Coming Out Day is a minor gay holiday in the US – it’s normal to have never heard of it, even if you are in the community. But for me, it’s always felt special.
When the phrase “coming out of the closet” was first popularized, doing so could risk your career and relationships with family, even in the most liberal parts of the US. Now, thanks to the hard work of a generation of gay activists, the landscape is more of a patchwork. In a moderate city, a kid can be kicked out of their parents’ house for coming out, and the kid next door can make the same announcement and be showered with positive attention and support. It's an interesting time for us.
I think it was a stroke of genius to culturally crystallize the act of disclosure as a milestone in the life of a person who is attracted to the same sex. Depending on the community we’re in, it may take more or less discomfort and resilience. I think that even in the best circumstances, most of us find it a bit awkward. Having a name for that experience helps us feel connected to others who have gone through the same thing, and that makes it easier.
My first coming out – as bisexual, at fifteen – was in one of those moderate cities. Some people thought I was going to hell; some people thought it was cool. A death threat appeared in my school email; the sender was found and expelled. When it felt stressful, I was able to rely on the beliefs that had been handed down to me from the gay rights movement: going public can be a struggle, but it’s worth it.
A year later, some changes kicked off for me that ended in a much more complex, conflicted experience of coming out, which led me to need and value those beliefs even more.
First, two things happened around the same time: I internalized some sexist beliefs from my male classmates, and an LGBT educational pamphlet introduced me to the idea that I could have a man’s brain in a female body. If I love abstract puzzle-solving, but the boys I hang out with say only men have this, what does that make me? If there is such a thing as a man’s brain in a woman’s body, and everything my male classmates say about men’s brains applies to me, and none of the things they say about women’s brains applies, what conclusion should I draw from that? If this situation sounds familiar in your own life, I’ll give you the spoiler: the conclusion is that you should find different friends.
I didn’t understand that yet, so I went the other route: I started to understand myself as a man in a woman’s body. That had a ripple effect on my experience of my body, nudged along by a trauma-induced dissociative disorder, which I had yet to name as anything but “that feeling”. At times, I felt a hallucinatory sense that I was physically male, and at other times, I felt that I should be, that it was painful not to be. I had no education on the complex ways the mind can affect the body, and words like “dissociation” and “body dysmorphia” weren’t yet in my vocabulary. I had access to only one explanation for my experience: that I was transgender.
I wasn’t sure that I wanted to live as a man, and I didn’t want to go through the hard process of telling anyone until I was sure. I kept it to myself, and quietly set aside my pocket money in a bank account to fund my future sex reassignment surgery. Suddenly, I was back in the closet, sort of.
The next ten years were a series of secrets, public announcements, and public corrections. I fumbled through young adulthood and hit that mid-twenties tipping point when your brain is finally done cooking. I joined a transgender community group and came out as “gender-questioning and considering transition”. I started to second-guess my investment in gender stereotypes; I realized that I could think and do whatever I wanted, and still be a woman. I started to explore alternate reasons why I might have a troubled relationship with my body.
I came out as “figured it out, not trans”, then as a gender-nonconforming bi woman, then finally as a lesbian. It felt good. I could see a not-too-distant future when I would be done with that raw exploratory phase, done coming out, and could settle down with a nice, stable set of labels.
I quickly learned that not everyone in progressive or gay-friendly spaces was happy with my eagerness to share about these things. I was pulled aside by well-meaning friends and told that I would have an easier time in LGBT social scenes if I stayed quiet about having formerly considered transition. The rationale was that my experience was invalidating to trans people, especially the part about my desire to transition being motivated by sexism and trauma. There was an odd furtiveness to these conversations, as if people were genuinely afraid of what might happen to me if I was too open.
I met other women in my city with stories similar to mine. All of them were in the closet – they kept this part of their past a secret in order to avoid suspicion that they were transphobic. They would confess it to me in private, after seeing me steamroll over social decorum by talking about it openly. Invariably, they made me promise to not tell anyone about them.
I also met detransitioners, women and men who had medically transitioned and then realized, like me, that it wasn’t what they needed. They expressed a deep sense of grief and loss for once-healthy body parts that were now gone. They also echoed my concern about the culture of silence and pressure in trans and progressive spaces. Many of them had had doubts about whether they should transition, and had been told that those doubts were offensive and transphobic. When they realized what had happened, and finally detransitioned, they were told to stay quiet about it.
If there is any letter in the LGBT where we need to be open about doubts and backtracking, it’s the T. Going back on sexuality can lead to personal upheaval and some broken hearts, but an ill-advised transition is a lifelong medical burden. The burden is held disproportionately by butch lesbians, feminine gay men, and young women with trauma histories, all of whom are more likely to become convinced that they need to transition. This makes it even more important that gay communities learn to navigate these conversations, not sweep them under the rug.
At the same time, I learned that my being a lesbian was “problematic”, because I was attracted only to people who were biologically female. This felt threatening or invalidating to some trans women, who felt that it was a matter of justice that a lesbian should consider them as a sexual partner, even if they hadn’t transitioned and their body was unambiguously male. I was introduced to the immortal phrase, “I’m fine with lesbians, just not the bad kind who don’t like penis.” It sounds like something you might hear from a guy who’s watched too much porn, but it was a common sentiment among millennial progressives, because it was considered to be trans-supportive.
I don’t think these cultural shifts happened because of an innate malice toward desisters or lesbians. In progressive communities, everyone is excited about making positive change for trans people, and concerned about being as accommodating as possible. At the same time, a subset of trans culture has gotten more aggressive in asking for things that impinge on other people’s rights. Disagreeing with their requests can lead to public callouts, online scuffles, and in some cases, calls for the person’s employer to fire them. This had created the atmosphere of fear I noticed, and was the reason people were so nervous to broach these topics.
The solution is balance, boundaries, and bravery. Trans people should be protected from discrimination, but we also need awareness of the mental health challenges that tie into some people’s desire to transition, and we need to tell young gay women that their sexuality is okay. If someone feels entitled to lash out in order to shut those conversations down, we need to address that as a real issue.
I made a conscious decision to be out as whatever I was at any given time, including the “problematic” stuff, and pretend that it was the most ordinary thing in the world. This style of communication made perfect sense to me, because I was steeped in the old-fashioned ethos around coming out; it’s supposed to feel like a risk.
I became stubborn in my conviction that being “out” about these things is wholesome and good – that it reflects the highest values of our community. When those sticky topics made people uncomfortable, that made me be more open, because I wanted them to see that it didn’t have to be uncomfortable. I had fun with it.
Ten years later, it’s still a part of my life, and it’s still fun and meaningful. It’s allowed me to bring awareness to hot-button issues that many struggle to engage with. But most importantly, it’s brought me friends and community connections who know exactly who I am and like me anyway.
Now, we’re starting to see more stories of detransition and desistance enter the public sphere. We’re hearing publicly from more lesbian women about how we’re affected by the insistence that our sexuality has to be male-inclusive. The atmosphere of fear is still there, but if you are one of the people who is working against it, there are more people now who are visibly on your side.
If these things are part of your life, I’d like you to know that you can do this, too. Just like it was way back in the day, every time one more person comes out, that makes it easier for the next one. And just as importantly, it can make you happier and freer, and remind you to be proud of who you are.
Happy Coming Out Day, everyone!