I wrote a similar post under a similar title on my previous blog, so if much of this sounds familiar, it probably is. Today, a friend sent a quote from a presentation she attended and I felt compelled to return to the keyboard and rewrite my thoughts on outness and the privilege that comes with it. I’d like to think that my current thoughts on the subject are more developed and than they were a year or more ago when I crafted the earlier version of this post.
A lot of the time, when people talk about privilege and the LGBTQ+ community, the conversation centers around things like straight privilege, cis privilege, white privilege, etc. and don’t get me wrong: Those are important conversations to have. However, rarely do people talk about the privilege of being out or the privilege or being out safely.
The world is full of queer and trans people, but not every one of them gets to be out. Even among those who are out, the levels of risk and sacrifice taken to get there vary greatly. Many people are met with love and acceptance from family and friends, while many others end up homeless, unemployed, socially ostracized, or dead. The privilege is apparent in the contrast.
When there’s so much on the line, why do people come out anyway? For starters, queer and trans people want to enjoy some of the same pleasures (dating, holding hands, having the correct pronouns used, etc.) that straight/cis people get to. Since straight and cisgender identities are the default in our society, we have to come out in order to let people know how to honor our experiences properly. For me, this includes respecting my gender and not assuming I date men…but those things won’t happen if I don’t come out.
People don’t come out to be “in other people’s faces” about their identities; they come out because they have to correct society’s assumption that they are straight until stated otherwise.
Coming out also grants access to certain parts of LGBTQ+ advocacy and culture that are difficult or impossible to engage in as a closeted individual. For example, since coming out to more and more people, I’ve been able to share my story and stand up for queer and trans rights as a member of those communities. My outness allows me to share things, like this blog post, on the internet.
People who haven’t or can’t come out are not able to do the things mentioned above. They do not get to date openly or be acknowledged for their true gender. They do not have a chance to correct other people’s assumptions about their identities. They don’t get to share their stories publicly. They don’t get to be at the forefront of LGBTQ+ advocacy or indulge in queer culture without fear. There are a lot of things they can’t do without experiencing fear.
In addition to all of the concrete actions described above, closeted queer and trans individuals live with a lot of stress and fear. Queer and trans people certainly still experience identity related stress and fear after coming out, but they are often in positions where they don’t have to hold it in. When homophobic protesters come to my school, I am able to talk about it with people I know and love; I’m able to vent on social media. However, people who are completely closeted don’t have the privilege of reaching out to others. The stress accumulates over time and there’s no good outlet. The negative mental health effects can be profound.
Of course, coming out isn’t black-and-white with closeted people feeling miserable and out people enjoying a cake walk; not all coming out processes go smoothly and not all people who come out come out entirely.
As I wrote earlier, homelessness, unemployment, social exclusion, and premature death (especially as a result of murder or suicide) run rampant among LGBTQ+ people. It is estimated that 40% of all homeless youth identify as queer or trans. This comes as a result of parents and guardians forcing children to leave or children feeling unsafe at home and choosing to run away after coming out. Mental illness also impacts the LGBTQ+ community disproportionately as a direct result of discrimination.
Even though I consider myself to be out and benefit tremendously from out privilege, I am not at a place in my life where I can be completely out safely. My parents had a negative reaction to my initial coming out as queer and their stance on the matter hasn’t changed much over the years. They have said some not-so-great things to me on account of my sexuality and it’s been a stressful and emotionally-draining experience. I am not supposed to be out to anyone aside from them and I’m definitely not supposed to write about it on the internet, wear gender non-conforming clothing, visit gay bars, date women, watch drag shows, attend Pride, or advocate for LGBTQ+ equality. I do all of those things and they have no idea.
I don’t disclose that information with the intention of downplaying my privilege because like I said, I have a lot. I simply hope to expose the fact that outness isn’t a clear-cut status. There isn’t just “out” and “not out,” but there are varying degrees of outness. There isn’t just acceptance and rejection, but varying degrees of both. My parents never kicked me out of the house or disowned me, but they disowned a part of me. Because of that, I’m not able to be entirely authentic in all facets of my life.
I have never told my parents about dating a woman. When I interviewed for grad school at a university near my parents’ house and stayed with them, I wore women’s clothing out of the house and changed into menswear just before the interviews, only to change back so I could drive home. They would likely pass out if they learned I conducted all of my interviews in gender non-conforming clothing and used “they” pronouns at the interviews for the institution I will attend next year.
I’ll continue modifying my social media privacy settings so family don’t see what I write. I will type *please don’t share without permission* when I put this post on Facebook so it has less of a chance of finding its way to my parents. I will walk at graduation in a dress and when my aunt asks if I have a boyfriend, I will politely reply, “No, not yet.”
And still, I’m grateful for every instance in which I’ve been able to live my truth.