Commentary

Coming out is important. But no one should be forced out before they are ready.

Coming out is important. But no one should be forced out before they are ready.
Photo: Shutterstock

As we celebrate National Coming Out Day, the subject of involuntary outings has been on my mind.

Most recently, Rebel Wilson and her girlfriend Ramona Agruma faced The Sydney Herald threatening to disclose their relationship status. Rather than wait for them to break the news, Wilson took it upon herself to do it first, posting to her Instagram.

When word got out about the context surrounding the situation, Frances Mao of BBC News described it as a “devastating turn. A good news story – a celebrity role model coming out – had been marred by a familiar, old threat.”

Wilson is not alone in this experience. Back before Portlandia actress Carrie Brownstein’s family even knew she was bisexual, Spin published that she and her Sleater-Kinney bandmate, Corin Tucker, had dated. Other outed stars through the years have included Clay Aiken (by Rosie O’Donnell) and Lance Bass (by Perez Hilton). George Michael, Michelle Rodriguez, and T.R. Knight also had their orientations publicized before they were ready.

“The truth is she outed me in a way, because I had not been out yet,” Aiken said of O’Donnell in an interview with author Ramin Setoodeh. “When she said the words, ‘If that was a straight man,’ she was confirming that she knew that I wasn’t. That was the worst day of my life. I don’t think I’d had a moment more devastating to me. I remember feeling like shit that day and totally defeated.”

Some outers frame these actions as taken for the greater good, but in reality, it is a case of steamrolling.

“I think it really throws a lot up in the air about where we are as a society, with regards to people’s privacy and people’s own choices around what happens in their lives,” Nicky Bath, chief executive of LGBTIQ+ Health Australia, told Mao.

Despite increasing acceptance in certain countries, an estimated 83 percent of LGBTQ people around the world still keep their orientation hidden from all or most of the people in their lives, according to a study by the Yale School of Public Health. Bath said that at the QLife hotline, which supports LGBTQ people, one in ten calls are about the challenges of coming out.

Much progress has been made on the LGBTQ rights and visibility front, but many still find themselves weighing the benefits of coming out against the potential negative repercussions. Those of us who had privileged experiences when it came to disclosing our sexual orientation are not privy to the strain it can put on people’s relationships or to the risks they could be weighing in their decision-making process.

***

For the most part, coming out has been on my terms, but I do know what it’s like to have the decision made for me.

Back in 2003, my 8th-grade self was eating lunch with some friends when a girl I found attractive (much to my dismay at the time) approached our table.

I remember my heart beating faster, as it always did around any girl I liked. Not just because I liked them, but because I wasn’t supposed to. Whenever I was in their presence, I ran the risk of being found out. It often felt like standing right next to a beautiful lie detector test while trying not to freak out.

When the girl walked away, I went back to eating my Nature Valley granola bar, willing my heart to slow down and my face to return to its normal color before anyone could notice.

I wasn’t quick enough. Someone did notice. Not long after my crush left, I felt one of my friends eyeing me with suspicion.

Seconds later she yelled from across the table (loudly enough for everyone to hear): “Why were you blushing around Davia?”

There it was: one of my greatest fears come true, right there in front of me. Though I’d worried for a while about this kind of confrontation happening, I’d never imagined it actually would.

The words hung in the air between us. In the silence I could feel everyone’s stares, pressing down like searing weights against my fragile closeted heart. The outer’s gaze was heaviest of all. She seemed eager to get the job done – that of yanking my shameful secret out from within me and into the open air, where she could burn it with a bright light the same way cold-hearted kids melt ants with a magnifying glass.

That’s at least how it felt at the time.

Back then I was sure that much like an insect, my secret, if brought to light, would also inspire at worst disgust, and at best discomfort in others.

Knowing this, I couldn’t grant my friend access to it. Even if she’d already tried to expose me, I wouldn’t confirm anything. I’d shove the secret back down into the trenches of my soul, where it felt like it rightfully belonged at the time.

The bell was on my side. It rang while I stalled for an answer, saving me from having to provide one.

The group dispersed, but not quickly enough to dodge my friend’s loudly mumbled words bouldering carelessly from her mouth into our other friends’ ears: “You’re f***n’ gay.

***

Ever since this unpleasant early experience, deciding when and who to come out to has largely been on my terms – apart from one other situation in which a male hall mate my freshman year of college outed me to my roommate before I was ready to tell her,

Midway through high school, I told one friend. Then I told another. And another.

By the end of high school, I’d come out to my family.

Then everyone in my circle knew.

The positive reception from my parents and wider support network granted me great comfort in my identity, as well as the freedom to explore in the years that followed. I gradually became so comfortable that a strong belief in the importance of coming out took root.

I stood behind Harvey Milk’s words: “Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.”

I still agree with the message. My quality of life as an out person has markedly improved in comparison to being closeted. My body feels lighter without the shame it once carried around.

 Still, I think of how it felt to have this private piece of my heart wrested from me so many years ago.

It felt similar, I imagine, to how a person feels after their home has been robbed – like I no longer had control over my own story. Instead, a person who didn’t have my best interest at heart was calling the shots.

The experience is disempowering. It takes our narrative out of our hands and places it into the prying fingers of another’s. As Arielle P. Schwartz and Holley Law Fellow of the National LGBTQ Task Force put it, “Often people who are outed feel blindsided and forced to reveal a deeply personal part of their identity without their consent and under someone else’s terms.”

They describe coming out as a process; a difficult one at that,  given how discrimination, homophobia, and potential marginalization from families and larger communities remain real issues at play. Coming out is an intensely personal decision, one that people must choose for themselves how and when to make.

Kristen Stewart once described the media’s obsession with asking her to label her sexuality as “thievery.”

***

There are occasional exceptions to this, one of which was discussed by LGBTQ rights activist Michael Rogers, who became known for outing politicians who actively worked against LGBTQ rights.

On a 2007 episode of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Rogers justified his work as follows: “People’s sexuality is only fair game if it’s in direct conflict to the public statements they make about political things such as policy or legislation that they’re voting on.”

In an interview with LGBTQ Nation, Rogers followed this up by expressing his belief in a “basic premise that no one has the right to hurt a community that they are secretly a member of.”

“That’s the bottom line,” Rogers said. “Think of someone saying, ‘I had an abortion in 1965, and now I’m anti-choice. I don’t agree with that, but that’s a lot different to me than someone in the closet about having an abortion, paying her daughter to have an abortion during the election, then saying how terrible it is. No community should be expected to harbor its own enemies from within.”

On The L Word, the character Alice outed an NBA star who was publicly making homophobic statements. Though some viewers deemed this impulsive and retaliatory, to others it felt justified. I find calling out hypocrisy a more honorable mission than dragging people from the closet as a way of making a political statement – or to help a larger movement of which they are unwittingly part.

The general values of honesty and transparency also can’t be understated. As Kristin Stewart told the Mirror, “I don’t want the details of my life to be disgustingly consumed and commodified. But at the same time, I don’t want to hide anything.”

***

The message “everyone must come out,” (rather than: “shift the climate that makes it feel unsafe to come out”) seems an example of calling out and placing the misdirected onus on individual choices rather than addressing the deeper-rooted systemic issues responsible for a closeted person’s hesitance in the first place.

It echoes the words of critics who tell women to apologize less, rather than working towards reshaping the conditions that lead our gender to feel overly responsible for other people’s feelings.

It’s reminiscent of prioritizing the advice, “Drink less and wear clothing that’s less revealing,” over telling men: “DON’T RAPE.”

Hopefully one day, people like Rebel Wilson won’t have to prematurely post an announcement about a new girlfriend before they are ready, and moms like Clay Aiken’s won’t find out that their sons are gay from Perez Hilton. These outings will be widely considered breaches of privacy, intrusions on boundaries, or even low-level individual rights violations.

I wish that coming out didn’t still splinter families and that LGBTQ individuals felt no need to categorize their existence, but this remains the reality for some.

Until it’s universally safer to live a publicly out existence, we can acknowledge that it’s each person’s right to decide when, how, and to whom they come out. It’s their right if they never want to at all. It’s their admission and theirs only to tell.

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