Coming Out: An Ongoing Series
“What was it like when you came out?” Some version of that question is one every member of the LGBTQ community will tell you they’ve been asked hundreds of times. Sometimes it’s prompted by others in their community, curious if any part of the person’s story mirrors their own or perhaps seeking a detail to bond over. Other times it’s asked by new friends or colleagues, learning of their sexuality for the first time.
The people and motives may vary, but this familiar flash of irony always strikes me. An irony that lives in the concept of a singular moment in which a queer person rips off their heterosexual cloak and mask, unveiling the person they’ve kept hidden away from the people closest to them. The truth is, there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of “coming out” moments throughout any queer person’s life.
I came out yesterday at the grocery store. I was checking out, anxiously watching the cashier scan the items I had hurriedly thrown in my basket… I was running late. She picked up a bottle of green juice and asked if it was any good. “I’m not sure; it’s actually for my partner,” I told her. We made small talk about some juice cleanse her neighbor was on, and she handed me my receipt. “Well, he’s very lucky to have such a thoughtful girlfriend.” I smiled and responded, “She, actually! Have a good one!” before grabbing my bag and rushing out to my car. I noticed her face flush before I turned to walk away – an innocent reaction in comparison to countless other encounters I’ve experienced.
This isn’t the story anyone looks for when they ask how I came out. I assume most people are curious about the very first time I told someone: perhaps anticipating a monumental moment where I revealed my authentic self to my family members. Truthfully, that coming-out story is rather anticlimactic in the sense that it resembles many other ordinary conversations with my parents.
Ten years ago, I was at my parents’ house for dinner. My dad had just poured my mom and me a glass of wine when I asked if we could go into the living room so I could share something with them. My dad joked, “You’re pregnant!” to which I awkwardly laughed and answered with a drawn-out “Nooo.” I had broken up with my boyfriend of four years a couple of months prior, so it wasn’t too far fetched. I had planned to wing the conversation since I felt unsure what to say, other than I was seeing a girl that I really liked. At that point, I was pretty uncertain how to label my sexuality—was I bisexual, gay, pansexual, demisexual? A few Google searches before that night only left me with identify paralysis. I knew I wanted to avoid explaining myself when I had only just begun processing what this person and our relationship meant.
I began with a casual “I met someone I really like… we’ve been seeing each other for a few weeks now, and I really enjoy spending time with them.” I scanned both their faces as I continued, “It feels like it’s heading in a serious direction, so I’d love for you to meet her.” I paused only for a second before my dad responded with, “Invite her to dinner Saturday. We’d love to meet her.” I was taken aback at his not skipping a beat. He proceeded to ask me her name, how we met, and what her personality was like while my mom remained quiet. She seemed caught off guard but listened intently. After responding to their questions, the conversation ended with a hug from each of them. My mom added, “We love you, support you, and just want you to be happy.”
I sometimes feel guilty sharing this story with other LGBTQ persons, as I’m acutely aware this is not how these conversations often go. I’ve had friends kicked out of their homes, sent to conversion therapy camps, exiled from their families, or told it’s “just a phase.” Most of these reactions are rooted in projected shame, and none of these reactions ever result in the person “changing their mind.”
Lack of excitement aside, coming out to my parents is typically the story I lead with…mainly in an attempt to satisfy what I anticipate most people want to hear. And while my parents responded with openness and acceptance, other coming-out moments have left me feeling objectified and reduced in the face of other people’s discomfort. I’ve been tokenized by employers, have had my relationships fetishized, and even had people force themselves on me. Those are the encounters I consider before sharing my sexuality with anyone. The first question I always ask myself is: am I safe?
While I’m not typically met with violence, discrimination and microaggressions are rooted in many responses I hear. You don’t look gay. You haven’t met the right man. How do you know? I had no idea! Most of these statements are rejections of my reality, and all imply a similar message – youdon’t fit into my perception of a queer stereotype.
When someone is uncomfortable with my sexuality, they frequently attempt to ease their discomfort by asking me questions about how I know, when did I know, if I’ve explored heterosexual relationships, if yes – how many? It’s funny how someone presumes complete access to you after learning a small detail about your life. These rapid-fire questions usually leave me feeling vulnerable and subjected to further judgment. The truth is, some of the answers to those questions live in painful memories, years of debilitating secrecy, and a fog of confusion. And while I rarely respond with anger or aggression, what I really want to say is: it’s not my job as a queer person to help you understand the complexities of my sexuality, its evolution, or to further educate you.
My coming out moments and the conversations around my sexuality lie in spectrums of empowerment and shame, support and tears, love and distaste. Today I steer clear of labels and big “revelation” moments. Truthfully, it was always lost on me: this concept of “coming out.” I’ve never heard a heterosexual person announce their sexuality, and I’ve certainly never heard someone ask them how they knew, when they knew, or if they’ve tried anything else.
Amidst the chaos and uncertainty life brings, many people crave a sense of “normalcy” to silence the noise. And while there have inevitably been times of stress and anxiety in which I’ve wished for a more “conventional” life, I always remember a comment from my therapist. “Normal” is a setting on a washing machine, not some ideal state of living.