From the fuss made over Ian Thorpe’s recent coming out, to Harvey Milk’s urging of queers to come out during the ‘70s, coming out continues to be an intrinsic part of many queer narratives. There are a number of explanations for the importance society places on coming out, including the perception that to be heterosexual and cisgender is the norm, and the notion that queer people are lying if we don’t come out.
One foremost explanation, however, is that queers themselves place significance in coming out because, fundamentally, there is still risk involved in coming out. For every celebrity coming out that is generally well received, there are still the stories of people like Tyler Clementi, or the 16-year-old transgender girl known as “Jane” who spent 77 days in prison without being charged with a crime, to remind us that there are still plenty of people willing to discriminate against us. And we know this. We know the potential consequences of coming out, both good and bad.
The risk of coming out can be particularly salient in high school, an environment which ensures that if your coming out goes badly, your means of getting away from people who want to beat you up, who want to humiliate you, and who have the ability to generally make your life a living hell, is limited. Couple this with a school administration that couldn’t care less (and many don’t) about the harassment of queer students, high school has seen many queers keep the doors to their closets jammed firmly shut. I attended a school in the eastern suburbs which, for the most part, was fairly accepting of queer people. Despite this, coming out was never something I felt comfortable doing at school, except to a few close friends. While I didn’t think the majority of people at my school would have been by bothered it, coming out wasn’t a risk I was willing to take in order to find out if I was right. From what I’ve heard from the few people from my school that I have still kept in contact with, quite a few people did know, or suspected as much – and they weren’t bothered by it. But the risk remained.
The risk is what stops countless queer kids from feeling comfortable discussing queer issues, from changing to their preferred pronouns on Facebook, and from disclosing their relationship status to family and friends. And it’s a valid fear. The consequences of coming out can have a long-lasting impact on the life of the individual who comes out. I came out to my mother two-and-a-half years ago, and while I don’t regret doing so, coming out to her has undoubtedly impacted on my life negatively, whether it be from the comparatively minor comments she continues to makes about it, to my bout of (sort of) homelessness in mid-April.
On the other hand, not coming out can have a detrimental impact as well. This is particularly true for pre-transition trans people who aren’t out and have to live as a gender they don’t identify as. For some, not being out can make them feel as though they can’t really be themselves, and it can inhibit their confidence and their capacity to feel comfortable within themselves.
Ultimately, you can’t know how someone will react when a person they know comes out as queer, despite whatever reaction you anticipate, there is still risk involved in the action of coming out. Because coming out does result in social ostracism, it results in violence, it results in homelessness, it results in abuse, it results in mistreatment by parents, it results in the disintegration of friendships, it results in depression, it results in anxiety, it results in self harm, it results in suicide. The queer community are painfully aware of this. According to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 84 per cent of LGBT youth report verbal harassment at school due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. LGBT individuals account for 30 per cent of all suicides, and more than 50 per cent of transgender youth will at some point attempt suicide. In 2011, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) reported that 87 per cent of reported LGBT+ hate murders were committed against people of colour, while 40 per cent of those murdered were transgender women. Given this, it’s no wonder coming out continues to be a difficult issue for many queer individuals. As long as there continues to be a risk in coming out, coming out will continue to play a significant part in the lives of queer people.