Life is better outside the closet.
This is probably the most self-evident tenet of the LGBT rights movement, but it was something that I never completely grasped until it became my reality.
Prior to telling anyone about my sexual orientation, I believed that doing so would cause my friends to no longer like me, my family to no longer love me and society to no longer want me. I was convinced my secret was my safety, and that admitting the truth would expose me to worldly and godly wrath.
That is what it meant to be homosexual, I believed, because that was what I had always been told.
Sure enough, two of my dearest friends confessed to being disgusted upon learning I was gay, a couple of family members were offended when I brought a boyfriend to a cousin’s wedding, and a few fraternity brothers told me they were convinced that I was going to Hell if I didn’t change. However, the sting of these reactions was numbed by the otherwise universal love and acceptance from people who appreciated me for who I was — something that my hostile friends, family and frat eventually appreciated, too.
Even though my coming-out process began in Alabama, I realize how much I’ve benefited from cosmopolitan privilege, and how risky it is to extrapolate my experience onto others in less hospitable environments, or more spiteful families. Yet the consequences of living outside the closet trend toward being less intimidating and pervasive than the fears that keep LGBT people from coming out.
It feels blasphemous to admit this, even though I imagine a majority of the LGBT people who are reading this had coming-out experiences that didn’t approach their worst-case expectations.
To be clear, transphobia and homophobia are real, and remain embedded in the national psyche. There are bullies and gay bashers, holy bigots and a polite hatefulness within cisgender heteronormativity. But we have evolved into a resilient people, who with humor, fortitude and moments of profound fearlessness, have made great headway toward a more accepting society.
Still, our movement often feels wedded to an expectation of victimhood, and that narrative has been quite useful in garnering sympathy and support for our cause. The recent celebration of Spirit Day, when folks wore purple to show solidarity with bullied LGBT teens, renewed my concerns about pushing an outdated, woe-is-gay storyline onto youth who ought to expect better.
It hurts my heart to know that as I type this column, there is undoubtedly an LGBT youth somewhere in America who is being taunted or assaulted because he or she is gay, and it is difficult to be critical of any movement that aims to protect that child.
But the anti-bullying crusade that has emerged in the early part of this decade lacks nuance, and eclipses the attention on the increasing number of LGBT youth who traverse their teenage years without much angst or trauma. The challenge is to combat the real bullying that occurs without clinging to a paradigm where teenage torture is mistaken as an LGBT rite of passage.
When promising LGBT youth that “It Gets Better,” we must be bold enough to admit that, in many ways, “It’s Already Better.” It’s gotten so much better that the “suicidal LGBT teen” should become a narrative of the past, and not the centerpiece of any more public service campaigns.
Spirit Day and “It Gets Better” both originated after a spate of LGBT teen suicides in 2010, most notably that of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who killed himself after a roommate secretly videotaped him kissing another man.
In the rush to press charges against Clementi’s roommate, create social media memorial pages and enact anti-bullying legislation, I fear that we failed to deliver a critical advisory to modern LGBT youth: if you are planning to kill yourself primarily because you are LGBT, you are making a fatally misguided judgment about the world and your place in it. This country is not yet perfect for LGBT youth or adults, and who knows if it ever will be; but there is no fight worth avoiding at the cost of your life.
Of course, this seems self-evident, though it can be hard to grasp amid the good-intentioned messaging.
Ryan Lee is an Atlanta writer.