There’s a dominant cultural vision of what a coming out story looks like: a young person (most likely a cis white gay man) sits their parents down and tearfully tells them they are gay/queer. Reactions vary from shock to rage to loving acceptance. But central to this trope is the idea that by coming out, the person has revealed their 'true' identity. If they’re lucky, the people they told accept them there and then. If not, well…
Either way, the coming out narrative is a sob story. Queer people endure it in order to emerge, phoenix-like, from the closet into a place where they are Officially Out, ready to live their best queer lives.
This trope might not be reflective of many LGBTQ+ people’s realities but 'coming out of the closet' is a framework which, historically, has been useful for Western society. For years people have been forced, by the law and societal norms, to hide who they are. LGBTQ+ identities were – and still are – seen as shameful, abnormal, a danger to the status quo.
The closet as a concept, then, was born out of necessity: a useful way to describe repression for safety’s sake. But as Suzanna Danuta Walters, director of women's, gender, and sexuality studies and professor of sociology at Northeastern University, writes in her book The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality, it was only in the post-Stonewall world that 'coming out' became a political exercise: "Coming out as a representational form – as a genre and a tellable tale – really only emerges with the development of a movement for which coming out has salience." In order to fight for liberation, gay people would own their identity with pride by publicly owning their gay identity. The more gay people came out, so the thinking went, the more normalized gayness would become.
However we cannot escape the fact that, generally, it is cis gay identities and not the vast spectrum of queer identities which have been given the biggest platform. "Coming out as a singular process," writes Walters, "depended on the establishment of a gay identity and a gay movement to make it happen." In other words, for the coming out narrative to be successful, you need the category of 'the homosexual' – and while we may imagine that to have always existed, it’s very much a 20th century phenomenon. As Walters writes: "As many historians and theorists have convincingly argued, the homosexual as a distinct category, a demarcated identity (rather than, say, a set of possible sexual acts or preferences) is a very modern invention, as is the heterosexual."
The narrowness of the concept of coming out and the language we use to describe it means it is no longer politically useful or reflective of the spectrum of identities that make up the LGBTQIAA+ community.
The framework of coming out can even be obstructive. The trope ignores the fact that coming out is not a singular moment but an ongoing process that LGBTQ+ people are made to feel they should engage with whenever they meet someone new who assumes their pronouns or sexuality. It's a concept which suggests that, prior to your coming out, you were lying and being deceptive by not sharing your sexuality or gender identity with absolutely everyone. This perceived 'deceit' can impact relationships. It allows no room for fluidity and presupposes that your identity is fixed, making the act of coming out again when you understand something different about your gender or sexuality feel shameful. This is particularly salient for trans and gender queer people who have been deprived of the visibility and support they need. It prioritizes a white, wealthy Western experience where coming out gives you access to queer communities and people who will support you. If you can’t afford to move away from your home or lose a familial bond or shared cultural heritage, coming out will not be a road to freedom. And it can make those who do not feel safe or do not want to lose that bond feel rejected by the queer community.
With coming out, we give others the opportunity to reject our visibility, as if it's their choice.
Rodney S. Williams JR., storyteller, strategist, and organizer
As the queer, Latinx poet Asiel Adan Sanchez wrote for Archer: "When the closet is portrayed as a place of self-hatred, pride becomes an insidious reminder that, in order to be part of the queer community, you have to be visible, out, and open. We are so often made to choose between our self and our safety."
Perhaps most significantly, 'coming out' is a phrase that hands over a queer person’s power to other people. Coming out to someone means it’s in their hands to accept or reject you, leaving you at the mercy of their prejudices and even open to violence. As storyteller, strategist, and organizer Rodney S. Williams Jr puts it: "With coming out, we give others the opportunity to reject our visibility, as if it’s their choice."
The act of sharing one's queerness by coming out is seen as an obligation for the sake of others, not oneself. It can put pressure on queer people, it feels exposing and it can, inadvertently, end up boxing a queer person into a fixed identity when, in truth, our sense of self may shift and develop over time.
So why don't we find new language, and new frameworks, for sharing LGBTQ+ identity? We shouldn’t have to 'come out' anymore. Instead, we should be ‘inviting in’ the world, at a time that we choose.
To invite someone into your identity reimagines what sharing your queerness really is: it’s a privilege and a gift for you to offer to people you trust. It doesn’t burden a queer person with the sense that they are deceitful for choosing not to share with certain people if they do not feel safe or ready. It acknowledges that, for many, queerness is an ongoing experience which shifts as our understanding shifts and cannot be fixed to one identity marker. Inviting people in makes room for those who find safety and comfort in certain labels without having the burden of education and representation following them as they live their lives.
The language we use matters. If we are truly working towards a world where LGBTQ+ identities are not a source of fear or shame, then the 'closet' no longer works for us. By beginning to invite people in we can break down barriers that gatekeep exactly what it means to be queer and make space for people to understand and embrace their identities in and on their own terms.