Those who celebrate Christmas know it as that just-over-a month-long period of frantic shopping and festive tunes everywhere you go. A time for family, and for feasts. Unfortunately, many others know it as a yearly burden, especially sexual and gender minorities: “What offensive thing will Grandma say this year? How do I answer my relatives’ pressing and invasive life questions? What should I avoid saying when I answer those questions? How do I hide my identity so I can survive another year?” While these types of family gatherings can be the setting in which we come out (intentionally or not), that’s not exactly what I’m here to discuss. I’m talking about the part everyone forgets about: your whole life after that point.
Often times, you hear cisgender and heterosexual people ask queer people about their “Coming Out Story,” as if coming out is a singular event, one small chapter of our lives. While that initial event definitely deserves its own chapter, there’s more to it. In a culture that assumes people as straight and cis and latches on to gay/straight and boy/girl binaries, openly queer people come out over and over again. Forever. Every time we see another family member out of the know, or make new friends, or get a new job. Basically, any time there’s any change of scenery. One way or another, sooner or later, it will come up.
My “Coming Out Story” is pretty tame. During dinner with my family, I took advantage of a pause in the conversation to tell them I’m bisexual. My parents were surprised, but assured me that this changed nothing because I am their daughter and they love me. How lucky am I, right? Not always. It eventually got messier. As my sexuality began to come up on social media, any extended family with Facebook slowly figured it out. I was lucky enough to have one aunt message me, informing me I had all of her support and pride. I appreciate that gesture deeply, as the remainder of my family gave me radio silence. In my family, that usually means they’re not cool with it. Some became more snarky when they spoke to me; others made more of an effort not to speak to me. Admittedly, this reaction confirmed my decision to stay in the closet with anyone not on the internet (namely, my grandparents). On the other side, my grandmother has outwardly expressed her opposition to same-sex marriage on more than one occasion. Few things have hurt me more than listening to her homophobic rant while I sat silently out of fear. The rest of my family, who I am out to, made no effort to stop her, no effort to spare me from her hurtful words. Conversations like this have helped me formulate my overall extended family policy of “don’t tell them until there’s a girl in my life to talk about.”
As not only a queer person, but as a social activist, I’m always a little worried about making new friends. The social views that they hold are very important to me. I need them to respect me as a woman, as a queer person, as a feminist. Anyone who’s seen the decals on my laptop or my backpack can pretty easily figure out where I stand on these issues. So every time I make a new connection, I’m on guard. I have to test the waters. It sucks finding someone you think is really cool, and then hearing them say something that instantly ruins it for you. Sometimes I feel comfortable calling that statement out, sometimes I don’t. When I don’t, that’s another act of closeting myself. For the sake of my own safety, I have to hide who I am.
Coming out is already tricky and the workplace can make it even trickier. When you’re meeting people in a space that doesn’t necessarily make them like-minded to you, it’s a lot more likely that offensive comments and slurs will slip into conversation. Whether that ever happens or not, you still can’t help but wonder what their views are on queer people. And what about disclosure? You’ve only just met these people and you only spend time with them when you’re paid to, so when do you tell them these things, if at all? Are my bosses homophobic enough that they’ll find a way to fire me if they find out? What do I say when they ask if I have a boyfriend, when I currently have a girlfriend? Even the most innocent of questions can make your stomach lurch. You’re forced to make a lot of fast decisions in conversation, and sometimes you end up regretting those decisions. It can be very stressful revealing these elements of our identity, especially if poorly received. There is a fine line between revealing too much and hiding who you are, and it can be hard for us to walk it.
To all the allies out there, the main bit advice I’d like to impart is to do your best not to make assumptions about anyone’s sexual or gender identity. It can be difficult to train ourselves out of the habits we’ve been conditioned into, but it can make a huge difference to the queer individuals that you meet. The littlest, most seemingly innocent things you say, such as using certain pronouns or asking if they have an (opposite sex) S.O., can be really awkward, uncomfortable, or painful for these people. In my own life, I have been making an effort to use they/them pronouns with people until I know for sure their gender and pronouns. Another thing to keep in mind is that some people are completely open and out in certain sects of their life, but completely closeted in others. We must all be mindful of their privacy and respectful of their identity. Coming out is not a single event, but an entire journey. Everyone is on their own road to living an out and open life. Acknowledge and appreciate it – that road is bumpier than you might know.
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