No Need to Ask or Tell
An analysis of ‘coming out’ reveals the prejudiced presumptions of the practice
Anyone who’s overheard a lengthy telephone conversation between me and my mother likely felt remotely creeped out, and with good reason. I tell her what I had for lunch that day. I tell her about the problem set I aced. I tell her, far more often, about the problem set I bombed. I tell her about my latest column (hi, Mom!). She responds just as parents should, showing an absurd level of interest in the mundane details of my everyday existence. Yet in the history of this overshare-heavy relationship, I have never once uttered the sentence: “Today, I felt attracted to a man.” (Insert “Harvard students are ugly” joke here.) When a male friend recently expressed a similar sentiment to his similarly-close father, his dad responded as I suspect my mother would—with indifference. “I don’t walk around informing people I’m straight,” he noted. “You shouldn’t be expected to tell people you’re gay.”
The notion of “coming out,” as it’s currently conceived, developed shortly after the Stonewall riots of 1969. Michael Fader, who witnessed the rebellion, later described it as a turning point in the history of the gay and lesbian community: “There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.” The violent reaction to a longstanding history of abuse and repression lent a political connotation to the practice. According to the Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, a project of glbtq, Inc., coming out is not merely “coming out of the loneliness, isolation, and self-hatred of the closet,” but is “a form of political activism that participants hope will increase support for glbtq causes.” In this sense, the act can be seen as an assertion of one’s presence, a firm claim to personhood comparable to the one that was uttered four decades ago in the streets of Greenwich Village.
Yet the process of coming out carries with it its own series of stifling implications. First, it places a burden on all of us to categorize our sexual identity instead of giving it free rein, demanding that we label ourselves as gay, straight, or bisexual instead of openly and honestly coming to terms with our desires over a lifetime of sexual maturation. The view of sexuality as a ternary, rather than a spectrum, is enforced by a taxonomic, unsubtle paradigm. The pressure is particularly overbearing when one is expected to come out at a young age. With the passage of every National Coming Out Day on every college campus in America comes an imploration to define oneself as one way, another, or firmly in between.
Even more damaging is the premise that all those who find themselves in the sexual-orientation minority are necessarily in a place of self-loathing until their interpersonal interactions in some way validate their identity. As Adrian Gillan of Gaydar Nation wrote, discussing United Kingdom National Coming Out Day: “Of course, the very notion of coming out implies you were once in a closet to come out of.” In a society rife with judgment and prejudice, being different is often all one needs to feel alienated and estranged from mainstream culture. Why add to this burden by demanding that individuals declare their sexuality to the world in order to fully realize it? This is certainly not to imply that homosexual activity should be swept under the rug, but only to say that an unwillingness to utter the words “I’m gay” doesn’t evidence a lack of self-acceptance, or a desire to deceive. It can, and often does, simply mean that one doesn’t care to cater to the biases of a society that assumes heterosexuality to be the default and believes that one’s otherness must be declared in one fell swoop, lest a queer be mistaken for a straight.
Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world. Gillan himself acknowledges that “the closet...is surprisingly all-pervading and going nowhere fast,” since we are far from an era in which “sexuality is a genuine non-issue.” But the way to phase out flawed social constructions is hardly to indulge them. Coming out has become a highly ritualized process, an often-traumatic coming-of-age requirement for all those who deviate from arbitrary societal norms for sexual behavior. Rather than demanding, as glbtq, Inc. seems to, that people partake in this ritual in order to be true activists for issues important to the gay community, the process of coming out should be reserved for those who truly deem the act empowering. We should encourage individuals who don’t feel this way to simply be, without feeling obligated to make grand proclamations to their friends and family. More importantly, society must present an environment that is supportive to those personal preferences, normalizing homosexuality and truly withholding judgment. Freedom, after all, is a long time overdue.
Silpa Kovvali ’10 is a computer science concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.