Today coming out is in the news again, and while I have nothing special to say on that matter (“good for him!” kind of sums it all up), it coincides nicely with a lot of thinking I’ve been doing around coming out in the last few weeks.
I have two ways of looking at this. The first is that I never really came out. The second is that I come out every day.
When I was coming to terms with my sexuality as a teenager, my parents and I finally had a talk about it. It wasn’t very fun, and I don’t think any of us look back on that talk with much pride or fondness. But other than that, I never really… told anyone, specifically. They would find out when they saw me with a boyfriend, or heard about my boyfriend, or through some other relevant detail. In other words, I just kind of ignored it and waited to be asked or for it to become obvious, because it didn’t deserve an announcement. I don’t run around telling everyone I meet that I’m right-handed. I don’t feel the need to make a grand announcement that I dislike olives. If it’s relevant, you’ll find out about it. If it’s not, who the fuck cares?
None of this is meant as a critique of people who do feel the need to come out, to mark a point where the secret is widely known. That’s fine, and their own decision, and I support them completely in that. We all have a different relationship with this, and that’s okay.
This is meant as a critique of the people who feel that someone they know coming out should be somehow about them.
The other way to look at this is that I come out every day. Because every time I go to a hotel with my boyfriend and need to confirm that yes, we do only want one bed; or every time a coworker meets my boyfriend; or every time a recruiter asks about my family situation when trying to talk me into moving; or any time anyone notices I’m gay, I basically just came out to that person. Complete with the uncertainty of “Am I going to have to have a fight over this right now?”
A few weeks ago, I was at a family event for my father’s side of the family. My father’s side is politically right-leaning, and rather conservative. I never brought a boyfriend around them, because (to be quite honest) I never really had any desire for my boyfriends to know them.
We’re a little estranged like that.
They’re family, and I love them, but it has never been super important to me to keep them up to speed on my love life.
At the end of the event, a great aunt cornered me by myself and started asking about my little brother. And none of the red flags went off, because my little brother was the only family member that wasn’t in attendance. So we chatted nonchalantly about my relationship with him, how we don’t get to talk much anymore, the usual.
And then she pivoted. Hard.
“So does he know you came out?”
Err. Well that’s a hard question. I never really came out, so what do I say? My siblings never even got a “heads up, I like guys”—they got a “hey, meet my boyfriend”. I assume she means “does he know you’re gay?” and just say ”yeah, he knew for years”.
“Oh,” she says, “so it was just a surprise for the rest of us.”
And then she starts crying on me. “Just so long as you’re happy, that’s the important thing.” she assures me. I tell her thank you, I am. She repeats it.
My family is Catholic. This is what a good ol’ fashioned Catholic guilting looks like, for those who aren’t familiar with it.
But the reason I tell this story is not because my great aunt is somehow a bad person or to garner pity for having to talk to my relatives. I want to dissect this reaction, because she got to steer that conversation and it’s telling about how people interact with my gayness.
First, she approached it through the lens of my little brother. My parents did something similar during our chat, suggesting my little brother would get beat up in school because of it. The point being made here is that I’m somehow selfish, or that this is unfair to others.
For the record, my younger brother has never been anything but supportive of me. We’ve never talked about it, we’ve never had any interaction around it at all, and that’s really all I could ask for. He treats it as an inconsequential detail of my life.
Second, I was supposed to feel guilty that I didn’t individually break it to my entire extended family (that would be the line about “surprise”), as if it was some confession that needed to be made or some achievement that needed to be celebrated. Honestly, I expected my extended family to find out when they were invited to my wedding, because that’s roughly the point around which it becomes relevant to them.
As we talk about coming out, let’s just remember that in a perfect world, it doesn’t happen. And while it’s absolutely great to celebrate people coming out, it is not okay to have an expectation that every gay person will make an announcement out of it.