What does it mean to come out?
It would seem rather obvious to anyone these days, especially during Pride Month, what one means by the phrase "coming out." But David Archuleta's post on Instagram a few days ago throws some of the coming-out conventions on their heads, repeats some patterns that might escape the untrained eye, and gives us all an opportunity to reflect on the "coming out" touchstone that some many queer people find compelling and at times, compelled.
After some of the initial excitement of Archuleta's post had worn off -- after all, who doesn't love another celebrity joining the queer ranks during Pride Month? -- I found myself back on his Instragram re-reading his words more closely. As a gay man who was raised Mormon in the U.S., another Mormon man revealing he's queer, especially a famous one, is a noteworthy event. When I was at Brigham Young University I witnessed scores and scores of coming-out posts: from friends, classmates, and erstwhile internet strangers. Over time one notices patterns in these posts. These patterns surfaced again in David's words.
What stuck out to me most was how he was begging -- he literally used the word "plead" -- his audience to sit with their cognitive dissonance just long enough to acknowledge that his queer experience and feelings and identity are real. What a stark place to find ourselves in the year 2021, being reminded that there are millions and millions of Christians and Mormons and Americans for whom the validity of queer people's existence and identities is unreal. Some of us, myself included, have become so comfortable with the rapid progress the LGBTQIA+ community has made in the Western world in the past decade that it is sobering to come face-to-face with reminders that there are too many people for whom our existence is still deeply suspect.
Mormonism teaches (currently) that it is OK to "be" gay, but not to "act" on it. But in reality the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has no coherent or cohesive doctrine or ideology on LGBTQIA+ people. President Dallin H. Oaks, the second-highest ranking official in the church, as recently as a couple years ago has been on record discouraging queer people from even coming out to anyone besides their ecclesiastical leaders. Another leader, Elder Holland, has expressed that it (being queer) won't be a problem in the next life, while also asserting that we should focus on chastity (behavior) instead of identity. Despite some well-meaning projects from the church's public affairs department, lay members of the church are left with decades of shifting, contradictory, and even damnable and deadly statements about their queer family and friends. So queer members, when they finally reach that stage where they feel enough self-assurance to acknowledge their queerness, are left to bridge the gap between their lived experience and the convoluted and sometimes caustic perceptions about queer people in the heads of their closest friends and family.
You'll notice that Archuleta's post starts out in a defensive position -- "I like to keep to myself but also thought this was important to share." He moves through a few facts: He's experienced attraction to men and to women but doesn't feel sexual attraction in a way that seems typical. And then he's back in a defensive position -- don't worry, I still want to save sex for marriage! You can be queer and a person of faith! I don't have all the answers! Eventually he makes some asks of his audience: to acknowledge that queer people are real, that we can and should be kinder to them, and that we ask God for more answers and direction on what to do with queer people. He closes by asking for patience and thanking people for listening.
Compare for a second Lil Nas X's coming-out post from two years ago: "some of y'all already know, some of y'all don't care, some of y'all not gone fwm no more. but before this month ends i want y'all to listen closely to c7osure." And then "deadass I thought I made it obvious."
Lil Nas X's coming-out, in some ways, represents a more recent conceptualization of the "coming out" touchstone. Too much of modern media, perhaps, amplifies this version: coming out as a place of arrival rather than departure. It is common, particularly online, to see people who've spent much time in self-reflection and in intimate discussions with their closest friends come out with multisyllabic identities; prepared with labels for their gender identity, their gender expression, their sexuality, their sexual orientation. The public coming-out feels like a capstone on this internal journey of self-discovery.
Archuleta's Instagram post is the opposite: Full of uncertainty, he never even says "I am [this identity]." He invites his audience into his internal journey, leveraging his own lack of answers to entice would-be antagonists to join him in this liminal space.
Lil Nas X assumed (correctly, I think) that majority of his audience (millennials and Gen Z kids who listen to his music) needed no explanation: He is gay.
Archuleta is speaking to audiences most of us have moved on from, either from boredom or exasperation or to survive. First to conservative Mormons for whom he has likely been seen as a respectable icon: that rare member of the church who has found success "in the world" while remaining true to their faith and checking all (but one!) of the Mormon rites of passage, like going on a mission.
But if I had to venture a guess, David, like so many other young queer Mormon men, is also speaking to himself.
Because Mormonism lacks answers or direction about the queer experience while delivering uniquely direct and concrete answers about nearly everything else in life, young queer Mormons are left to perform a delicate dance as they acknowledge their queerness. Whereas for many queer people coming out might seem like a grand climax in the narrative arc of their youth, for many queer Mormons "coming out" is merely the first furtive step. Instead of walking directly out of the closet and announcing to the world "I am gay," so many young queer Mormons crack open the closet door, peer around the room, and whisper to their friends and family seated nearby, "Hi, it's me. I've been in here for a while, and I'm trying to figure out if it's safe for me to come out. Would you let me come out?" What ensues is protracted negotiation -- yes, but only if you stay in the church! Yes, but you at least have to try to be straight. Yes, but only if you're good.
And, craving that acknowledgement of our innate goodness as we all do, I've watched countless young gay Mormon men (myself included!) venture out of their closets meekly and humbly and submissively. I'm gay, we say, but I promise I'll still be good.
I've tried to be straight.
I went on a mission!
I follow the rules.
I'll still go to church.
I want to raise my kids in the church.
I love the Gospel.
I still believe.
The song "Numb" from Archuleta's 2017 album Postcards in the Sky reads like the words of someone struggling to find their way out of the closet. Not someone who has walked out of the closet into the middle of the room to announce "I'm gay!" but someone who is still fumbling around for the light switch and the door handle. Someone convincing themselves that grabbing that handle will, somehow, someday all be worth it.
"I'm not there yet but I know that I don't wanna feel numb," he says.
It hurts to live so wide awake, oh
But it's a chance I can take
I won't run, run, run, yeah
And no I won't run, run, run, oh
'Cause I don't wanna feel numb
Addison Jenkins served as president of Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Allyship (USGA) at BYU from 2015 to2017, helped found the OUT Foundation, and has been involved in queer activism in Utah for several years. He currently works as a bus driver in Salt Lake City.