Author Steven Seidman writes that “it is the power of the closet to shape the core of an individual’s life that has made homosexuality into a significant personal, social and political drama in twentieth-century America.” The concept of coming out is shaping to the experience of most people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community and the closet holds a lot of power within our lives. Coming out is treated as a right of passage and something that is an inevitable piece of a gay person’s story.
The dichotomy of the closet metaphor is interesting to me because it automatically places the closet as this dark and desolate place and people who are in the closet are depicted as leading false lives whereas people who are out are living their true identity. This dualism can invalidate the experience of people who are in the closet for whatever reason they see necessary. While the closet can be a negative metaphor, it can also be a necessary refuge for some people as well as a safe place.
The term coming out also treats someone’s sexuality as rigid and finalized. To come out necessitates labeling oneself to a certain extent and the labels hold certain expectations. Sexuality can be restricted by coming out because you are expected to adhere to the label you “chose” to come out with and this leaves no room for exploration or reconsideration. So while coming out is supposed to be liberating, and it absolutely can be, it can be limiting at the same time. It also seems to suggest that once you are out of the closet, you will never have to go back in. LGBT+ folks are constantly coming out to people throughout their lives because heterosexuality is the assumed default. They are constantly considering, “Is this a safe decision? Will I be treated differently? Could I lose my job?”
My personal experience with coming out has had its ups and downs. My sexuality is something that I have always been uncomfortable with and I never really wanted to put a label on it especially when I was in heterosexual relationships because it felt too confusing.
I started to reconsider and considered coming out to some of my friends to help find some clarity. Most of them were supportive but I had one friend who outed me to their partner without my consent. I found myself constantly worrying about if my family would find out or what other people would think of me especially if they heard it from someone else.
I made the decision to come out last year on National Coming Out Day. I received an overwhelming positive response and I am so grateful that my family was accepting because not everyone has that privilege. Homelessness and violence are large issues for the LGBT+ community. Some communities are harder to come out in than others and other minoritized identities can intensify the struggle that someone faces.
That’s not to say that since coming out everything has been rainbows and unicorns for me. Being out does not stop oppression or mistreatment which is another flaw of the closet metaphor. I am constantly being fetishized by both men and women. My identity is erased by straight people as well as people in the community and I have to constantly ask myself if I am gay enough to exist in certain spaces. Being out has given me a better understanding and the ability to combat and reclaim these oppressions but it certainly has not stopped them from happening.
Coming out is a complicated experience and each person has to make their decision about when and if coming out is appropriate for them. Someone’s sexuality is just as valid in the closet as it is outside of it. Being out is simultaneously liberating and limiting, clarifying and confusing, empowering and oppressive. So what does coming out mean to me? Well, it’s complicated.