Why I don’t celebrate ‘coming out’ stories

Each week the Honey newsletter includes a column from women and LGBTQ folks in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. We’re always looking for more stories from you. Click here to learn more about how to get published.

By Kiwi Lanier

For most people, coming out is nothing like it appears in the movies.

In the movies, the queer person prepares a monologue for their parents. Sometimes they get up and make an unprompted announcement at a family dinner. Other times they come out by bringing home a date for prom that’s a different gender than the parents expected. Then, once the ritual is over, the character smiles happily and the credits roll. You’re free to imagine a happy life in which they get to live as their true selves.

But is this narrative accurate? (No.) And who is this coming out ritual for?

On one hand, it can be extremely liberating to declare yourself in such a direct way to others. But I know a lot of people who are only “out” to some of the people in their life or, despite being out, still must hide aspects of their life from certain family members so as not to disturb the fragile peace.

I am queer and non-binary. So I have to “come out” almost every day. Every time I meet a new person at work or have a conversation with anyone in which pronouns come up, or any time I’m with friends and they introduce me to a new friend. Coming out is not a “one-and-done” deal. (Though, it would be much easier if it were.)

Part of the thing that bothers me about “coming out” stories is that it centers the queer experience on cisgender and/or heterosexual’s people’s permission for us to exist.  Using this logic, we are only queer once we have announced to the straight people that we are not straight. It implies that nothing we did or thought or said before coming out was queer because we had not declared ourselves to the majority.

This discourse can lead to a terrifying rabbit hole, especially for trans people. It puts an unnecessary burden on queer and gender non-conforming people to be “overly truthful” or perhaps share more than they might want to with folks in the majority because there is an underlying assumption that queer people have been dishonest about themselves up until the point they came out. And to some extent yes, queer people must emphasize different parts of the truth and sometimes flat-out lie just to exist in peace.

But heterosexual and cisgender people create and reinforce the system that makes any dishonesty necessary, through implicit bias, laws, corporate policies, and religious rules. And frankly, a lot of the queer experience is inherently traumatic. I think queer folks have all realized at one point or another that someone we once trusted was actually homophobic, or that someone we once called a friend would never use our pronouns, or that someone we had previously not thought capable of violence absolutely was. The precariousness of queer life adds to that trauma, and trauma impacts memory and the self. It causes you to compartmentalize yourself to avoid further pain.

I grew up an only child of Southern Baptist conservative parents. Now I’m a queer non-binary atheist that leans left. I knew that I was queer from a young age without really having the words for it. As I got older, I had to repress that part of myself to survive growing up with Christian helicopter parents.

When I was 13, my mom locked me in the car and asked me if I was – from her tone it was clear that I had better not say yes. So, I said no.

When I was 19, I came out to her as bisexual. She cried and said I was a failure and to never tell anyone else because nobody would love me if I did. We didn’t talk about it again.

When I was 27, my parents left the church they helped found over 20 years earlier (that they had been attending my entire life) because the church decided to openly welcome LGBTQ+ people. The church was later kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention. (You may have seen this in the news.)

I came out on social media the next day. I was done.

During all of this I didn’t have any heartfelt conversations with anyone else in my family. I don’t really have a good relationship with them anyway, so I just didn’t see the point. They had never really tried to get to know me before, so I didn’t believe they would start now. (They’re also more conservative than my parents).

I now view my identity as something I share with the people that I feel will treat me with respect and would approach the conversation in good faith because they want to learn more about the human experience. Not because I feel this conversation is going to prove to them that queer people exist, that I am one of them, and that I have as much a right to be here as anyone else does. But this also means it hurts more when people who I have told use the wrong pronouns for me and don’t notice.

And I also know that, while coming out did afford me some freedom personally and was important for me to do, it was not “the end” of the conversation. I was queer before I came out. My life as a queer person would have been just as valid whether or not I had ever come out.

Kiwi Lanier is a Birmingham transplant with a passion for the arts. They can usually be found looking for their keys that are probably in their hand or trying to steal their socks back from their dog.

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.