“Tell all the Truth,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “but tell it slant.”
It occurs to me, gentle readers, that I have not told my coming out story. And that is, in part, because my coming out story does not involve a grim talk around the dinner time, “father, I have something to tell you.” That’s because in a lot of ways, I am a very circuitous person. There isn’t really a coming out story, not in the traditional sense.
“Success in circuit lies,” said Emily, and that sort of describes me to a T. I tend to not be a very confrontational person, in the real world. And, for me, gender and sexual orientation aren’t things which I feel like I need to know about everyone else, so I was confused that other people seemed to want to know them about me. I am me, and I like who I like, and that’s how it is.
I also had the luxury of growing up in a very liberal community and going to a very liberal liberal arts college, which meant that there was much more acceptance of gender variance and sexual orientations beyond straight. There was even a fair amount of assumption that most people weren’t straight and that there was a reasonable probability that someone’s gender might be…more complicated than things would appear at first glance, for lack of a better way to put it.
So, I sort of assumed that my father was aware that I was a queermosexual of the highest order.
Only, I guess he really didn’t. I don’t know if he was willfully oblivious, or what. I used to bring people of varying genders home with me, and I guess he thought I was just really friendly with all those people. I used to wear breast binders and men’s suits, but I guess that was attributed to oddity, not to any confusion about my gender. I used to refer to women as “my girlfriend” but I guess he thought that meant “my friend, who is a girl.”
Anyway, about a year or so ago, we were all sitting around the table at my Chinese mother1 Red’s house, and I said something along the lines of “well, you know, for people who are queer, like me,” and there was this awkward little pause. At first I attributed it to confusion on the part of Red2.
Emily adds “too bright for our infirm delight, the Truth’s superb surprise,” and that was sort of how I felt at the table. I felt like I was mentioning something casually, along the lines of “oh yes, I can give you a lift” or “have you read today’s paper,” but evidently my father really had no idea that I was, you know. Not straight.
How he missed this, I do not know. It’s not like I went out of my way to hide my sexuality or gender identity3 from my father. He just never thought to ask. Like the rest of society, he assumed on some level that I was straight, while I assumed that he must have figured out that I was queer.
I’ve been slowly introducing Red, who is pretty conservative in some ways, to topics like gay rights and disability rights, and sometimes it’s an uphill battle. I realized over lunch that day that she hadn’t made the connection that she was talking about me when she was saying horrible things. She just thought that I was generally advocating for a group I didn’t belong to, sort of like she advocates for homeless communities.
Which is funny, since it’s kind of the opposite of how things usually are in the real world. More commonly, if you speak up on behalf of a marginalized group, you are assumed to belong to that group, because why else would you put yourself out on a limb? Normally I’m delighted when people don’t make assumptions about each other on the basis of the groups they do/do not advocate for, but this time I was sort of disappointed by the determined efforts to keep me straight.
The pause ended, and the conversation picked up, and over the next few days, as my father does when he finds out something new about me, he explored it, in his own way. Not always perfectly, but in a way which says “I am trying to puzzle this out and fit it together with everything else that I know.”
So, you know, I was fortunate. Coming out, for me, didn’t put me at risk or cause a big scene. It was basically a nonevent, which is very different from the experiences of some other folks I know.
But I think about this when I see pushes for “national coming out day” and so forth. I think about the fact that I was lucky when I came out to do so in the place and time where I did. And that there’s this pressure to come out which isn’t always fair. Coming out isn’t always a nonevent. It’s not always safe. And, yes, I wish that we could live in a world where people could openly be themselves, but, we don’t.
“As lightning to the children eased, with explanation kind, the Truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind,” Emily concludes. I’d honestly prefer to live in a world where there wasn’t pressure to come out because there weren’t so many demands that everyone’s gender and sexual orientation be made clear and obvious for the general satisfaction of others. But as long as we are going to live in a world where coming out can be dangerous, I think that we need to respect those who do not come out. What’s good for the goose is not always good for the gander, and we should avoid the mistake of assuming that our experiences override those of others.
- I realize that this phrasing is awkward as all getout, but, bear with me: I can’t call her my stepmother, because that has negative connotations in Chinese culture and she’s not, legally, my stepmother. I can’t call her my mother because people think I am talking about my genetic mother. I can’t just make up a pseudonym for her and use that, because it’s important to stress the relationship I have with her; she is like my mother. ↩
- These cultural/linguistic confusions do happen on occasion. Most recently, at Thanksgiving, when a table full of people had to explain what “teabagging” is. ↩
- During a long conversation several weeks later about a trans man of our acquaintance, I managed to make my father realize that I don’t identify as “female” and that not only do binary trans people exist, but all sorts of gender nonconforming people exist. It was not the easiest conversation in the world. ↩