Coming Out Easy

We were talking about gender, and the difference in friendship rules for boys and girls. One of the girls asked if anyone else had the experience of their parents allowing their sons to invite female friends home with no questions asked, but if she wanted to have a male friend visit she’d be asked if he was a potential marriage partner.

This group of high school youth from Springfield were participating in a training on how to facilitate dialogue about identities. Through the fall and hopefully beyond, these young leaders will guide their peers from high schools around the region in exploring identity differences and similarities, with the goal of making connections and improving relationships with each other.

I recognized her question as the moment to ‘put my two cents in’ and come out.

It’s been years since the awkward days of experimentation – trying to figure out when and how to tell family, friends, students, colleagues . . . let alone juggling the ethics of timing and with whom it was even necessary or morally right to name the explicit label.

For many years, my strategy has simply been to ‘just be’ and trust that my sexual orientation will come up – or not – in an organic way. I decided to act as if everyone already knows – that they can perceive the evidence and make the reasonable assumption for themselves. Generally, this has worked well.

It still happens, though, that there’s a first time one says it in a new setting, with new people.  “Coming Out” doesn’t happen just once, but repeatedly, over and over again, because many people remain subtly homophobic and prefer to assume a person is heterosexual until informed otherwise.

The persistence of homophobia means there is always a bit of charge when one comes out in a new context.

The realization is always visceral. We were participating in a student-designed activity on gender. She asked and I recognized, in this group of bright and funny young people – some of whom I’ve known for a few months now but others who I was meeting for the first time – that this was the moment.

“It’s not the same thing,” I said, “but there’s a similarity. When you’re gay, the person you’re bringing home doesn’t match the gender your parents expect. Everyone always knew I was a lesbian, but no one knew what to say about it. This adds a whole different layer to growing up.”

No one responded directly – the time for that team was over and we needed to turn to the next team’s activity. In the next few minutes, as the conversation moved to another topic, every single one of those young people found a way to make eye contact with me. Their acknowledgment was simple and clear: accepted.

Facilitation Training: Identity Dialogues
South Hadley High School, South Hadley MA

7 thoughts on “Coming Out Easy”

  1. Quite an interesting experience shared here. Can’t help but wonder how this constant coming out addresses the ingrained heteronormativity within the person coming out as well. As different situations require a reaffirmation of one’s identity for others, there may also be that internal reaffirmation that is needed to fully integrate it into the self on the road to acceptance.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    Jeffrey

  2. I don’t think people are being subtly homophobic by considering everyone heterosexual unless told so. This is just a social norm and tradition. It’s an assumption because the majority of people are heterosexual so it’s logical to assume where the majority is represented. The witch hunt is an example in history that backed up this tradition by making any activity that reduced or threatened procreation punishable.
    An article we read in class by Danby described heteronormativity and the fact that homonormativity didn’t exist. Heteronormativity is the assumptions that people will grow up to get married and raise a family. It’s the assumptions of what is normal in society, the article states it’s like the assumption that everyone sleeps and eats. Women’s social pressure to stay home and raise a child is almost force. Deviating from this path and choosing homosexuality is looked down by not only society but the institutions like church, state, even maybe schools and families.
    Most states grant benefits to heterosexual couples who fulfill this happy ever after known as marriage. Schools instill this by making most things gender specific the girl gets the pink objects and the boy they blue. This happens in the home as well from birth parents try to mold their children into the gender identity they think they should be. This is not just in regards to who you should bring home but what you should do for a living.
    Now try to define what homonormativity would be? It’s hard to define because there is no set normal activity for homosexuals. They are normal people and some would find it hard to pick them out in a crowd. They can raise a family just like any other, or choose a childless life. The difference is that they are not allowed to get married in certain places.
    This tradition, gender specific activities, and heteronormativity makes coming out so shocking. It’s just not expected because without procreation there would be no future. Perhaps that is why so many institutions and people try to be what they think normal should be. This guarantees them some acceptance and social power. I don’t think they are intending to be homophobic or even that they are, it’s just a result of history and traditions put in place to keep humanity alive.
    On another note I think GSA is a great group many schools have to bring these two groups of people together. One day there will be equal marriage rights helping to close the divide. In an ideal world heteronormativity wouldn’t exist because people would have more of a choice in what they want to do with their life. Maybe one day everyone will have to come out and define themselves everyday because the norm will be broken in time, with groups and media power of acceptance.

  3. Hi Jeffrey,

    I’ve been thinking about your comment. Also, a friend used this blog entry in her teaching to make a similar point: does the act of coming out do more to reinforce heteronormativity than it does to counter it?

    For myself, I can recall when coming out was very much an act of self-affirmation: This is who I am! At some point in my conscious experience this shifted, roughly after I’d come out to a few different classes of Gen X college students, approximately 15 years after coming out politically and personally to family and friends, coworkers, etc in my mid- and late-twenties. It just didn’t matter so much to me anymore. Now, my coming out is motivated more by the desire to be an example to queer youth and allies: hopefully a good and encouraging one 🙂

    Is your experience different? When I first read your comment I thought, hmm, he knows something I don’t!

  4. This blog entries really touches my heart because I have so many friends who have struggled with their sexual orientation, and continue to do so with every new journey they begin and every new person they have in their life. Telling your family and friends is scary in itself, and a huge hurdle to overcome, but people don’t realize that coming out is something that is relived multiple times because they have to come out to new people that enter their lives. The fact that being homosexual is assumed unless informed otherwise shows that the social norm is to be heterosexual. In the economics class I am taking, we talked about “heteronormativity”. This is the idea that people are expected to follow the norms of society, such as marry someone of the opposite sex, have children, raise a family, have the husband go out into the workforce, and have the woman stay in the home and care for the children and the household. People that step out of this norm have negative consequences, for instance single mothers and homosexuals. They do not get the benefits and ease that a married heterosexual couple would in this society. Although people think our country is about equality, it is not. Some people are not accepting of all lifestyles and sexualities. These traditions and mindsets, such as women being responsible for reproduction and childcare in the home, and heterosexual marriage, have been ingrained in our mind throughout history and it is a very difficult thing to do to break through those ideals that some people in our society so strongly agree with and act upon.

  5. @Steph-
    Glad to see these comments here, as well as your continued thinking on them.
    Do you recall the cultural item “I am woman, hear me roar!”? Does that mean that a woman who does not roar, or is not a feminist, or even wears a burka, is less a woman?
    Indulge me to play the advocatus diaboli for a moment, but doesn’t one’s feeling that one has to “come out” again and again mean that one is setting oneself apart from heteronormativity, which does not need to say anything at all? Would somebody African American need to state they were black, or just go about their lives? What about a woman (you, for example) – do you need to walk into a room and proclaim yourself to be female? How about American, somebody in a wheelchair, or a recovering alcoholic? Their topical issues may arise, but they don’t have to — let people draw their own conclusions by watching or listening or engaging with me.
    Indulge me this — does a self-affirmation necessitate an opposition, or could it instead so seamlessly exist that what one accepts as normal is considered that way without having to take any stand whatsoever? I do not need to proclaim I have dogs, unless it comes up in conversation — I move about my day without thinking people would or would not feel or act on knowing (or not) on this knowledge.
    This issue is part of the mainstreaming of gay culture (if such a thing exists) as normal vs. radical faeries and such who will stand up and say “we are different, and that is good.” Very complex issues for a post, and I am really glad to have this opportunity to play with them. I suppose how one will come down on this question will do away with the need to mention “gay” or “lesbian” this or that, rather than just “this” or “that.”
    Hmm, wonder what research and theory in these issues would look like (or rather feel like), as I do not really engage in them.
    Jeffrey

  6. This post was interesting to read. I am currently enrolled in a class that has become eye-opening in this topic. I go about my daily life and prior to this course, never thought about homosexuals or heterosexuals any differently. As we got more involved in class discussions, we talked about how homosexuals have to come out again and again. Why is this? I asked myself why heterosexual is the norm? Why should a person have to clarify what they are? Then I realized that this issue is because society has made it this way. It upsets me to think that the pressure related to coming out has to be endured. As times change and more states accept gay marriages, I hope these pressures will diminish and an equal playing field will be created. Everyone should be an equal member of society and there should be no reason for anyone to blend it.

    We should be accepting of differences and embracing them, not asking for people to conform and blend in!

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