It’s National Coming Out Day. As Wikipedia states, its an LGBTQ awareness event …“First celebrated in the United States in 1988, the initial idea was grounded in the feminist and gay liberation spirit of the personal being political, and the emphasis on the most basic form of activism being coming out to family, friends and colleagues, and living life as an openly lesbian or gay person.” The first time I was aware of this event — maybe at the time of the first one in 1988 — it was way too personally risky to even acknowledge that I was aware of it. It’s hard today to realize how much fear had been drilled into me — in large part by people who claimed to care about me.
Coming out is the enduring and, perhaps, dominant theme of Queer narratives. It stands as a reminder that we always need to state our personal truth because so many people are intent on ignoring, erasing, or denying it. The reasoning used to deny our validity is always grounded in poorly argued moralism (usually about sex) and imagined ideas of ‘natural order,’ but I think that’s a misdirection. The real quarrel with Queer people is their courage to pursue freedom and personal truth over the security of conformity.
I don’t mean to imply that the rhetoric used against Queer people is without consequence or easily overcome — or that in the valorization of the stories of those who survived we forget the uncountable people who didn’t survive. Like all decolonizing actions, the act of coming out requires unschooling one’s mind from the hateful and limiting stories that erode one’s self-worth. It requires reaching beyond oneself and one’s community of origin to understand that human complexity defies narrow categorization — and that it can be possible to abandon social limitations imposed upon us. Coming out stories can be crucial in providing hope to people beginning this process.
The act of coming out to one’s friends and family, initially seen through the lens of ‘the personal is political’ also maps onto my current understanding of social change process. As Natalie Loveless has taught me, real change comes not through grand narratives or actions — although they can have political usefulness — but through micro-social engagements. Micro-social engagement provide both information and the means to make change.
Coming out is an act of ‘becoming’ — reaching beyond the stories that try to shape our self-concept to find, deep within, and declare something particular about ourselves. When I was coming out, I was repeatedly told by friends and therapists that ‘coming out is a process, not en event.’ In a literal sense this is true — I have to come out, if not daily, on the regular. My sexual orientation is often misread because of my presentation but, more than that, the assumption of heterosexuality is troublingly pervasive. But this cycle of reminding straight people that I’m Queer has another limiting effect: it stymies the process of becoming — trapping us in an initial act of stating our truth and limiting how far we can go.
Becoming is the work we do to embody a transformation in our understanding of self and the world. In philosophy it’s often placed in opposition to the idea of being — or the notion that we’re essential, unchanging creatures. Limiting our understanding of who we are and what we might be always serves dominant systems of power and control. Becoming, like being actively Queer, is a process of breaking habits and narratives intended to limit the possibilities of our lives. It’s about change. Change that embraces the dignity of every person.
As I think about the future, my work is about asking ‘what’s next?’ — for me and for the people I love. I could argue that this has been my teaching practice for a long time and, perhaps, this is just another ‘coming out,’ but that’s too easy. The work of becoming — and especially Queer becoming — requires declaration and intention. This is mine.