The Future Of Coming Out

Will LGBT people always need to come out? This question reverberated in my mind as I reflected on the steady pace of progress on LGBT issues in the US in recent years. Like so many issues that affect our community, I see a big difference between LGB on the one hand and T on the other.

Alma and I were recently discussing the amazing shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage we’ve seen just in the last decade. We made friends through youth activism, a lot of it centered around marriage equality. Every legislative session, we swarmed the state capitol, asking our representatives to vote “No” on proposed DOMAs and “Yes” on domestic partnership bills. We thought we would see marriage equality in our lifetimes–but we didn’t think it would arrive so soon, or so decisively.

This year, marriage equality came to our state. I shed a few tears watching the first same-sex marriages performed in my county, a ceremony in English, Spanish and Hebrew. What will it be like for kids who grow up in a marriage equality world?

The gap between my generation and my parents’ is massive. When they were growing up, coming out young meant one’s early twenties. In contrast, many people my age (mid-twenties) came out in high school or even middle school. Realizing you’re gay at 25 seems surprisingly late to me. No disrespect meant to those who come out later in life; it’s just a cultural norm. The point is that in some spheres, “early” and “late” have completely shifted in just a couple of decades.

This means that “coming out” for young LGB folks can have a completely different meaning from earlier times. For example, my mom, who is in her fifties, sensed she was a lesbian from a young age. But she had no words and no role models. She married my dad, and ended up coming out in her late thirties. For her, “coming out” meant letting go of a false self she’d presented to the world for many years. Of course, many in her generation came out at a younger age and never entered a different-sex marriage, such as my step-mom. Still, the phrase “coming out of the closet” surely suggest a sojourn in a narrow place of hiding, shame, and restriction.

But what is coming out for the person who is able to say “I’m gay” (or whatever) at age 14? Many of these people will move smoothly from childhood to adolescence to adulthood without ever presenting a false straight self. They will have their first kiss, first date, and first marriage with a person they are actually attracted to.

So I wonder whether in the next generation, “coming out” will have the same resonance for LGB people. More and more individuals may have the chance to simply “come in” to their selves, without no detainment in the closet.

But what about trans people? Acceptance and awareness of our lives are on the rise, too. The Time piece on Laverne Cox seems to suggest a new level of mainstream affirmation. Yet it seems certain that for the foreseeable future, trans people will always have to come out.

Ascribing sexual orientation to a child is different than ascribing gender. I think more parents will be willing to wait and see who their child loves. But how many will be willing to wait and see who their child is?

I am not advocating gender-neutral childhoods. Many of us wish we’d had the chance to grow up as a boy or girl–why deny that to others? The fact is that for the vast majority, sex assignment works.

So there may be no getting around it. In cultures that have a deep and wise appreciation of gender variance, trans kids may be sensed by the community, and may not need to come out. But in this country, I believe we will always need to announce ourselves. We will do it younger and younger, til many come out as children and young teens. We will do it to greater and greater acceptance, til rejection by one’s family becomes rare. But I do not think there will come a day when being trans doesn’t come as a surprise. Maybe someday they’ll have a test to diagnose us, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. They’ll probably try to exterminate us if they do.

Because the shackles of assigned gender will always confine us, we will always know the narrow place of the closet, even if we only know it for a few youthful years. Because no one is going to find our genders for us, we will always walk a crooked path, a path that forever remains less traveled. We are rare birds. Twenty-five years from now, trans kids may be less different–but we will always be different.

That’s my guess, anyway. What do you think? Feel free to speculate about identities I did not address.

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6 comments

  1. Lesboi

    I think you’re right here. For the LGB youth it would be nice if the world didn’t assume they’re heterosexual and, instead, waited to see who they’re attracted to as they grow up. That would be ideal. As for trans youth, if parents can somehow stay open minded about gender and let their child control their destiny this would be ideal in my opinion. Perhaps a re-wording is in order. Instead of their coming out of a closet it could be as simple as coming out as their true self to the world. In the south they throw coming out parties for young ladies who are entering womanhood…debutante balls and such. Coming out doesn’t have to carry with it shame and isolation. It could be a celebration of sorts. This is my hope any way for the future.

    • rimonim

      I really like the idea of coming out a la a debutante ball–making one’s entrance into the world of adult relationships. I could see that as a new meaning for LGBT people who state their identities at a young age and are met with immediate acceptance.

  2. topherbigelow

    I almost think we’ll always have to come out. While it’s true that we’ve made great strides toward a more equal society, there are a lot of things that haven’t been addressed. Heteronormativity and gender binaries are, unfortunately, as strong as ever. Society is beginning to recognize the illegality of denying LGBT people the rights that they can wrap their minds around–like marriage. We’re still considered weird and abnormal by a large number of people. In my view, which, is probably a little cynical, it’ll take at least another five years for LG people to be integrated into the public consciousness as “normal,” a decade to end the biphobia, and fifteen to twenty years at least to break down the gender binary to allow broader acceptance for trans and non-binary people. I hope I’m wrong, though.

    (By the way, this is a great blog. :) )

    • rimonim

      You’re absolutely right–bigotry and ignorance remain widespread, and probably will for years to come.

      I’m curious how much of the growing acceptance of LGB folks will boost acceptance of trans people by association. It seems like it took many people a LONG time to get the idea through their heads that people don’t choose to be LGB and it’s wrong to be biased against them for that. But now–in the liberal-leaning, urban world I inhabit, of course–it’s taboo to say something openly homophobic (biphobic, not so much). That seems to be the case more and more in the mainstream media, too.

      And often, when people encounter trans folks, I see a reaction that goes something like, “Whoa, I’m not sure about this…But I guess it’s pretty much like being gay, so I think I’m cool with it.” Or, on the flipside, they’re not exactly pro-trans–but to say something overtly anti-trans is a little too close for comfort to saying something homophobic.

      I think people may be overestimating how similar these things really are, of course, but I’ll take what I can get!

      (And, thanks!)

  3. Shokubutsujin

    I don’t even bother coming out sexuality-wise. It’s kind of like “hey, meet my girlfriend. Oh, I’m a lesbian by the way”, and I’m sure in a future nobody LGB will have to come out either. But being trans is a different thing. Though we have advanced a lot in recent years, it’s still kind of taboo.

  4. Pingback: Sunday links, 6/29/14 | Tutus And Tiny Hats

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