[Content note: this post discusses anti-LGBTQIA+ bigotry, including violence and rape]
October 11th is National Coming Out Day. Started in America on the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, it is now an internationally recognised day of awareness for LGBTQIA+ people.
Coming out is a major life event for LGBTQIA+ people – one which nearly all will face, repeatedly. This post is primarily a guide for supporters of LGBTQIA+ people on the etiquette of National Coming Out Day, and on coming out in general.
Understand the dilemma presented to LGBTQIA+ people
For anyone whose experiences don’t fit the expected narrative of gender and/or sexuality, there is the dilemma of disclosure; and whilst coming out can be met with celebration and acceptance, all too often, this is not the experience. There are risks of violence, verbal abuse, accusations of ‘perversions’. Many teachers find that bigoted colleagues question their suitability to work with children. For LGBTQIA+ pupils, homophobic bullying is the second most common form of bullying in schools, and LGBTQIA+ young people form a massively disproportionate section of homeless youth.
However, non-disclosure is seen as inherently deceitful, which brings its own risks: the tropes of trans women as ‘traps’, or of non-heterosexual people as ‘secret perverts’ are not uncommon, and expose LGBTQIA+ individuals to risks of violence and abuse. Even supposed allies buy into the narrative that to be a ‘proper’ member of the LGBTQIA+ community, we must be ‘out and proud’ – despite the aforementioned risks. And yet, by contrast, being openly LGBTQIA+ is often derided as ‘flaunting it’ or ‘shoving it in people’s faces’.
Recognise the problematic assumptions with the concept of “coming out”
This double-edged sword exists only because of our assumed societal norms. The concept of coming out is centred around the assumptions that everyone is cisgender, heterosexual, and allosexual/romantic. That is, it is expected that our gender will match what doctors assigned us at birth, that we will experience attraction, both sexual and romantic, and that attraction will be towards the ‘opposite’ binary gender to us.
We might refute cissexism and heteronormativity individually – many people are fans of ‘Schroedinger’s gender/sexuality’ (that is, we cannot and do not know an individual’s sexuality or gender until and unless they tell us) – but the concept of coming out exists due to the widespread acceptance of these norms on a societal level.
Remember that coming out isn’t a one-time event
As the aforementioned assumptions of gender and sexuality are applied perpetually, each new situation necessitates a new assessment as to whether it is safe to come out. From correcting pronouns to inviting a same-gender partner to a staff social, there are a myriad of seemingly simple interactions in which LGBTQIA+ people must make the decision to come out or not, all of which hinge on heteronormativity and cissexism.
Even in situations which are relatively safe – free from physical violence, ‘corrective’ rape, or overt abuse – there are still other factors to be taken into consideration. For teachers, this may be fears over career prospects or parental complaints; for students, worries over bullying or ostracisation may heavily influence their choices.
“I just assume that everyone is transphobic until proven otherwise,” says one student, whilst a teacher says that she uses the PHSE curriculum and the anti-bullying policies to gauge how LGBTQIA+ friendly a new workplace is. “It’s exhausting,” she adds. There is a considerable emotional and mental toll involved in constantly gauging how open one is able to be on significant aspects of one’s life and identity, and in the ensuing conversations where a situation is deemed safe enough to come out.
Do not come out as straight, cis, or an ally
Coming out as straight, cisgender or as an ally co-opts the struggles that LGBTQIA+ individuals face in coming out. As we’ve discussed, the concept of coming out is resultant of heteronormative and cissexist assumptions: to come out is, ultimately, a correction of these assumptions when incorrectly made. As such, it is entirely unnecessary to come out as cisgender or heterosexual and detracts attention away from crucial issues of LGBTQIA+ oppression: the discovery that someone is cisgender or heterosexual will not be met with the discrimination that LGBTQIA+ people face on a frequent basis.
As for coming out as an ally, there is the implication that supporting LGBTQIA+ people is particularly note-worthy – known in certain activist circles as “grabbing cookies”; that is, the idea that affording even the most basic level of human decency and acceptance to LGBTQIA+ people is somehow worthy of applause. Logan Rivera explains being an ally as “being a parent at a sporting event [...] you know those people on the field and you care about them. But you are not playing the game, you are not the one who is going to get hurt. You have no stakes.” To recentre the focus of National Coming Out Day is “like a parent running out onto a field after a big game, ripping the trophy away from the child and [shouting], ‘LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! I WON! I WON THE GAME!’” Ultimately, allies should be lending voice to LGBTQIA+ issues, rather than co-opting them.
If you are cisgender and heterosexual, and wish to state your support for your LGBTQIA+ friends and peers on Coming Out Day, rather than co-opting a sensitive issue, why not try a message of support and celebration?
“Congratulations to everyone celebrating Coming Out Day today! Let’s work to ensure everyone is able to be open about their gender and sexuality, by fighting discrimination.”
Do not out someone without their explicit consent, or pressure someone to come out
Whilst many LGBTQIA+ people may use National Coming Out Day as a day of awareness, or as a springboard to a coming out of their own, it is imperative to remember that several others may feel unsafe, not ready or simply not willing to come out.
This does not invalidate them as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, nor does it demonstrate cowardice or a lack of pride. There are a whole host of reasons why an individual may not wish to disclose their gender and/or sexuality, and their decision should not need justification. To pressure them – or worse, to out them against their consent – undermines their assessment of the risks and emotional investment required in coming out.
It’s also crucial to remember that someone who appears to be widely open about their gender and/or sexuality may still desire to keep this discrete in certain circles: students who are out at school may not be out to their family; teachers who are out to colleagues may not wish to be out to students; staff who are out to SLT as a necessary precaution may not wish for this to be widely known. Thus, no assumptions should be made, however open a person may appear to be.
Remember, the onus should be on cisgender, heterosexual people to create safe spaces.