I have come out on a thousand different days, and most of the time I don’t even think about it. Except for the when I did – for the hours that I, like so many other LGBTQAI+ people, spent agonizing about the specifics. What word to say? What words to use this time? Like so many of my queer friends and family members, the descriptors that best suit me were not even contextually available the first time I wanted to speak them. I was 17-years-old before the time of queer and genderqueer and non-binary. That summer, I’d heard others declare themselves lesbian and butch and (proudly) baby dyke. Those words seemed so effortlessly cool, like the friend who I chose to come out to on a park bench at the liberal arts college where we were spending the summer.
I couldn’t find the words. I have no idea how many times I got up and perched on the edge of the handrail, or lay myself down on the ground. My friend remained seated for the duration of the ride. She was also 17, but knew a lot more than me. Her father was a professor, and she hailed from Philadelphia, where she took public transit to school. She knew what this conversation was about, but remained silent, so that I could find the words myself. I don’t even remember saying I’m gay. All I remember is that she said it was okay; that it was good, even, to declare who we are to the world. At that moment, I assumed that every time I came out would be such a blessing.
It wasn’t. Most people were not like my friend. They started their response with I love you, but they couldn’t help but insert their opinions. You know what they said. You’ve heard it. Maybe you’ve said it. You can’t know yet. It’s a phase. Are you sure? What will your parents think? You just haven’t met the right person of the opposite sex. As far as I know, people still say these things. Sometimes, they say things that are even worse.
And in so doing, they are not only harming an LGBTAQI+ person, they are coopting the moment of disclosure. Because it only took a few I don’t approve of your lifestyle’s for me to reformat how I came out to people. For years, I just didn’t. That seemed easiest for everyone. But even when I found the courage to come out again, I did so in a way that first and foremost took into consideration the feelings of straight people. I would smile knowingly when they asked if I had a boyfriend, or I would talk about an ex in an ambiguous/not-so-ambiguous way. I would gently employ first-person-plural pronouns when talking about the LGBTQAI+ community. I would give them all the information that they needed, so that when I finally said the words, they got to respond, Oh, I already know. I found that it went better if the other person got to feel enlightened. My coming out went best if we could act like it was joke.
In retrospect, I realize that I was doing the opposite of coming out. Because I was coming out for straight people. I was staying small. I was trying to make myself palatable to straight people. Real coming out, as my friend said, is declaring who you are, and how you want to be in the world. It is taking up the right amount of space. It is finding the power in your own story. Coming out is something queer people, myself included, do every day. Sometimes, it’s an act of defiance, but just as often, it’s an act of belonging.
A few years back, I got the shorthand haircut that, when paired with a carabineer, requires nothing to be said. This morning, on a college campus, it did its job. Across the quad, a gaggle young queers called to me. They wanted to acknowledge me, but mostly, they wanted to be seen. They wanted an older person to look at each of them, and say that they were good. I offered my blessing, along with some rainbow heart stickers. True coming out begets coming out.
The more I come out, the more I find that others come out to me; not just queer, but also as being in recovery, struggling with grief, or living with mental illness. The more I take up the right amount of space, the more I’ve found that there is enough space for the other. I am queer, yes, and also, as a white person I need to learn to listen better, and to work to be an ally to other groups of people who are seeking justice.
And perhaps most of all, the more I find power in telling my own story, the more I find power in the stories of others. Because while each of our stories is unique, there are also shared threads that bind us together. We have a common desire to see and be seen. We have a common need to be called beloved. And we have a common hope to build a community in which everyone can vulnerable, safe, and open with other.
And it starts with coming out.