Harvey Milk once said, “You must come out … and once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.” What exactly does it mean to “come out?”
A lot of modern definitions speak of coming out as a process. Often the first step is coming out to oneself and over time one may choose to tell their friends, family and people in the community. But the choice to open up with some people in one’s life, but not with others, should remain with oneself. There is a stark difference in the two statements. While Milk wants LGBTQ individuals to come out and assert their identities in order to break stereotypes not just for the individuals’ personal liberation but for the community as a whole, the other statement talks about putting the decision and choice on an individual to choose what and who they are comfortable with sharing this extremely private information. This is where it becomes a tricky situation — to come out or to not come out? Of course, there is the third option of selective coming out.
National Coming Out Day is a national LGBTQ awareness day dedicated to coming out so that individuals do not continue to live in fear or silence once they can open up about their sexual orientation to their loved ones. There is a lot of emphasis put on “coming out” for LGBTQ individuals particularly from within the queer community itself. A repeatedly asked question to queer individuals is, “Are you out about your sexual orientation?”
While the idea of “coming out” is noble, does it fail to take into consideration that the safety situation and surrounding environment is not same for all LGBTQ population? While one can see proud parents walking with their queer kids at Capital Pride held in D.C., there are also several parents such as those of Garrard Conley who send their children for conversation therapy to rid them of their “homosexuality.” The idea of “coming out” is to fight oppression allowing queer individuals to live their lives with dignity and on their own terms. However, to a large extent it has evolved to become an additional check box which one has to cross out to prove their queerness.
Rasel Ahmed, the editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine who has been forced into exile out of the country since 2016, is of the opinion that “coming out” shouldn’t be a singular act as it’s often portrayed in the Western media. For him it is a form of communication which can happen in many layers and can continue to be a lifelong process.
There is a common critic of “coming out” that if straight people do not feel the need out to assert their heterosexuality, why should queer individuals do so? A black gay man living in D.C. who is out to his mother says that because “being straight has become the norm and it is important for queer individuals to ‘come out’ and challenge this heteronormative ideology of sexual identity.” While some individuals like him are surrounded by friends and family who accept them for who they are irrespective of their sexual orientation, there are many who are denied that empathy and acceptance. According to an analysis of data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, LGBTQ people are the most likely targets of hate crimes in America. If this is the level of vulnerability which queer individuals can face in a developed nation, one can only imagine the dangerous position that “coming out” can put a queer person in countries where “homosexuality is a crime punishable by law.”
While “coming out” can be a liberating experience for some individuals, it should not be seen as a major yardstick for someone to identify oneself as queer. A lot of factors should be taken into consideration before “coming out.” First of all, is the individual doing it out of their own need of self-acceptance or because “coming out” is being advertised as a major direction towards being queer. How safe is the person’s environment for them to come out? Do they have a backup plan in case their “coming out” does not bear the result they expected? And most importantly, is the person ready to “come out” and whom do they want to share this information with?
Also, it should be reminded here that it takes a lot of courage for an individual to share this intimate detail of their life with others. They deserve empathy, love and kindness from the people they chose to share it with because these are individuals they felt feel most safe with and understood by.
Tausif Sanzum is a D.C.-based Bangladeshi journalist.