It seems that it’s almost daily now that we’re hearing coming out stories. Anderson Cooper, Frank Ocean, now Sally Ride’s sexuality being discussed after her death. The conversation surrounding these public figures has been mixed, but I want to take a moment to reiterate my stance on the whole coming out fervor, which is basically that coming out is, as a whole, value-neutral. And in many cases it is actively harmful, perpetuates imperialist and capitalist systems, and silences those who are queer in unsanctioned ways.
There was some discussion on Twitter yesterday about the idea of #invitingin rather than coming out. I’m reminded again of Hasan El-Menyawi’s brilliant piece, “Activism from the Closet
,” in which he argues for coalition building in Egypt and elsewhere that focuses on bringing those with similar interests into the “closet” (envisioned as a safe space for community-building), rather than forcing queers out into a hostile public space. He describes an “expanding closet,” where unlikely coalitions form between all sorts of issue-focused groups until the closet encompasses most of society.
Part of why I love his idea so much is that it takes safety, individual expression, and community-building as a starting point, rather than starting from an inherently Western, white, middle-class idea of “gayness.” Those urging everyone to “come out” are often really saying, whether aware of it or not, “come into the gay space we have created, have Pride in the identities we recognize, fight for the issues we hold dear.” Before coming out, it’s important to ask what space we’re coming “out” into.
A requirement for entry into the out “gay community” is often affiliation with particular organizations and people, and advocacy for certain core issues. (Wedding bells, anyone?) These standards build an idea of gayness that’s centered around white, cis, middle class, US and European. As El-Menyawi points out, not everyone lives in a space where it’s safe to come out in that way. And beyond safety, not everyone identifies with the same culture, the same language, or the same issues. This kind of “coming out” privileges a particular narrative of identity formation and in doing so colonizes closets, discouraging creativity and encouraging particular group affiliation.
For many, this means coming out of a closet and into a prison.
If we take the closet itself as a starting point, we find that gender and sexual minorities form a thousand different intersecting communities, some built on gender or sexual identity and some along other axes. We find that the closet can be a place for idea sharing, collaboration, and hashing out the meaning of different identity terms. We find that there can be a joyous safety in sharing our brilliant ideas and forming unique relationships with our peers without having to first make those ideas and relationships fit for mainstream public consumption. We find that some are more comfortable holding particular identities and some are not, and that those who do claim an identity may use language to describe themselves that is not rooted in English-speaking mostly white capitalist American society and its values. Even those of us who are public about our queer identities may feel more comfortable weaving in and out of the closet, if the alternative is this one narrow version of “gay” or “LGBT” that does not include us. Those who value Pride and “being out” may shame or criticize us for shifting identities over a lifespan, changing our practices or our priorities. They may bully us into putting our time, energy, and money into causes that do not speak to us, and we may find more community around our other identities than around our gender or sexuality.
The question of whether or not to come out is a complex one, but I hope that these celebrity stories will encourage dialogue, conversation, and criticism around the coming out model. And I hope that everyone will remember that coming out is a personal choice, not something that is inherently good or bad, and not one to be made by other people. When I die, I don’t want to be a pawn for a movement with which I didn’t identify, or a token to stick up on a banner. I want to be celebrated for a life lived and not for the symbol that others want me to be.