animal. In my state, we can still be fired for being gay, or trans, or bisexual. Many of us lie through omission every weekday to protect our livelihoods. It's a fucking horrible situation, made worse by people constantly insisting that it's our duty to the cause or to ourselves or to some imagined other to come out at work, risking hostility or worse. So I come from a place of protectionism when I question the idea that coming out is somehow my duty. That's like saying that rape prevention is the duty of rape victims. Fuck that. It's the duty of rapists to not rape in the first goddamn place, and it's the duty of heteronormative society to not be assholes about the damn dirty gays.

  12. Sarah May 24, 2010 at 3:14 pm #

    @Hattie For sure, children complicate the situation. It's amazing to me how much people can continue to put their own individualistic needs before those of their partners, children, parents, family, society, etc. I think it's at least partly indicative of our culture's selfish ways. Sure, we all want to be happy, but at what price?

  13. Feuilly May 29, 2010 at 9:00 pm #

    This seems like the typical situation where they try to delineate things in terms of privilege, oppression and certain marginalized classes.Ie. It's considered unfair for a gay person to have to explain their situation, but it's perfectly acceptable to expect someone that doesn't like sports, dancing, drinking, techno music, gluten, Twilight, Sarah Palin to explain theirs.Explaining your own situation and views is a fact of life, and everyone is expected to engage in it constantly.Straight people being subjected to a battery of questions about their sexuality from their parents isn't exactly unheard of, either.

  14. thephotoman June 4, 2010 at 2:15 pm #

    "Straight people being subjected to a battery of questions about their sexuality from their parents isn't exactly unheard of, either."And that battery of questions can be traumatic. There's a reason I can't even fathom pursuing a relationship.

  15. Sarah November 20, 2010 at 4:37 pm #

    Naturally, it can be pretty weird/traumatic/embarrassing to be subjected to a battery of questions from anyone on the particulars of what should be a private relationship. Once you reach adulthood (or some other stage of your life where your parents aren't heavily involved in supervising you), these questions tend to taper off – unless you're queer. Then they continue, and they come from all sides – colleagues, people you meet at boring networking cocktail parties, some guy who sees you sitting with your partner at a coffee shop, the checkout lady at your local MegaMart.

  16. Sarah October 11, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    Reblogged this on Rainbow Reverie.

  17. Alta November 16, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

    Hi my loved one! I want to say that this post is awesome, nice written and include almost all important infos.
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