Coming Out means more than you think: Why Coming Out Month matters

The nation is currently embroiled in one of the more intense conversations it has had about misogyny in recent memory. Many brave people have shared their truth and advocated for a society that acknowledges sexual assault, listens to the pain of survivors and forces perpetrators to deal with the harm they have caused. Similarly, a range of scholars, activists and everyday people have drawn attention to the deep structural roots of misogyny, patriarchal oppressions and sexism.

I am reminded of this during October, Coming Out Month because of the inextricable link between gender presentation, perceptions of sexual orientation and physical and psychological violence. When queer people come out voluntarily to the people they interact with as LGBTQ + they are not just telling you about who they desire and/or their identity category. Their declaration is not academic or instrumental; this is about life itself. They are breaking through what are often lifetimes or half lifetimes of silences, repression and fear. Coming out is a declaration of authenticity; its pushing against the fear of being taunted and “found out” and embracing the liberation of being recognized for your truth. In this sense it is as much an emotional and psychological coming out as anything.

From a gay male cisgender perspective: As I write this some male-identified person—across geography, age, race, class and education categories—is cowering inside because some other person—a parent, a teacher, an uncle, a classmate, a co-worker, a coach, a religious authority figure, a supervisor, a stranger—has used the “F” word to demean them. To make them feel inferior and less than a “proper” man. This behavior is rooted in a deep hatred for women and femininity itself, as well as insecurity. A similar hatred for certain types of feminine expression is also the root of oppression against my lesbian, bi and pansexual sisters, and trans folk.

Myself and almost every other queer person I know has been subjected to this kind of hateful language at some point in life. As much as I appreciate the It Gets Better movement, progress has not been inevitable. Public officials and private citizens play an active role in perpetuating homophobia and genderphobia. Only steadfast activism, in multiple forms, has turned the tide and the current political and social climate means bracing for more fighting.

Speaking from personal experience, queer people are some of the strongest people on this earth. We deal with and have dealt with so much adversity from childhood through the present because we are/were different that we are a formidable force by design. Don’t mess with us, folks. We are not going away, and we will not be quiet and not talk about our lives so other people feel comfortable or don’t have to deal with “it.” We are not a problem or an “issue”—we are people with the right to exist and live fully and openly. The Holocaust didn’t stop us, the religious right didn’t stop us, governmental and industrial neglect of HIV/AIDS didn’t stop us, alleged “conversion” camps didn’t stop us and the current political machinations will not stop us.

I have worked in higher education for 20+ years and have witnessed how groupthink and clumping continues to foster conformity and passivity in young people, especially young men. Because males have been socialized to impress and perform for other men, they have been discouraged from thinking for themselves and living lives of integrity and authenticity. This has fed generations of thoughtless, conformist behavior from young men that has created toxic environments for women, queer men and non-gender conforming people in classrooms, workplaces, government spaces, households and religious institutions, among others. We must confront this behavior when we can and challenge all people, but especially young men, to seek true strength in authenticity and truth, not violence and showboating. Female-identified folks have taken the lead in challenging sexism and gender and homophobia—men need to stand with them.

We are at our most humane when we proceed as thoughtful and inclusive people. That is strength, that is pride, that is authenticity, that is love. HAPPY COMING OUT MONTH!

Written by Vincent L. Stephens, Ph.D,  Director, Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity
October 9, 2018