In honor of National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11th), I’m inviting you into a two-part stream of consciousness. This piece aims to be trauma-informed and is broken up into segments. The second segment titled, “Learning how to bend light”, comes with a content warning for a coming out story, religious oppression, homophobic home environments, and mentions of conversion therapy. Please honor your capacity.
I want to talk about coming out in a way that decentralizes the fickle world of reactions we come out to. I want to talk about coming out in a way that prioritizes the internal process of coming out to oneself. The demands of heteronormativity for us to define ourselves often rushes our process of self-creation. We are rushed from one box to another, not really given the compassion needed to explore. It’s important for us to take as much time as we need to name ourselves, and it’s important to know there is no shame in reinventing the self as many times as it takes to feel liberated. In part one, I’ll talk about the dissonance of coming out to heteronormative people and sharing pieces of my coming out story. In Part 2, which will be out next month, I’ll dissect the rainbow using color theory to explore how coming out as trans and non-binary completely expanded my queer consciousness by revealing the rainbow’s underbelly.
We often walk out of the closet and stumble right into the oncoming traffic of subcategories. Our families and society energetically demand to know who and what we are. We likely came out looking for support in that process but it’s not often that we’re met with the curiosity, concern, or care we need in those vulnerable moments. In both an effort to please our loved ones, and a deep desire to go back to the way things were, we rush to normalize our queer identities and by doing so we cement ourselves to categories we’ve barely begun to explore. What is supposed to be a monumental ceremony of visibility can quickly become about soothing other people’s reactions. Our identity becomes about their comfort, their education, their coming out; from the archaic depths of the cave of hegemony in an attempt to seek validity in us by looking right through us.
Heteronormative/monochromatic people’s dissonace from their own experiences with oppression impact how they show up for the people they claim to love. I use monochromatic because they tend to see identity as a single wavelength of color. If there’s any color at all. After we come out, it can seem like we’ve suddenly become strangers to people who’ve known us our entire lives. Their support can feel performative. Like tolerance. Like a film that coats an abyss of suspicions and fear. It can seem like otherwise marginalized people (who know what it’s like to be poor, black, sick, etc.) can no longer empathize with the experience of being oppressed. It can feel like we’re the only ones who can see the nautical ropes binding us together, drowning us en masse. It shouldn’t matter why we can’t breathe yet it does. As if we’re not all being conditioned by the same religious dogma embedded in our society. This dissonance is just one of many substantial sacrifices monochromatic people make for the illusion of privilege. Somehow our coming out has become about them trying to understand why we couldn’t make the same sacrifices, failing to realize that self-immolation defeats the purpose of life. Somehow our story has become about being accepted by people who have sanitized their own identity of any queerness, who barely know what it means to accept themselves.
And yet queer people name themselves. Across all age groups. We name ourselves, find ourselves, console ourselves, and educate ourselves. We hold ourselves accountable to the wisdom excavated while digging for the truth. This, this is the coming out. Not the part where we contort our questions into definitive answers for the comfort of others. Not the part where we continue to extend unconditional patience and grace toward people do not want to see us. Not the part where we beg for crumbs of belonging. You can have a full coming out ceremony without a single witness because the coming out happens within.
Learning how to bend light
Coming out for the first time is every queer’s inauguration into a lifetime of coming out. I came out as a lesbian at age 14. I was actually outed by a cousin but I had been rehearsing for quite some time. I remember the day. I was talking on the phone to my “friend” (we were absolutely girlfriends), and my mother was doing laundry. She asked me to hang up the phone. She asked if I liked girls. I was stunned into silence. How did she know? Who told her? I journaled frequently and coded all my entries. Had she broken my code? The word maybe crept out. Feeble. My mother looked at me with a cold, dead gaze. “You either do or you don’t.” The silence was thick. I picked at my cuticles until they bled. Thinking. This is not how I imagined it would go. I imagined I would be comforted, assured, and supported. I wasn’t. So instead I wrapped myself up in the silence like a soothing blanket. I provided myself comfort, assurance, and support. There was no turning back.
Coming out to my black, Southern, Baptist family was traumatizing. I dealt with everything from conversion therapy to being doused with holy oil while I slept to being exorcised by prophets in a church basement. Retrospectively, the hyper-surveillance I was subjected to is a microcosm of systemic oppression. The master’s tools. Every night I had to hand in my phone, and when the phone bill came, my mama would scan for unfamiliar numbers and have me verify the person’s identity. If she still felt suspicious she would call the person directly.
After I came out/was outed, I had to be really creative in how to receive love. One of my first relationships was with a girl I had met in an AOL chat room. She lived in New Jersey and we talked on the phone almost everyday. The only way we could talk without being caught was to lie. We both told our mothers that the other was a school friend who had moved away. But one day my mother found my wallet with a picture of her in it. The pet name written on the back sealed the fate of that relationship… or so it seemed. Until a few days later when she mailed me a burner phone. It was a bulky Nextel. Every night went the same way. At curfew I would hand in my phone. My little sister and I shared a room, so I had to wait for her to fall asleep. Then, I would pull out my burner phone and *chirp, chirp*. We communicated that way for over a year. My mother and I are working on repairing our relationship, and if she ever finds this column, I hope she laughs!
My child-self went great lengths to preserve the only part of me that felt real. This wouldn’t have been the case if I had been provided emotional care and generosity. Another way I empowered my true identity was with rainbow paraphernalia. Just the sight of it was indeed a promise. Not of a deity’s return, but of the independence that marked the end of my teen years. I planned to use college as my great escape. In my mind’s eye, college would offer me the space to truly discover and name myself. So I kept a low profile at home, stayed in my room, and got lost in books and music. At school I would doodle rainbows on the insides of my folders and notebooks. My high school had a large population of black queer and theater kids, so I was out at school. Home became the closet.
When I got my first job at 16, I spent my McDonald’s money on accessories from Claire’s. My closet was a gay arsenal until someone told my mama what it stood for. That day she drained the house of color, so I took my secret stash of rainbow-studded belts, earrings, bracelets, socks, and suspenders to my school locker. I learned self-perseverance at such a tender age. I don’t give my child-self enough credit. I effectively protected myself by staying innovative and flexible about what visibility could look like until I was completely independent. When I got to college it was like breathing for the first time. I stayed high on my own supply of queer liberation. I lived out loud. The rainbow had made good on its promise.
But when I came out as trans and non-binary, that all changed.
Stay tuned for “Is the rainbow enuf?” (Part 2) next month around the New Moon!