People often ask me when I came out or how it was for me when I came out… and I want to say which time?! I have a semi-memorized monologue about a few experiences from 13-16 years old, but these memories aren’t particularly important to me anymore. More important now are the experiences last year, last month, last week, and today. People assume that coming out is something that happens once or a few times all in a short span. However, gay people know that it is actually a constant in our lives. The coming-out stories we watch on TV and movies are always the first time; it seems that after that first time, all LGBTQ characters are surrounded only by people who already know that they are gay and the life-experience of coming out again and again in all its benign forms is not something the media portrays.
You would think that coming out over and over again is only an issue if you’re getting negative responses. However, even when getting positive responses, it is still an issue because it adds more anxiety to my life. Over-thinking when meeting new people due to weighing the right time and right way to come out and worrying about potential prejudice color my interactions with strangers. Usually, everything turns out great, but that doesn’t negate the initial anxiety before coming out (again). Even if a person is accepting of me, it’s still an awkward situation to come out because it can seem like I have started a conversation about homosexuality, whereas really what I’ve done is start a conversation about myself. Actually, I’m bored with the subject of homosexuality and it’s not what I want to talk about. I want to figure out a way to declare my identity without making it seem that I want to talk about it.
I often find myself avoiding coming out when talking to new people, so I attempt to keep the topic off of my personal life so that it won’t naturally come up. In settings that require small talk with strangers who are unlikely to become close friends (think dentist cleanings, massages, waiting in lines, etc), people often reference my wedding ring and ask about my husband. I find myself playing the “pronoun game” (Chasing Amy) which is when a person uses non-gendered pronouns instead of gendered pronouns or avoids pronouns altogether. For example, “What does your husband do?” can be answered with “Financial analysis” and “Is he excited to have children?” can be answered with “Indeed, we both are.” It is awkward for me and makes me feel fake and guarded. It’s not worth coming out to a stranger because I don’t know how they’ll react and I’m not usually in the mood to talk about homosexuality. “My wife is a financial analyst” or “Yes, she is” would be appropriate answers, but they would not be accepted without a follow-up conversation about how it’s great to be gay or, worse, something negative. The timing of coming out is part of the overthinking. Sometimes, a stranger becomes a friend over time. At first meeting him or her, I don’t tell them, but then later on, when they don’t know the real me, I start to feel disingenuous because by that point I’ve usually not corrected their assumption at least once. Perhaps I should get better at taking advantage of that window of opportunity to come out naturally by correcting them the first time the male pronoun is used about my significant other.
Just like I’m obsessing and over analyzing, I bet the people I’m coming out to are also overthinking the encounter. These accepting people are probably worrying about how to show support. Ironically, outward shows of support after my coming out are actually awkward. I know they are trying to be polite and encouraging when they tell me that they have a gay cousin! neighbor! uncle! From their perspective, it may seem rude to ignore that I just came out. It appears coming out is a fact that must be recognized so both parties can feel supported or supportive. It’s better than rejection but it implies my identity needed validation and it’s exhausting for me to have the same conversation so many times. It might be better to not make a specific comment about it and just keep going with the conversation.
Some lesbians have a gay “vibe” which makes people assume they are gay. Others are more traditionally feminine and people assume they are straight. I know these stereotypes and expectations for the female gender don’t make anyone’s life easier, but I would say appearing feminine and thus “straight” is an advantage in my life. However, my femininity makes me have a regularly occurring difficult decision about whether or not to come out. There are situations when a stranger doesn’t need to know me very well and I’m left wondering if not correcting them is a sign that I am embarrassed by my identity. I’m not sure if it is important to disruptively throw into conversations that I am gay or if I should just let their misinterpretation of me slide. Do I correct their assumption or does it not matter? There are so many thoughts because the whole time, I’m thinking about how to be true to myself and also not preachy or demanding. One thing that society can do to improve this situation is to stop assuming feminine women are straight and masculine women are gay. To do so, a person could ask “What does your husband or wife do?” That would make it so much easier to come out and wouldn’t require the “ohhhh I support you” feedback that follows the correction of an assumption from a supportive person.
I work on a school campus that has 100 faculty members. There is not a single other adult that is out on campus. One gay person out of a hundred doesn’t match the statistics on LGBTQ representation. So, that makes me think, are there faculty members in the closet? I myself spent two years not once mentioning my homosexuality to coworkers or students while waiting for tenure and it really got me down. I felt fake and distant from coworkers and students. Then finally after obtaining tenure, I came out to some and then more here and there for a couple of years. A staff meeting that collected summer pictures gave me an opportunity to come out to the whole staff with a photo from my recent wedding. I put up the photo in my classroom, too. That was a huge relief for me and has continued to positively impact my career and mental health. My students’ end-of-the-year feedback has shown that they feel more connected with me with each passing year, and I assume that is because my guard is down and I can share a story here and there about my personal life without feeling conflicted and insecure. It appears that the stress of coming out too many times at least feels better than the sadness I felt from not coming out enough. Now that everyone knows I am gay on campus, I don’t have to keep coming out over and over at work except for the beginning of school years, but of course that doesn’t change my interactions off campus.
My colleagues have been so accepting of me, but I wonder if they feel that they are keeping a secret. If you have a gay friend, ask him or her if they want you to be discreet. Of course, it is never right to “out” someone who wants to remain closeted; however, for a person not in the closet, their homosexuality can be openly discussed and this is probably helpful for them. Many people like me would rather it just be in the open instead of having to “break the news” over and over. Having a gay relationship is just a normal thing, so remember that it isn’t a secret for a person who is not in the closet.
Declaring myself a lesbian for the thousandth time is a revolving door more than a closet I’m coming out of. A person doesn’t normally come out of things over and over. Also, the fact that I’m coming out of the closet implies that I’m in the closet which isn’t true. A fact that a person doesn’t know about me isn’t the same as a secret. Society assuming a person is always straight keeps a gay person in a metaphorical closet even when they aren’t choosing to be in one. I don’t like the stigma of the phrase but it does accurately describe gay people’s experiences feeling secretive, hidden, marginalized, and isolated.
Coming out of the closet for the billionth time also relates to nonverbal language. There’s still that nagging thought while doing errands or date night that if I’m not holding my wife’s hand, perhaps I am hiding my sexuality and our relationship. Do I need to prove who I am in order to not be hiding who I am? Is the fact that people will assume we are just friends a sign of my internalized shame or attempts at secrecy? These types of questions show that my internal overthinking gets in the way of my mental health and living in the moment.
What’s really cool is that times have changed a lot. Nowadays, I can go to the bank and ask to have a joint account with my wife and maybe the bank associate doesn’t think twice. But, I always do. Sometimes, it’s easy and affirming to come out and other times it’s awkward, but I’m blessed that it’s almost never negative. But this happy fact doesn’t negate my perpetual insecurities, worries, and feelings of internal conflict surrounding coming out of the closet… again.