COMING OUT IS A PRIVILEGE — USE IT WISELY
Twenty-two years ago I was born again into a life where no one could hurt me. A place where words like faggot and homo and fudge packer no longer held the weight they once had because I was no longer ashamed. I no longer hid behind the “No I’m nots” and “Shut ups.” I did not choose this new life; in fact, it had always been my life. The choice was living it authentically.
Spreading my wings, I had to learn to fly. I stumbled, I crashed, but I eventually found my balance and lift. In doing so I left some behind, but I gained others who have never stopped flying beside me.
My gayness has come with many privileges. That sounds funny, doesn’t it? Especially at a time when the Supreme Court of the United States is considering whether or not our right to live openly in the workplace is allowable. But being free from hiding, once out, can never be taken away. That is a privilege.
Most of my privilege comes not because of my gayness but because of my life as an academic, a writer, a public speaker. I’ve been given platforms and status because of these things. I’ve been invited into spaces typically not reserved for people like me. And I never forget it and I use it as my fight. That’s why I will always say “My husband” and “My family” when having small talk over wine and cheese at some reception for something or another. I will always tell my story through these little subtleties because I never know who may be listening, who’s narrative needs disrupted on what marriage is, or who needs to see someone like them.
But not every person who identifies as LGBTQ+ has these privileges. In fact, I’m one of the lucky few. It’s well documented that over 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ+ because their families could not accept who they were; trans women, and particularly trans women of color, are being beaten and killed; and LGBTQ+ teens who come from families who reject them are eight times more likely to attempt suicide than their LGBTQ+ peers who come from accepting families.
Being open and out is not always safe. It doesn’t always come with privilege. Coming out is a decision that each person has to make in their own way.
Last fall I gave a talk at a college in Connecticut where I shared my coming out story on stage in front of hundreds of students. After the talk, everyone had cleared the auditorium except for one student who waited to tell me he had something to say. He stood there, nervous, his eyes searching. I knew exactly what he wanted to tell me.
I put my hand on his shoulder and told him it was okay. A tear fell from his eye and rolled down his cheek. He bit his lip. “I’m gay but I can’t tell anyone because my parents will disown me.”
“You have to love you,” I said.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “In my home country I will be sent to prison for fourteen years or put to death.”
I didn’t know what to say. We stood there, a moment of awkward silence between us, and then as I started to speak he beat me to it. “I needed your story today to remind me that I’m not alone.”
Tears welled up in my eyes and then I did something I rarely do but the only thing that seemed right in the moment: I gave him a hug. If you know me, I’m not a hugger . . . but that’s a different story.
I told him to be brave but to only share his story when he was ready. He said he planned to tell his family after college, when he had a steady job, but he knew he’d never see them again after that.
Sometimes being who we are means walking away from other people’s expectations of what they want us to be. And that’s the caveat for this strange world we live in. And if we make it to that point and have been extended privileges that allow us to live free and open, we must fight like hell for those in our own community who have been marginalized by being open.
For some, that’s marching, throwing bricks, and shouting in the streets (let’s not forget Stonewall). For others, like me, it’s using my ability to show up in places typically not reserved for people like me but to be 100% authentically me while I’m there. It’s throwing punches and it’s extending olive branches. Both are necessary; neither are wrong.
Existing as ourselves can be the biggest form of resistance.
Happy National Coming Out Day, y’all!
Cover photo by –ted from Flickr Creative Commons.