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.