Whether it involves months of preparation or a moment’s whim, coming out is always purposeful. Even when are not asking for acceptance, when we come out “just so you know,” to state “this is who I am,” we all hope to be accepted. No one seeks rejection even if we may expect it.
In coming out, hope is confronted by expectation. When we hope for the ideal response but expect something less desirable, we adjust the summit of this hope. We lower the height from which we may fall, lessen the expected blow from the silence or the damning scripture we “knew” was coming.
In a society that deems not being heterosexual or cisgender as not normal, as separate and unequal, whether it is an anxious disclosure or a casual confirmation, coming or being out is never a trivial matter.
LGBTQ and HIV+ people are not only rejected, they are harassed, beaten, imprisoned and killed regularly in this country because of who they are.
Transgender women such as Coko Williams far too often face the ultimate reprisals. Depending upon the severity of conditions one faces, the closet may serve as tool of literal survival. One must weigh for themselves the costs and benefits they draw from it. It not only protects, it enables.
Living in the closet in effect gives straights a “power of attorney” to control our movements, mannerisms, speech and appearance. It inscribes our inferiority, implies that we are perverse and unfit to live openly, to walk in the light.
It also gives straight and cisgender folks a free pass to avoid recognizing who we are and reckoning with fluidity of identity and behavior, sexual and gender diversities that have always existed in their families and neighborhoods.
It stunts dialogue that could free us all from the masks James Baldwin said “we are afraid to live without, but know we cannot live within.”
The closet is a contract of enormous power and dysfunction. LGBTQ people are coerced into such contracts with their families and broader communities. Closet contracts vary widely in terms but most operate with standard principles.
They often stipulate that we perform gender in the manner designated as normal. All expression that suggests queerness must be suppressed especially in public settings. We should refer to our boyfriends and spouses as friends and roommates.
If we cannot femme or butch it up, then we are directed to at least tone it down, sparing straight folks the anxieties of having to deal with our queerness. As long as we abide by such terms then we are afforded the sort of freedom a dog enjoys on a long, comfortable leash.
Straight folks not only set the conditions that render the closet a self preservation tool preferable to honesty and integrity. They set its dimensions and maintain its upkeep as much as the queer that hides within it.
It is not only the homophobic relatives and condemning preachers who build the closet walls. It is also the silent ones who carry no malice, yet say and do nothing to confront the bigotry of their peers. How many folks who criticize closeted gays and HIV-positive individuals who do not disclose, refuse to confront their own fears about challenging the intolerance practiced all around them?
In observance of National Coming Out Day, let us call out the hypocrisy that frames all these closets. We cannot expect people to come out without addressing the biases and fears that compel them to stay in.
How do we encourage people, especially gay men and black women, to get tested, know their HIV status, yet punish them for having that knowledge and enjoying sex? How many HIV-positive people face imprisonment for having consensual sex whether or not they use a condom and may have to register as sex offenders?
Cicely Bolton, an HIV+ 28 year old black woman, was stabbed to death by her boyfriend who claimed in his own defense, “she killed me so I killed her.” We must recognize that the common elements of gay/transgender and HIV panic legal defenses are fear and hatred.
Whether it is a matter of sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status, we need to address the conditions that drive people to conceal themselves. Coming out is not solely a queer thing, or an HIV-positive thing.
It is a human process, an unveiling that reveals truths we should not have to hide from ourselves or each other.
About the art: Gay artist Keith Haring designed the National Coming Out Day logo in 1988 and donated it to the organization that founded the annual Oct. 11 observance. National Coming Out Day later merged with the Human Rights Campaign. You can access NCOD resources here.