Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Why We Come Out

This is a first draft. I'd love to have your editorial comments, as well as any responses. Thanks. ~D.

I heard a coming out story the other day. It came from a friend of mine who’s studying in Europe for a semester. The gist of it was: “I tried to explain to my (heterosexual, American) roommates that I’m a queer dyke who dates men, likes women, and thinks marriage is a tool of the patriarchy, and they just don’t understand!”

My first instinct was to say, “Uh, yeah honey, what did you expect? You don’t go layin’ it on that thick if you want people to understand you.” I thought, my friend is not stupid, or oblivious to heterosexism. The only explanation for her decision to come out to her roommates so completely and so quickly is that she was aiming for something other than understanding. She must want to feel all alone and alienated.

Luckily for both of us, I didn’t write back to her right away. First I vented about it to another friend here, and got some feedback, and reflected. I remembered that I also have sometimes chosen to come out in ways that were not conducive to helping others understand me. It got me thinking about why and how we come out.

Coming out for the Good of the Movement
Some of us have felt obligated to come out as a sort of political duty. This was particularly big in the ‘90s, as with Ellen’s grand coming-out episode (as if we didn’t know). It was part of a strategy to promote visibility of GLB (sometimes T) people, put forth by a gay rights movement that was and is dominated by the interests and leadership of white, middle-class, gay-not-queer people. I think it’s not a particularly good strategy. Nevertheless, the idea that coming out is good for the movement is now part of our GLB (sometimes T) culture, and we have to grapple with it. When we come out because of a sense of duty to be visible as a GLB (or maybe T) person, the idea is that our visibility as individuals is good for GLB (or maybe T) people generally. For this strategy to make sense, we have to associate ourselves with a recognizable identity label, such as “gay” or “lesbian”. Coming out for the good of the movement usually takes the form of a declarative statement along the lines of, “I am a ­­­­­­­­­­­­­_________."

There are a few circumstances in which I might consider coming out for the good of the movement. For example, if some totally ignorant person who I’m never going to meet again says, “All transsexuals are rich selfish antisocial sick-os,” I might say, “Well, I’m a transsexual, and I’m not rich, and here I am being social, so … are you sure?” In that case, playing a label serves a purpose. By saying “I am a transsexual,” I can challenge a person to have a broader and more positive view of trans people as a group. Now, savvy readers will have deduced that I do not usually identify as a transsexual. But so what? In this situation, I’m not trying to get the person to understand me as an individual. I’m doing it for the good of the movement.

In my life, those convenient moments where I could change the world just by coming out as a fill-in-the-blank do not come up very often. Usually, I’m coming out for much more mundane reasons.

Coming out to Build Connections
In my personal life, I come out because I want to be close to other people. It’s hard to be close to people if they don’t know about a really central aspect of my life, like my gender. My goal when I come out to friends and acquaintances is to help them understand me so that we can build a closer relationship.

If I want someone to understand me, saying “I am transgender” (or “I am a dyke”) usually will not do it. Claiming a label may communicate some important information, but there is other information that it will obscure or make harder to know. People think they know what these labels mean. That’s the point of labels, after all. But I know that their meanings aren’t static, and chances are a new acquaintance will not share my definition of “transgender,” for example. In this case a declarative statement might be counter-productive. It might make someone believe they know things about me that are not true.

So I consider very carefully how to come out to people who I want to build connection with. If I tell them I am transgender or FtM, will they understand me better than if I tell them I am queer or genderqueer? What will they understand if I mention that my ex-boyfriend is female? Or what if I tell them nothing at all? Sometimes letting my behavior and appearance speak for themselves communicates far more about my identity than a verbal “coming out” ever could. It depends. When I want to be understood, I don’t come out by closing my eyes and jumping in with both feet. I test the water first, and choose a strategy that makes sense for that person in that situation.

Coming out to Alienate myself before they can do it for me
Sometimes I don’t want to be understood. As a queer person, as a trans person, as a Jew, as a class-straddler, I have a lot of experience feeling invisible or misunderstood. Being on the outside feels comfortable and familiar.

It is hard to build understanding and closeness. Putting myself out there to seek connection is risky. Sometimes I come out to someone - carefully, gently, thoughtfully – and they reject me. Maybe they say, “Wow, you’re a fucking freak,” or maybe it’s subtler than that, but in any case, it sucks. If I’m feeling confident or optimistic, I take these risks anyway, because connection is worth it. But if I’m not feeling confident or optimistic, then sometimes it feels easier to say, “Look, we’re not alike, you don’t understand me, and I am way weirder than you want to deal with. So back off, okay?”

These are the situations where I tend to lay it on thick, as I (probably wrongly) assumed my friend was doing with her roommates in Europe. I come out all at once, in a big gush. I say I’m a trans guy, genderqueer, tranny-fag and anti-marriage, all in the first few minutes of a conversation. Sometimes I even exaggerate, depicting myself as farther from the norm than my experience really is. It’s not hard to turn people off this way.

Occasionally I get surprised when someone says, “Hey, me too!” or even more rarely, “Gosh, I don’t really understand, but I’d like to. Can you tell me more?” That’s always fun. But usually the strategy does exactly what it’s meant to do. It allows me to alienate myself from the group before anyone else gets a chance to push me out. And it allows me to feel like a righteous queer, while saving me from the work of building real connection across differences of experience and understanding.

Coming out to Validate My Self
Sometimes I just don’t care whether someone understands me or not. Sometimes I just need to confirm that I understand me. I do this especially in situations where I am not invested in the relationship, like with strangers on the street who I’m not likely to meet again. I’m not trying to push them away, but I’m not going to invest energy in the situation either.

If a random guy in a bar says, “Hey, you’re a beautiful woman,” I might say, “Nice try, but I’m a dude,” and walk away. The coming out doesn’t accomplish anything for the relationship, and probably has little effect on the guy’s understanding of me or of trans people as a group. It simply shields me from his mis-reading of me, and reaffirms what I know about myself.

Why do you come out?
Please use the comment function to tell us about the whys and hows of your coming out experiences. I may incorporate your ideas (not your particular experience or words) into future drafts.


Elliot said...

I come out, basically, because I can. I come out to help others "get it". I come out to help myself "get it" better. I come out so I can surround myself more with others who already "get it". I come out to find support, and to help others find it. I usually come out for the greater good, but sometimes I come out just to irritate my brother. ;)

Davey says ... said...

What is "it"? How does one "get it"? How do you know if someone "gets it" or not?
And: How do you know, or what makes you think, that your coming out has an effect on the "greater good"?

Elliot said...

What is "it"?

"It" is the whole topic of the term and the dynamics of being Transgender.

How does one "get it"?

One "gets it" through either personal experience of being Trans or really listening to someone talk about it or becoming close to someone who is Trans.

How do you know if someone "gets it" or not?

I know that someone "gets it" if they aren't disgusted/horrified by someone who is proud of being Trans and talks about it openly. I also know that they "get it" if they say that they want to know more. Gives me a great sense of pride to be able to talk about my experience and have people listen, ya know?

How do you know, or what makes you think, that your coming out has an effect on the "greater good"?

I think that my coming out has an effect on the "greater good" because, when I think about the positive change that has come around (or started to) for Trans people by people coming out and sharing their stories, I think, how could my influence not help the movement?

(Good follow-up questions, Davey! Thanks!)

Davey says ... said...

Does someone have to understand the idea of transgender the same way you do in order to "get it"? Or can they totally disagree with you? Is there any way to "get it" even without being close to any individual trans people? Are there trans people who go through trans experiences and still don't "get it"?

ElliotManning said...

Does someone have to understand the idea of transgender the same way you do in order to "get it"? Or can they totally disagree with you?

I realize that not everybody has had the same experience as I have (and am having), so people don't have to understand the idea of being Transgender the same way as I do in order to "get it". Of course, they can totally disagree with me. I think that, for this community to stay passionate and beneficial for those involved, people all shouldn't try to match their stories perfectly. Like in all of life, variety makes things interesting.

Is there any way to "get it" even without being close to any individual trans people?

Well, for me, personally, it's been easier to understand my own experience, and to not feel completely alone, by hearing the stories of others. If people who were outside the community, however, or were just coming out and trying to understand the community at large, were attempting to "get it", they could learn about it and not be close to any individual Transpeople. But a lot of that information could have been generalized, so if people really want to try to "get it", I think that they should try to speak to individual Transpeople.

Are there trans people who go through trans experiences and still don't "get it"?

Probably, yes. But one person's understanding may not be the same as another person's because everyone's experiences are unique to them and them alone.

Davey says ... said...

p.s., the follow-up questions were not only for elliot, but for anyone who wants to post their perspectives