National Coming Out Day

// 10 October 2010

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National Coming Out Day is an internationally-observed civil awareness day for coming out and discussion about gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. It is observed by members of the LGBT communities and their supporters (often referred to as “allies”) on October 11 every year, or October 12 in the United Kingdom. [Via Wikipedia]

National Coming Out Day logoLabels. Human beings do seem to like attaching labels to, well, pretty much everything. While that can be useful, a basic part of communicating, it’s modified by the old truism that “words have meanings”. It can cause problems when those labels are given negative meanings, and used to reinforce particular power imbalances. And whilst the idea of a National Coming Out Day might appear, at first glance, to be A Good Thing, the more I think about it, the more reservations I have about it.

Perhaps most obviously, in using the (incredibly reductive) acronym GLBT – Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual/Transgender – I see the familiar bundling together of TS/TG women & men with GLB people. Yes, I know that some TS/TG women & men are GLB, and that some GLB people are TS/TG, but I think there is a fundamental distinction which is overlooked when applying the label GLBT to a group of people: the conflation of sexual orientation (whether we’re GLB) and gender identity (whether we’re TS/TG) under the one label ‘GLBT’ can often cause problems in and of itself; not least because of the erasure of others – intersex people, for one example, are conspicuous by their absence from this label.

In a perfect world, of course, coming out – voluntarily disclosing one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity to family, friends, co-workers, classmates, etc – simply wouldn’t matter. But this isn’t a perfect world and the process of coming out can be not only stressful, but downright dangerous for some of us whose sexual orientation and/or gender identity might not match the dominant paradigms of cis/het normativity.

For example, for a TS/TG woman or man who is transitioning, volunteering information about our gender identities may not even be an option: under the terms of the WPATH (formerly HBIGDA) Standards Of Care, the Real Life Experience (RLE) requires us to live full-time in our preferred gender, if we are to be permitted to access other essential medical resources. In my opinion, this is tantamount to an enforced coming out and, as such, seems completely at odds with the idea of voluntarily telling other people about such an intensely personal thing as one’s gender identity.

Outside the medical system, the enforced coming out of TS/TG women & men can be just as dangerous. We may be labelled as “deceptive” or “not really a man/woman” – and the Transgender Day of Remembrance each year provides a roll call of those in our community who, more often than not, were murdered as a result of our trans status being exposed in a range of circumstances without our consent, and found to be lacking in some way by those whose cis privilege gave them a power which they didn’t hesitate to use.

Equally, enforced coming out can be just as lethal to cis GLB people as it can to TS/TG women & men – the recent suicide of a young student, Tyler Clementi after a same-sex encounter in his dorm room was video streamed over the web (without his knowledge) by two other students highlights that fact in no uncertain terms. The sense of entitlement of cis heteronormative people to out us seems to arise from fear and ignorance, manifested as transphobia, homophobia, lesbophobia and/or biphobia, according to whichever intersections the victims find themselves subjected to.

I have a couple of other concerns about the idea of National Coming Out Day. First, about the way it’s framed, through a lens of cis/het normativity in which those of us who don’t fall within the boundaries of the mainstream are viewed as some sort of exotic Other. The privilege generated by the power imbalance enables that majority to demand – however nicely, however fluffily – that we out ourselves as a way of receiving their approval, so that we may be tokenised as a ‘safe’ example of how wonderfully broad-minded and enlightened the majority is. Whether we actually want that approval or the associated tokenism doesn’t seem to be considered. If you take part in it, you do so on the terms of the majority – and you’d better not make them feel uncomfortable or threatened in any way or the consequences may be fatal.

My final concern also relates to the othering and tokenism, in the way that coming out is presented as a one-off action with no thought to the longer-term effects on the lives of the GLB and/or T people who take part. Without wishing to get bogged down in a debate about causality, it does seem to me that National Coming Out Day is a good example of the processes of cause and effect in action: sure, today, you may be celebrated for being brave enough, or “transgressive” enough to stand up and say “Yes, I’m trans” (and/or gay/lesbian/bi) – but if, as a result, tomorrow you find yourself being subjected to discriminatory or other prejudiced behaviour, you have to wonder exactly what the point of the day really is.

I have to say that I’m beginning to wonder if it might actually be more useful if, on National Coming Out Day, those who hold views which may be considered prejudiced, if not downright bigoted, are expected to let the rest of us know. At least then we could make informed decisions about whether or not we want to out ourselves. Yeah, I know: that’s an entirely unreasonable wish and isn’t going to happen any time soon – but, hey, I can dream of a time when the power imbalances are addressed in a way that might actually benefit those of us on the receiving end of the bad things, right?

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NCOD logo via Wikipedia

Comments From You

Lindsey // Posted 11 October 2010 at 9:55 am

Thanks Helen, you’ve put into words a lot of what I feel about coming out on a wider scale. No matter how safe the moment of telling may feel, you can never tell what will happen the day after.

quiet riot girl // Posted 11 October 2010 at 10:52 am

excellent post Helen.

I have questioned the whole value of ‘coming out’ as a concept at all.

there are other concepts, like communicating, listening, change, fluid identities, compassion…

Jen // Posted 11 October 2010 at 12:23 pm

Agreed unreservedly. I have huge problems with the concept of ‘coming out’, which you have pretty much summed up; also with the idea of lumping together gender and sexuality – even though they have common points, it often feels like everyone who is ‘other’ in terms of gender and/or sexuality gets lumped together as ‘one of them’.

Also, there are several things that make you vulnerable when you come out. One is, as you said and as commenters agreed, that it’s not always an option, that it might be cosy one day and have completely different consequences the next. There’s also the question of what you’re coming out into, which sometimes feels like his exclusive club. And there can be concerns as to whether you ‘deserve’ membership, particularly if you’re coming out as bi or if your sexuality is just generally very nebulous, as sexuality tends to be quite apart from the question of which gender you like it from and in which orifice while wearing which clothes. In other words, you could be making yourself vulnerable within the GLBT community as well as without – facing the threat of exclusion from that community, and then of course what awaits you on the outside. I’ve often felt that not being out yet can put you in an awkward position vis à vis the community – I mean, there’s a certain cachet attached to being ‘out’ and you can be seen as something of a traitor to the cause if you’re not. So then if you’re going to face a round of spanking and passive aggression, maybe you’re going to prefer to stay in the closet, and the longer you do that, the less you’ll be inclined to come out of it.

I mean if you’re coming out into a carefully controlled insulated environment, what’s the point anyway? It can be more of a prison than the initial situation. Plus of course GLBT folks are only human and more vulnerable and marginalised than most at the moment, so however much they want to be sensitive to people who are coming out, they’re not necessarily going to react well to someone they have thought of as straight suddenly having been a member of the club all along. There are loyalties and cultural associations that people depend on, and if you piss over the border, you might find yourself getting a 1000-volt shock to the crotch for all your trouble.

Joan Arling // Posted 12 October 2010 at 7:31 am

I agree for the most part. As a TL myself, I have wondered why GLB and T are usually thrown together without a second thought, yet I’ve somehow always been glad because it *does* give me some feeling of belonging. Perhaps the one thing GLB/T’s have in common, ist that they are all met with various levels of rejection by the majority.

So, perhaps a Coming Out Day is, at least a gesture of “Up yours” (hey, I said ‘at least’, not that there was nothing more to it). Childish, maybe, but it feels good nonetheless :-)

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