Today is National Coming Out day — a time that has historically been used to encourage queer people to tell their friends and families that we aren’t heterosexual, or cisgender, as power and privilege make that the default assumption. While it’s served as a helpful marker for many, it’s time to expand our understanding of what “coming out” really means — and what it could look like reimagined.
This year, I encourage all of us to shift our thinking from “coming out,” to “inviting in.”
First of all, the notion of coming out perpetuates a harmful power dynamic that puts the pressure on queer people to more or less “confess” our identities to people around us, which is not something heterosexual, cisgender people ever have to do in a comparable way. There is no parallel public expectation for people who aren’t queer to make big announcements about who they are and how they show up in the world — and yet we’re faced with this feeling that not coming out is somehow indicative of being dishonest, or weak, or hiding in closets built by cisgender, heterosexual people.
There’s also a facet of racial and socioeconomic privilege lurking behind the idea of coming out. Often, the people who are centered in coming out stories are white, cisgender, gay men who come out to their families, and then have the ability to move away to a “gayborhood” in a city and begin their new life. In these communities, social and professional clubs serve to provide additional power and protection to those who are privileged enough to be welcomed into these spaces.
This is not the reality for many queer people in this country. Up to 20 percent of queer people live in rural areas, and 39 percent of LGBTQ and same gender loving (SGL) people identify as people of color. Further, at least 8 percent of high school students surveyed in 2017 identified as LGBTQ/SGL — a number that is likely higher now — which means that many of our youth are still under their parents’ or guardians’ roof as they’re discovering their identity and growing into themselves.
Additionally, the notion of coming out can be falsely perceived as a one-time event, when in fact the pressure to come out sometimes means that we are effectively required to re-share our identities repeatedly, in different settings and capacities, for the rest of our lives. The pressure to “come out” can be paralyzing, especially when done in environments and with people who do not value our identities, experiences, or safety.
Plus, many peoples’ identities shift over their lifetimes. Transgender people often come out first as queer in sexual orientation, and then later as gender variant. Bisexual and pansexual peoples’ identities are often put into the gay or straight box depending on who they’re dating or what they look like at any given moment, and are forced to constantly reaffirm their identities to the people around them. People often “come out” as one thing or another and then discover more about themselves later, which can be confounding when the assumption is you only get one moment, a single opportunity to make a declaration. That’s simply not the way that development or life or relationships work for so many people — in spite of the political identification or social construct they may claim or be forced to fit within.
The point is, we are always changing. The notion of coming out stunts the important and beautiful journeys many of us experience, those who have enough courage.
The idea of inviting in is not, by any means, limited to LGBTQ/SGL people sharing important parts of who they are. We each have something that society tells us we should not feel comfortable disclosing. It could be the history of mental illness in your family, the amount of debt you carry, the fact that we don’t hold space for people who experience miscarriages, or vestiges of childhood trauma. We each have things that we can work on for ourselves and to learn more about others. When we do this work, when we shift the power so that people are not expected to offer up important parts of who they are to people who do not make them feel safe or seen, we hold space for community building and for healing.
Inviting in recognizes that we are always growing, and that sharing essential parts of ourselves is an act of love and demonstration of truth. I truly believe that embracing this concept will help build the world we all want — and so today, I invite you to weave it into your own life.
David J. Johns is the Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition.