Is It Safe To Come Out Yet?

Coming out, we are told, is a great responsibility and duty. By doing so, we make it easier for other people to come out, because we destigmatise the lives of people like us by showing people that we are real human beings who are just like them. We make our communities less frightening by revealing ourselves to be already among ‘them’ and thus we’re paving the way to a better future. A future of acceptance, where it’s safe to be who you are and to live the way you want to live, because being a member of a marginalised group won’t be life threatening.

This, of course, is only an option for people who live in stealth, who don’t have evident markers that clearly place them in marginalised groups. Living in stealth is often condemned; people doing so are told they are cowardly. They are told that they don’t care about their communities. That they should come out and live in the open, even if they aren’t interested in discussing details of their personal lives. Silly them, for thinking that their lives should be private and they should be able to choose what they discuss and with whom.

What a load of victim-blaming.

Coming out is dangerous. There’s a reason a large production is made out of it, and it’s because there are serious risks involved in coming out; risks of being outcast by your community, cut off from family and friends. Unemployed and homeless, kept out of some housing markets and potential jobs. Limited in terms of the relationships you can pursue. Coming out comes with inherent dangers and everyone needs to weigh the risks and benefits for themselves without the added social pressure of being informed that they are letting down the team if they don’t expose themselves in that way. It’s hard enough to make a coherent decision about such a personal matter when you know you will probably be supported and helped through the process; even worse when you live in a dangerous climate and know that coming out could be fatal.

The responsibility here lies on society to make itself more accepting, not on individuals to risk everything by coming out. Yes, coming out can certainly help make society more welcoming, but we come back here again to the need to justify people’s existence in order to support and accept them. Pressuring people to come out reinforces the attitude that it’s necessary for society in general to ‘get them’ before society can accept them or handle their existence.

Apparently, the only way to build a just society is to have martyrs to the cause, people who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. And that, to me, is too high a cost. I don’t want social acceptance built on the bodies of my fellow human beings; for example, the transgender people who have died as a result of coming out, or being outed, died because society can be a hateful, evil, and horrifically wrong place. And people want to turn around and tell me that trans people owe it to each other and society to come out and ‘educate’?

For some people, coming out is liberating, and may even be non-negotiable. People must do it for survival because they can’t stand being hidden. For them, it may be a tremendously empowering personal choice that makes them stronger and happier. And I support them, and want to make society as safe a place as possible for them, while still respecting what they are doing as a personal choice, not a stroke of defiance for the movement. If someone wants to frame it that way, fine; if someone wants to become a voice for a movement, to represent, to educate, that is fantastic.

But people are not obliged to do so, and I’m tired of hearing that they are. People can choose to quietly live as they want to live, whether that involves not particularly hiding a marginalised identity but not being readily open about it, or living in deep stealth, or wandering around town with a marching band and a herald. All of those people have the right to live in safety and security, not to die early deaths because they live in an intolerant society.

Instead of telling people they should come out and claiming to be ready to support them, those who work in solidarity with marginalised groups should ask themselves why coming out is so important. Why it’s so critical that prurient interest in the lives of others be satisfied in order for society to accept people who don’t fit into normative identities, bodies, or politics. Until people can answer this question and explain why the burden should be on the oppressed to come out, rather than the oppressor to make the world safe enough to come out in, I’m going to have a hard time taking calls to come out seriously.

And I’m going to have an even harder time dealing with people who demand access to personal information after being explicitly told that coming out is dangerous. When advocates warn of the hazards of coming out, or obscure details of their personal lives for personal safety, the response should not be to demand that they expose themselves in order to prove themselves authorities. Not when such exposure can come at the risk of death.