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The complications of coming out

| Friday, October 9, 2020

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

National Coming Out Day is Sunday. The holiday was created in 1988 to celebrate publicly identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, etc. (LGBTQ). I certainly agree that it is an important day for celebration, but I also believe it provides a crucial opportunity to talk about what coming out means and the role it plays in the lives of LGBTQ people. And if you’re thinking, “I’m cisgender and straight so this doesn’t affect me,” you’re wrong — you have an LGBTQ loved one in your life, whether you know it or not, so you should care about our well-being. 

I’m a gay, cisgender, white man whose family supports and affirms him. This makes me a lot more privileged than many, if not most, LGBTQ people. When I talk about issues that affect our community, I know I’m seeing it through this lens, and I recommend listening to other voices in the community as well to get the full picture. 

I’m also privileged in that I can pass as straight when I choose to. If I don’t want someone to know I’m gay, I won’t tell them; it’s as simple as that. That’s not the case for many others in the community, who, for whatever reason, are presumed to be gay (or bisexual, or trangender, etc.) by most people they know. Whether someone is able to pass as cisgender and straight deeply affects coming out. Someone who doesn’t usually do so might have to deal with pre-existing prejudices against them, while someone who does has to deal with surprise on top of other emotions. 

There are two misconceptions about coming out that I believe we should do away with. First, celebrating coming out can create problems, especially for those who have not yet done so. I’m sure there are plenty of Notre Dame students who know they are LGBTQ and have not told a single soul. When the only message they hear is that coming out is that it’s “courageous,” they might think of themselves as cowards. They’re not cowards. One’s ability to come out depends on the people around them, the potential consequences of doing so and whatever internal struggles someone might have with their identity. It has nothing to do with whether someone is brave, and messaging that says otherwise should be done away with. 

Second, coming out isn’t something that every LGBTQ person does once and then lives happily ever after. Coming out starts at a particular moment: When you first tell someone there’s something about you they don’t know. It never ends. There’s a significant chance that when I’m 70 years old I will be in an uncomfortable situation where I have to inform someone that I’m gay, and to that person, I will have just “come out” then. I came out to my friends in high school, but that didn’t exempt me from having to go through the same difficult process with my friends at Notre Dame. I come out to people all the time; it’s a recurring conversation I have, a regular aspect of my life. I’ve come out to a lot of people in 2020, even though I came out for the first time years ago. You might think coming out now would be easy given the state of the country. You would be wrong. To see why, we must discuss the situation surrounding LGBTQ people in America. 

Let’s look at the positive first. According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of Americans say that homosexuality should be accepted by society. Same-sex marriages have been legal nationwide since the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. Gay and lesbian men and women have been able to openly serve in the military since Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in 2011, and federal law has been interpreted to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment since June. 

We also must acknowledge the negative. According to that same study from the Pew Research Center, over one in five Americans say that homosexuality should not be accepted by society. Over two in five Americans don’t believe transgender people should be able to use the bathroom of their choice. Transgender people are also banned from joining the military, and current transgender soldiers are forced to pretend as if they weren’t transgender. A 2015 study from the Center for Disease Control found that three out of every five LGB teens said they were so sad or hopeless that they struggled to do their usual activities, and three out of every 10 had attempted suicide. Remember, these are the circumstances LGBTQ people live with in the United States. As of 2019, there were 13 countries where homosexuality was legally punishable by death. 

These facts, both the positive and the negative, color how LGBTQ people navigate coming out in 2020. On the one hand, things are probably easier for us than they’ve ever been. On the other hand, things still aren’t easy in the least. Whenever I meet someone new, two questions immediately race through my head: “Do they know that I’m gay?” “If they don’t, how will they react if they find out?” My internal answers to that second question might determine whether I decide to talk to that stranger again because I know many people at Notre Dame are not thrilled about my sexuality, to say the least. I decide to come out to someone not based on how “proud” of myself I am or how “brave” I am, but based on whether I believe I can simultaneously have a fruitful relationship with that person and be out to them.

Coming out, even in 2020, means constantly opening yourself up to being hurt, in ways that most LGBTQ people have been hurt before. It should be celebrated, but it shouldn’t be demanded, and we must fight to make it easier. 

Vince Mallett is a senior majoring in philosophy, with a minor in Constitutional Studies. He currently lives off-campus, though he calls both New Jersey and Carroll Hall home. He can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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