A friend of mine, who is queer and Latino, and I were talking this past weekend about the choice of coming out. Though he founded the GSA at his predominately Chican@ high school, and as a first generation college student has been highly involved in queer groups on his campus, he has never come out to his father, nor to his grandparents who he has lived with for most of his young life. He talked about the different reasons he felt that coming out to certain members of his family was too difficult or unnecessary–he rarely speaks to his father, and the religious and cultural convictions of older generations are things he doesn’t feel the desire to resist or to disrespect. We talked about his choices in coming out as compared to my own as a queer man of color from a middle-class background. What his story forcefully reminded me is that there are more ways to be politically active, and to challenge the communities of which we are a part, than simply by revealing our own queer identities.
As queer man who is out to his family, friends, co-workers and students, the process of coming it is one for which I have had the privilege of receiving much support. Even so, I have seen and experienced firsthand the unequal opportunities for visibility to which different queer people are able to lay claim, and the complications this creates for our relationships and communities. Whereas my own family met my coming out with some reluctance and shame, other family members with less class status who came out were excommunicated. In high school I was sexually harassed by some queer men when they caught me alone, then ridiculed and attacked by the same men when we met in public settings. I’ve had many sexual and romantic partners who were not out to family or friends, and who lied about our relationship in ways which were detrimental to its health, and unfair to myself as their partner. And I’ve known countless queer men who have involved themselves in physically and emotionally abusive relationships with partners of all genders, and justified their participation through their not being able to come out.
I think the decision to come out is one which none of us should feel pressured to make, especially when there are more factors to account for than our individual comfort. Homelessness, violence, alienation, unemployment, and the fracturing of families and communities which depend on each other for economic and social support, are realities that queer people face everyday, ones which the risk of coming out is not always worth. That being said, I myself have faced a great deal of mistreatment and disrespect as the result of other members of my community not being able to be honest about their own desires, or having the ability to move freely as queer people within their families or larger communities. As queer people who are also brown, poor, immigrant, working, religious, etc., we are undeniably a part of communities which refute our existence, despise our appearance, and which need to be challenged if they are ever to become spaces which are welcoming for us and others like us. How do we fight systems of oppression instead of reinvesting ourselves into them for our own safety? How do we challenge them without coming out?
I think there are plenty of good answers to this question, and more are devised by queers of multiple oppressed backgrounds every day. Recognizing transphobia and homophobia as inexorably linked to machismo and misogyny is one crucial starting place. Challenging patriarchy and gender hierarchies in our families, communities, and in our own relationships is an important commitment to justice we can make without necessarily coming out. Fighting to build communicative and equitable partnerships in the contexts of sex, romance, and community organizing is another. Talking to young people about ending cycles of abuse, questioning gender expression, as well as setting examples in our own interactions and relationships, can sow the seeds for new generations. Being honest with our partners about who we are and are not out to, and devising together ways we can negotiate those realities, is necessary. Understanding worker rights, educational access and immigrant justice as all integrally linked to queer issues, and approaching all activism with the struggles of queer folks in mind, can create inclusive and uniting movements which are not dependent on our own coming out.
For myself, the most powerful thing which I have been taught by friends and members of my community who are not universally out is that simply telling people we are queer, or being queer in a public context, is not the only, or even the most important way, for us to be politically engaged. The idea that it is is born from political perspectives in which queerness stands alone, and is not navigated alongside economic, racial, geographic or cultural oppression. Not only might there be other ways of challenging our communities than just by coming out to them, there may be more revolutionary and transformative methods to employ, ones which can incorporate a wider range of voices and struggles, and which don’t merely depend on individual identification to promote change. We can agree that there are many more ways to fight unjust systems than simply coming out. My question for my community, then, is how are we going locate those ways? How can we creatively and collectively devise new methods of challenging our communities to be safer and more just, which protect us in the process, but do not encourage us to continue participating in cycles of oppression and abuse?
In many ways, the ability to come out is a privilege. Gender, sexuality, and other non-conforming identities– it means different things to different people in different circumstances. I think there are good things to come from coming out– education, visibility, and allies– but not everyone is in a position to do so. The queer community is stronger and the community at large more accepting of queer people because of the individuals who have done the work to come out and educate people in their lives, but it’s up to each person to figure out if and how they disclose their identities.
Thank you for making this point. I really agree with you, and think that just as we should not all be expected to take on identical roles in any one movement, neither should we all be expected to have the exact same relationship to our different identities. There are so many ways to challenge power, and the different experiences–and sometimes privileges–that we bring to the table can be a way of determining what roles we are able to take on. Coming out can be powerful and challenging, but there are countless other tactics that require just as much bravery, and which many who are not necessarily able to come out can employ–perhaps more effectively than their out counterparts.