Coming out again (and again and again)

How everyday assumptions require LGBTQ people to come out over and over again
By Robbie Medwed  Published on 06/12/2017 at 12:30 PM EST
Kirsty Lee/Unsplash

The other night, I was in a cab on the way to meet some friends at the corner of 10th and Piedmont in Atlanta. The intersection is also known colloquially as “the corner of gay and gay” because it’s the historical center of Atlanta’s LGBTQ community: There are gay bars lining the streets, pride flags hanging high above the buildings, and lines for brunch that you wouldn’t believe.

There are very few people in Atlanta — and even the South — who don’t know the area’s historic reputation. People rarely name a specific bar or restaurant when they go out there; they’ll just say they’re “going to 10th and Piedmont.” It’s been the center of the LGBTQ community for decades.

That’s why it was so awkward when my cab driver told me, unprompted, that he hoped I’d find “a hot young girl” to take home as we made our way through the neighborhood. I didn’t respond with much more than a mumbled “oh, okay.”

It’s not the first time I’ve passed on responding to comments like that, but it is the first time I did so while on the way to a gay bar. We arrived at my destination just a minute or so later, and I hopped out pretty quickly. I didn’t wait to see if the driver noticed where he dropped me off.

When I found my friends, I told them what happened, and each of them had a similar story to tell. We had all been in situations where someone assumed we were straight. A few of the stories centered on the awkward moments that follow a correction, and a few were like mine, in which the assumption goes uncorrected.

Since then, the thing that’s stuck with me is how normal it was for me not to speak up. I’m not a timid person, and I can hold my own in just about any conversation. I’m certainly not afraid of conflict. But yet, on this night, when it would have taken all of 10 seconds to say, “nah, but maybe I’ll meet a hot guy,” I stayed quiet. The chances of me ever seeing this guy again were slim. The chances of me being in danger for talking about being gay were even slimmer. So why did I chicken out and stay silent?

There’s a common misconception among cis-het (cisgender, heterosexual or, non-LGBTQ) people that once someone comes out as lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer/something else, that’s it, that person is known to all as part of the LGBTQ community forever. That’s not even a little bit true. Every day, every single one of us has to make the decision to come out, again.

To put it into more general (non-LGBTQ) terms, try and take note of how many times you mention your romantic partner/spouse, family, children, and hobbies in conversation during a single day. How often are you asked by a colleague, neighbor, or even a random stranger if you’re in a romantic relationship?

Every time that happens, LGBTQ people have to decide whether or not to come out. It’s not a political decision and it’s not some sort of “statement” on their part. It’s a split second of caution and care, because running through that person’s head at that moment is, “Is it safe to be open and out here?”

LGBTQ people — and particularly trans women — are always assessing every situation for signs of danger. That might mean being fired from a job (there are still over 25 states where someone can be fired for being LGBTQ), being kicked out of their homes (40 percent of homeless youth in America are LGBTQ) or, as too often is the case with trans women of color — it could mean danger of physical harm or even losing one’s life. For too many people in too many situations, coming out is still a life-or-death decision.

This is part of a larger reality for LGBTQ people. We live in a world where everyone is assumed straight or cisgender (non-transgender) until proven otherwise.

We live in a world where everyone is assumed straight or cisgender (non-transgender) until proven otherwise.

We tell our children that they’re supposed to be straight before they’re even born. We buy baby clothing that proclaims a 4-month-old baby boy to be a “ladies’ man” and we rush to make comments about how sweet it is that our 1-year-old girl already has her first “boyfriend” because she’s sharing a toy with a boy baby. We throw “gender reveal parties” (“It’s a girl! It’s a boy!!”) to tell our children who they are before they ever have a chance to tell us.

For LGBTQ people, the pattern of having someone else tell us who we are never really stops, and it’s exhausting. Some days we have the energy to help break it down, and other days we just mumble our way through until we can jump out of the car and move on.

That’s why Pride Month and Pride Celebrations are so important. Pride is one of the few times we don’t have to come out again. We get to just show up, enjoy ourselves, and recharge. Pride reminds us that we’re not just meant to live our lives but to celebrate them. It reminds us that there’s a version of the world in which assumptions aren’t made about who we or who we love.

Coming out again and again is a challenge. Here’s how you can help:

  • Avoid needlessly gendered phrases and questions. Questions like “Are you seeing someone?” gets the same information as “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?” without forcing the other person to share more than they’re comfortable with.
  • Skip the gender reveal parties. When it comes down to it, you’re having a party to celebrate your child’s genitalia. (Sounds weird now, doesn’t it?)
  • Be patient. People are curious by nature but some questions can be too personal or invasive. Let people share on their own terms, and respect their boundaries when they decline to answer.
  • Avoid assumptions. We can avoid so many awkward moments if we do our best to avoid making assumptions about other people. It’s a good rule for so many situations, really.

Small changes like choosing different words or asking different questions can make a big impact on someone else. Giving others the power and space to define themselves — and then treating them with respect — is the single best way to help bring us to the point where “coming out” again and again is a thing of the past.

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