Hey, Straight People — Stop Making Your Friends' Queerness About You

Illustrated By Anna Sudit.
It was early in the morning on Monday, June 13, the day after the Orlando nightclub shooting that took 49 lives, when I saw the status my brother B had posted to Facebook the night before. "I've kept mostly silent today on the events in Orlando and Los Angeles — in part because I don't think I have the words to share the thoughts rolling around in my head, but mainly because I didn't think I'd have a place to put them even if I did,” he began. I read on, and that's when I learned that my brother identifies as queer. This was his coming-out post.

My first thought: Wow — I’m so proud of him for realizing this and sharing it with the world. My other first thought: I’m learning this at the same time as the rest of the world?

“Call me when you can <3,” I texted him, then got a text from my other brother: “Did you see B’s FB post?” I replied that I had. “News to me!! But I’m happy for him :),” he responded. And I was, too. I just wouldn’t have expected to find out on social media.

Before you interject that someone else's coming out — the when, where, why, how, and to-whom of it — is not about you, let me first say: Someone else’s coming out is not about you. I knew this already; I had to remind myself of it when my brother shared this part of his identity with his thousand-odd Facebook friends. And as more and more people come out online, the message bears repeating. Last year, in honor of National Coming Out Day, Facebook’s Core Data Science team published its findings on the rates of people coming out on the platform, with coming out defined as stating a same-gender attraction or custom gender identity. The number of Americans who had come out on Facebook over the preceding year had risen dramatically, with the number coming out each day hitting almost three times what it had been a year before.

“The sheer magnitude of this increase suggests that the LGBT movement has made significant strides in recent years,” the authors wrote, noting that “the total number of fans of LGBT pages has increased close to 25% over the past year, with a noticeable leap around the recent Supreme Court decision.” The connection: As non-straight identities become more accepted, publicly claiming them becomes more common — and what is more public than an internet blast to everyone from your middle school PE teacher to your summer-camp bunkmate to your older sister?

B called me later that Monday. I did have questions: Which labels do you use other than queer, if any? How long have you known? How are you feeling about coming out? And a nosy one I allowed myself to venture, since I am, at heart, a meddling older sister: Anyone special in your life? I thanked him for sharing the answers with me and told him I loved him and was proud of him. I didn’t ask why he hadn’t first told close family members (in other words, me — me, me, me!). In that moment, the focus was on him and what he wanted to tell me, as well as which of my questions he wanted to deflect. There weren’t any, but there could have been; the right to not share is as important as the right to share.

I spoke later with my friend A, who also identifies as queer, about how to support friends and family members who come out online. “If they’re not sharing with you the reason why they’re coming out or why they’re coming out so late, maybe don’t ask,” she said. “It was their choice — they don’t need to justify to you why they did or didn’t come out at whatever point, for whatever reason, and if they say that there is a specific reason that they’re coming out, don’t question it.”

A told me that when she came out to friends and family, which she did in person, she always appreciated the simple response, "I’ll be supportive of you in whatever way I can." "That’s not making it about yourself,” she explained, a maneuver she observes when commenters on coming-out statuses perform their support for the person coming out: "People do kind of make it about them, or they make it about how not homophobic they are." Just as much as it misses the point to challenge a person on how they came out, it can also be counterproductive to wax rhapsodic about how brave and brilliant and beautiful they are, how much you admire their courageous willingness to make such a deeply personal admission to the world and live as their authentic selves...and so on and so forth. “It just feels very pandering, and it makes you feel like maybe you can’t even live up to that projection onto you, [like] you need to be the ‘good gay,’” A said, instead of just being who you are. As straight people commodify and perform allyship, showing off just how supportive and "down" we are, we risk lifting queer friends from the closet to a pedestal — also a lonely place to be.

As straight people commodify and perform allyship, showing off just how supportive and “down” we are, we risk lifting queer friends from the closet to a pedestal — also a lonely place to be.

B and A agree that in a perfect world, “coming out” wouldn’t be necessary, because straightness wouldn’t be assumed and everyone would be treated equally anyway. But we’re in America in 2016, where your sexual identity can still hurt and even kill you. More than one in five LGBT adults in one Pew survey reported that they had experienced workplace discrimination. There are still 28 states in which firing someone for being queer or trans is perfectly legal, and there is no federal legislation that bans discrimination based on orientation or gender identity. LGBT people are more likely than any other group to be targeted by hate crimes — and the violence, bullying, homelessness, employment and housing discrimination, parenting and custody-rights battles, and lack of access to education, health care, and public services they face can be compounded by gender identity, race, and immigration status. When you come out, A points out, you’re not telling others that you are a different person than they thought as much as acknowledging that your experience of the world is different than theirs. “It doesn’t matter how much we want it to not be different, it still is different," she says, "so it’s important to let your community" — both queer and straight — "know what you’re experiencing.”
In fact, B hadn’t been planning to come out online at all, but to share his sexuality with friends and family in person — whenever he felt ready to start a conversation that can be intimidating no matter how open-minded the people in your life are. “I figured, Hey, if it comes up, it comes up, and I’m happy to share that, but I don’t need to make a big performance out of it,” he tells me. That was before a homophobic hate crime claimed the lives of 49 people during a night out at a gay club that they assumed was a safe space, rattling B's understanding of what it means to be queer in this country today.

Afterward, “I was talking about it, but it was a very distanced, third-person kind of This horrible thing happened, how does this keep happening, how is this a thing that happens in our country and not A community that I am a part of has just been terrorized," he continues. “I was seeing all over Facebook my friends, and especially queer friends, sending out all this support, this love. I wanted to be a part of that, because I needed that, too, and I felt like it was something I could give to the people who needed it — but I wasn’t out.” And then at 3 a.m. on June 13, after an hour of writing — "I’m going to very carefully craft how I’m going to say this and how I want people to read this and find this out about me," he says of his thinking at the time — he was out.
He was ready to publicly join a community, to give and get support as a member of it, and he doesn't owe me or anyone else an explanation of why he came out online before coming out in person. I’m grateful to him for talking with me afterward about why he did, but he wasn’t obligated by the bonds of family or friendship to do that either.

Most importantly, B's Facebook post created an opening for us to connect, allowing me to reach out to him and offer love. Many others did, too. "I got a lot of personal messages, texts, and Facebook messages being like, Hey, you’re wonderful, I love you, I’m so happy you feel comfortable or safe enough to do this publicly,” B says. "It was just a lot of people being really genuinely happy for me.” I'm relieved that his coming-out experience was rewarding. This is not the case for so many LGBT people, especially young people, who are met with rejection, violence, or disownment. That’s not to say that my brother will never face discrimination, but as he puts it, "Being where I am" — queer and out — "is worth the price of entry.” I'm proud of him, and I'm reminded that the gauge of how good a sister or friend or ally you are is not whether you find out first. It's how you respond when you do.
The Bed Post is a series that explores what holds us back from sex and love with whom we want, when we want, where we want, and how we want — because we all deserve sex and love lives that are not only free of evils, but full of what is good. Follow me on Twitter at @hlmacmillen or email me at hayley.macmillen@refinery29 — I’d love to hear from you. Find all of The Bed Post right here.

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