Oct. 11 was National Coming Out Day. It even got a nod from President Biden. However, the passing of another Coming Out Day begs the question: why do LGBTQ+ people come out? What is the purpose?
There is a more recent movement of younger LGBTQ+ people who believe that coming out, as much as it has been positively portrayed, is an ultimately hetero-and-cisnormative process that LGBTQ+ people are generally forced to partake in. Calling such a popularly integral part of the LGBTQ+ experience the exact opposite of that requires some further explanation.
Let’s imagine that you were a heterosexual and cisgender person (I can’t imagine it but I’m sure you can). Have you ever been asked if you were heterosexual? Have you ever been asked if you were a boy or girl? I don’t have to guess the answer because I know the answer. You haven’t. Every LGBTQ+ person has and the reason why this occurs comes down to society’s constant battle with diversity. The process in the popular consciousness can’t help but put things into categories that don’t always match up to reality.
Philosophers have a concept in identity theory called a “homeostatic property cluster.” It’s used primarily in biology, however, to categorize groups or kinds of animals. One popular example of this concept is that the duckbilled platypus is a mammal, but it lays eggs. It shares some of the properties with the rest of the mammals, but it varies on one or two of them. Of course, species and animal groupings are for our benefit, not the animals.
The various sexual orientations and gender identities are categorized to make identification with one of them easier but as any LGBTQ+ person can tell you, through deep reflection, a single label or at least its popular definition doesn’t always satisfy our connection with said identity.
The goal of queer liberation is for coming out to no longer happen. That doesn’t mean LGBTQ+ people are afraid to come out or are penalized by society-at-large for doing so. It means that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is no more a factor during their life or how society treats them than anything else.
Straight and cisgender people might see the above and think, “Oh, that’s great! That way everybody is equal,” and that’s a natural response. However, that’s not exactly what it means. For society to no longer affect LGBTQ people negatively (and to be clear, society does, especially trans and nonbinary people), that means that the experiences of LGBTQ people are not constantly interrogated by society. The first thing that usually happens when someone comes out to a straight person is that straight person almost always begins poking and prodding into the psychology of that information. They might ask, “How long have you known?” or “How did you know?”
There doesn’t have to be an inciting incident. For some LGBTQ people, they just know and from a very young age. They understand on a fundamental level that the way they process societal cues such as gender organization or even something as mundane as romantic comedies is different. They see the social systems in place, and they say, “That’s not for me. That’s for somebody else.”
I don’t want to undercut the positive experiences of coming out. It can be a wonderful and moving experience in a young queer person’s life, but it can also be incredibly traumatic. LGBTQ people shouldn’t have to come out. The facets of their identity shouldn’t have to be constantly defended through witty slogans or ad campaigns by celebrities. We should be allowed to simply exist in this world without a thought being raised of our relationships or gender identities.