Tuesday, October 11, 2016

On Becoming

Today is National Coming Out Day, October 11. Started in 1989, Wikipedia says the founding organization believes "...homophobia thrives in an atmosphere of silence and ignorance, and [...] once people know that they have loved ones who are lesbian or gay, they are far less likely to maintain homophobic or oppressive views."


In the early 90’s, I’m not sure my high school would have had a “coming out day,” or even an LGBT student group. It very well may have, but if so, it was underground enough that I don’t remember it. They certainly weren’t parading down the halls or decorating lockers during Pride Month. I remember there was one student people described as gay in hushed tones, but that was second- or third-hand information. He was able to give backrubs to girls the rest of us wanted to date. Perhaps I should be gay? Pretty sure you have to get one ear pierced though. It’s the rules.



I will always remember a guy showing me his eighth-grade ear piercing and attempting to explain. “This,” pointing to his un-pierced ear, “means you’re a fag.” Pointing to his pierced one, “This does not.” Seems a little arbitrary and I promptly forgot which was which, but I wasn’t going to argue with someone bigger than me.

When I went to college, it was now the late 90’s.  I went to DePaul, a Catholic university so egalitarian that my required religious credit hour was taught by a woman wearing energy crystals and exploring such areas as dream interpretation and whether or not Jesus had a personality disorder. (Short answer: no, but I think there’s a compelling case that he was autistic.)

DePaul had Pride DePaul, a campus wide festival that saw a giant closet door installed on the quad (like 20 foot high) that students could have their picture taken “coming out” of. It’s probably something I would have done if I’d been in the right circle of friends, but this was in the days before gay rights was a big deal to me. Gay rights are fine because rights are for everyone, but I’m not gay, so it’s nothing to do with me. Please turn down the music a bit, I’m trying to study.

As embarrassing as it is to think about now, I didn’t really know much about homosexuality. I didn’t have any friends who were gay (or at least none willing to bring it up to me), so it was very much out of sight and mind. Hindsight being what it is, I now remember that one guy was VERY in to Bette Midler and raved about “Beaches,” but that didn’t mean anything to me at the time. Oh, how young we were!

By the time I was at my master’s, it was the early 00’s, and to be out and gay was to be OUT and GAY! It was the age of lots of people who were examining their own minds, especially at a midwestern university. When people grew up in Hog Suck Township, moving to the Big City of Columbia, MO (population 65,000!) meant learning that some women did like women that way and it was fine. They just kind of… went on with their lives. There was trouble in the messaging of the time -- some friends “tried” being gay, then decided they "preferred" to be straight -- but we were getting there.

And by the mid-00’s, the pushback had gone mainstream. One of the biggest issues of the campaign was whether or not gay people deserved marriage. Lots of constitutional amendments were made. Liberal Mormon friends confided in me that they really wanted to vote in condemnation of “gays don’t get marriage” but were terrified of it being made known in their families. So they couldn’t. Nevermind that a bunch more people getting married into stable family units seems like a conservative ideal, but whatever.

Friends who were gay just… didn't mention it. I mean, if you browsed their social media and saw pictures of hot shirtless guys, that was on you! Homosexual was a word that other people used about other people. “Yes, she’s a lesbian.” “Really? Fascinating. I hope she's met Sasha.”

It was all very “don’t ask, don’t tell” but with lower stakes.

But the pushback had a pushback. The current president did away with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The military - doing what it does best - followed orders and reshuffled with incredible speed, leaving a lot of its supporters and some of its members confused and frustrated. And then marriage, throughout the land. Big deal at the time.

But in the election climate of today? A footnote. Granted, lots of other things are getting high priority this election season: nuclear war, fitness to govern, treatment of women. But the fear of homosexuals has been largely low-profile this time around. It’s not the wedge issue it was in 2004. Perhaps people have now realized that homosexual troops and married couples are largely like straight troops and married couples: they like America, they like health insurance, they like picket fences.

So "National Coming Out Day" feels different in light of all of this.

*** *** ***


A few weeks back, I sat down with a woman for a long, lazy conversation. We were newly acquainted and our conversation covered a lot of ground. Part way through, she mentioned her fiance (also a woman).

Was she conscious that she was coming out to me, a new person in her life? Probably. I’d imagine that to anyone raised in the years around me, there’s a little bit of mental calculation that activates in conversations with strangers. “The thing I’m about to say indicates I’m homosexual.” It used to be a FAR bigger deal. A secret exchanged. Ruination for career and life if widely known.

It used to be a bigger deal. But between she and I? She mentioned her loved one casually and the conversation continued.

She had “come out” to me, though one of the things I had known prior to our conversation was that she was a lesbian. To me, she had already been outed. No big deal, to me.

We’re not yet to the point where coming out is unnecessary. Because straight orientation is the normalized orientation, we are mostly presumed to be straight. Individuals need to “come out” (that is, realizing they are not-straight) even if it’s just to themselves. Maybe a few more years and generations will pass before children are just “orientation-less” until they get to define themselves. Maybe we’ll never lose the need to have a “default” setting (straight, gay, or trans), because the best and most empowered versions of ourselves read as default in the mirror.

But the fact remains that in this case, she didn't need to come out to me. She came out to herself, and by the time the two of us met, it was already *her*. No explanation needed, no defense offered. Maybe not even consciously thought about at the moment.

I think that’s the way forward.


*** *** ***


Mostly though no work of my own, I have collected nearly all of society's valuable currency. I’m a straight white man. I’m tall, which is always an advantage until I hit my head on a car frame. I’m at least passingly handsome, in that I’ve been told it wasn’t an objection (dates can be so charming sometimes!). I’m well-educated. I have the ability to have whatever nonsense comes out of my mouth taken as important or at least attention-worthy, because that’s culturally built in to our society. I was raised in a part of the world that allows my language and accent to be respected, not criticized.

I don’t have to “come out.” I don’t have to tell everyone -- explicitly and purposefully -- how I’m different and possibly controversial. Everything about how I present is what people expect to see. Hell, friends have even told me that other people they’ve met who remind them of me are even called “Andy.” I’m this close to being a generic person.

But I’ll be damned if that means I get to ignore everyone else.

Coming out is about taking pride in something that makes you *you*. It’s about the long and slow process of making sure that something we ARE is something we need not be ashamed of. Who we are is not something to apologize for.

One of my dearest friends has a poster that says “It hurts to become.” My friend is a transgender person and they have spent the last few years caught in a vise of their own feelings and other people's expectations, whether that's their family and loved ones, their coworkers, or the larger populace. I have the vitally important (and comparatively easy) task of being a support, not a hindrance. My friend is my friend, and I want what my friends want.

We're all changing. We all need supports. We all deserve to be loved for who we are. We all -- Generic Andys and otherwise -- are in the process of becoming, and we always have further to go.

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