Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

09 April 2013

Out?

The last time someone came out to me was Friday morning.

People come out to me more often than you might think, actually. These are students, mostly: young people who are working through a lot of things. For many of them, I am the first person over thirty that they've told, and they are seeking advice or support or sympathy.

The so-called closet (I am not fond of the term) is obviously a complicated device and I am careful whenever anyone decides to tell me that he or she is coming out of it.

I have a number of contradictory thoughts on this topic, however. I don't believe that people ought to be compelled to tell me they are queer in some way, but then, last term I was teaching a course called Sex & Drama, and I had two gay – or somewhat gay – students who never told the (apparently entirely heterosexual) class that they were gay. These students never publicly identified, even for the purpose of the course and its subject material, with the gay characters in the performances we examined. I thought it all so strange!

But, of course, from what I know about social pressures at this College – they are fairly intense and rather socially conservative – I can assume these students had a good reason for their silence. And they are entitled to that silence.

In regard to celebrities announcing their queerness, I deplore the pressure put on these figures to "come out". Most of these people are out. They are carrying on relationships, have kids, their families all know, and (to put even more fine a point on it) we know. We know they are gay or queer and we don't even know them. So to whom are they "coming out"? It seems to me fairly clear that the answer to that question is "straight people". And why ought that to be important to any of us?

More to my purposes for writing this today, you will have noticed that I am hedging my bets on calling celebrities or my students "gay". I worry about a term like this because I am not entirely sure of what gay means, and I think it is important to recognize that we don't all experience identifications in the same way.

When I had the big sexuality conversation with a former student to whom I am very close, he assumed that I already knew what he was about to tell me, and so he said something like "well, I figure you know what I am gonna say, so...". And the truth is: I did and I didn't. My experience of being gay is one thing – I experienced it as a deeply ingrained piece of me that I wanted to hide from my Christian parents, and now I experience it as a way that I live my life: a public choice I make on a daily basis to celebrate my own queerness, to seek out other queer people, to consume as much queer culture as possible. But what did being gay or queer or bisexual mean to my former student? I didn't know the answer to that and knew I didn't.

I'm seventeen in this photograph. Lifetimes ago.
One of the troubles with the narrative of "coming out" is that it assumes that we all come out the same, and that once "out" we are all the same - that we've all come out of something nebulous and dark and repressive and now we're all out and proud and happy. But "coming out" is just a story. (The standard version goes more or less like this: I was born gay, I struggled with my gayness all through my adolescence and I felt very conflicted, silenced, and filled with self-hatred through most of my teenage years, but it gets better, and now I am somewhat of an adult and I can tell you that "this is who I am" and I am happy.)

When we fit our lives to the "the story", the story itself takes over. For myself: I don't believe that I was born gay, I didn't struggle with my gayness all through my adolescence, and I was very in love with a young woman when I was in high school. Oh but who can remember? The truth is that the story takes over. We can't escape it. I started high school twenty years ago, and "the story" is so much a part of our collective consciousness of what it means to be a gay person in the 21st century United States that I can no longer remember what I was thinking back then. I can only remember the story.

So now when someone tells me that she is gay, I want to hear what that is like for her, what it means to her, how she has bent her life around that concept.... Or not! There are so many of us. I know so many different queer people – and they live such different lives. The next time someone tells me he or she is gay, I want to begin to respond with something like Welcome to the family, but tell me more. I want to know how you think about queerness and how you experience that queerness.