About a month ago, it seemed like folks were coming out left and right, first was Diana King – yes, she was FIRST – then came Anderson Cooper‘s almost-confessional like acknowledgement via Andrew Sullivan’s blog, then third was Frank Ocean. As I watched reactions via Facebook and Twitter, I had a blog post forming in my mind, but too many other things were hot and it seemed like everything worth saying had already been said. And then Sally Ride passed away a little over a week ago and “came out” in her obituary, acknowledging that she was leaving behind a woman partner of 27 years and it all started all over again.
In the last month, I’ve heard praise and celebration as well as criticism and frustration. One blogger , Cathering Lugg went so far as to tell White queers to get over themselves, suck up their White-middle-class privilege, and be visibly out as queer. Another blogger, Emily Manuel for Tiger Beatdown, chastised folks who didn’t think Anderson Cooper’s coming out was really news since it was commonly suspected already that he was gay, because it takes courage to come out and everyone journey toward coming out is different and it’s really quite heterosexist of people to require that queer people reveal their queerness when straight people don’t have to “come out” as straight. Various commentators on Facebook and Twitter forwarded and shared both of these perspectives and other iterations of them. However, I think there’s another perspective in this conversation that borrows from both seemingly oppositional perspectives and creates a third place to stand.
Let me share what informs my perspective on all this. First of all, I am queer (a masculine-of-center lesbian kind of queer) and didn’t come out to myself, let alone anybody else, authentically as queer until I was in my mid-30s. That means I spent most of my adult life as I’ve lived it so far passing as heterosexual. Since then, I think I’ve been on a steady march of increasing transparency as I’ve gotten settled and clear on who I am, what that means for me, and steady in defending myself against the typical attacks and questions that always come when sharing that with folks who think they know more about me than I know about myself. Second, I am a student, teacher, and scholar of identity development. That means my knowledge base is built on established research literature as well as autobiographical and anecdotal evidence. Third, I engage in multiple networking circles, several of which are ever-expanding, so I am constantly confronting people who don’t know, assume, or think they know what my sexuality is. In other words, like most queer people, I live coming out as a daily experience and as an evolving process, not as a one-time event. When I first came out, I used to wish that there was some way I could just come out to everybody who I’d ever known, all at once and be done with it. But even if that worked and I didn’t keep running into people who knew-me-when (go back to “first of all”), there would be all these new people that I keep meeting everyday to whom I would have to decide how much my queerness is salient to who I am in relationship with that person in that moment.
It’s really quite exhausting. It’s also a lot more nuanced than what I usually see in average discussions about coming out.
Underneath most of these discussions has been the presumption that publicly, continually, and consistently coming out as queer is necessary for positive, healthy, and mature development as a queer person. An example of this is in Lugg’s blog post, where she equates silence about one’s sexuality to keeping a secret and secrets are akin to pathology. This way of thinking has been around for a long time and can be traced back at least to Vivienne Cass’ model of homosexual (that was the wording she used for that era) identity development for gay men published in the 1980s. Coming out is stage 1 and a healthy gay identity is not fully resolved until one actively engages in activism on behalf of LGBT issues at stage 6. This model has been heavily criticized as too linear and hierarchical and not reflective of the complexities of people’s lives or of coming out. Other theorists, like Anthony D’Augelli have pictured identity development for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals as more of a sequence of processes that are neither linear nor hierarchical, but which still include exiting a heterosexual identity as the first process and later includes the process of entering LGB activism.
The paradigm that one must come out to be psychologically and socially healthy and mature as a queer person isn’t really disrupted in identity development models until Ruth Fassinger’s work more recently. In her research, particularly in her studies of lesbian women, identity development includes two developmental processes, one intrapersonal the other interpersonal, that parallel each other. Intrapersonal and interpersonal development processes may be happening simultaneously, but could also happen off-cycle so-to-speak. Although coming out to oneself is necessary, coming out publicly may not be necessary for healthy identity development and resolution.
So, let’s go back to Diana, Anderson, Frank, and Sally. Diana and Anderson, based on their own words, seem to have come out in response to persistent questioning about their sexuality by others who had already assumed they were queer. If you read both their statements, you’ll be struck perhaps as I was, by the similarity of the language they used. Both of them say that the reason they were finally openly saying that they were queers was because not saying so was giving people the impression that they were ashamed of their sexuality, thought it was wrong, or were deliberately hiding it for some other reason. Both Diana and Anderson deny any such feelings saying only that they felt it was “private” and for Diana, the added layer of concern about how fellow Jamaicans would react (more on this later). Although he was also responding to rumors and questions, Frank doesn’t take such an apologetic approach. Reading his open letter on tumblr really sounds more like he’s just sharing something with others who matter to him; there’s no defensiveness about the timing of his announcement or explanation of why he didn’t say anything before. Sally, we know now, never said anything publicly about her sexuality, but allowed her obituary to speak her truth for her. However, comments from her sister (who is also lesbian and is publicly out as one), suggest that Sally never consciously “hid” her sexuality – she was just really a “private” person.
Private – that word pops up a lot in these discussions and why shouldn’t it? Who I sleep with is my business isn’t it? Well, yes and no. I think it all turns on how people view their sexuality as part of their identity in the first place. If sexuality is just a matter of sexual behavior then by all means perhaps we all should keep it to ourselves! But if you view your sexuality as a core anchor for the self, as a lens through which you see and understand the world and want to be understood by it, then that’s another matter entirely. Sexuality as bedroom behavior behooves privacy. Sexuality as life rudder or philosophical standpoint behooves public acknowledgement.
How one moves from one to the other is a personal matter, possibly an issue of development, but not seeing one’s sexuality as bedroom-only relevant should not be assumed to also reflect an immature or less developed sexual identity.
A similar distinction is sometimes made for other social identity facets. I’ve known African Americans, for example, who have viewed their racial identity as a mere accident of melanin, as nothing more than skin complexion. I’ve known others who see their racial identity as a fundamental and orienting aspect of their personalities and worldviews. Students who I have interviewed have held both opinions (Stewart, 2002, 2009). I’ve heard women discuss their sex and gender identities in the same fashion.
Perhaps someone who views their identities as biological facts would be less likely to be politically active around those identities than someone who views their identities as worldview portals. Maybe. I haven’t done research around that and if you know of something out there, share it please.
There’s something else here though also. Lugg talks a lot about privilege in her post and I think that’s a really important factor to consider in this discussion. Just about everybody has at least one social identity (race, ethnicity, native language, citizenship status, sex, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, education, religion, ability/disability, age, body size, etc.) that is privileged in this society. And just about everybody has at least one social identity that is targeted, disadvantaged, or oppressed in this society. Allan G. Johnson, in the 2nd edition of his book Privilege, Power, and Difference, discusses the paradoxes of privilege. That one can be privileged in one facet of one’s identity and never recognize that privilege, especially if one has a salient identification with another social group that is oppressed. A member of an oppressed social group also may not recognize their oppression because it hasn’t personally affected their lives in a tangible way. How could that be relevant in this situation? Well, it’s possible that Sally Ride, for example, didn’t see her lesbian sexuality as oppressed. Despite the absence of the 1400 state and federal unearned advantages (i.e., privileges) that heterosexual couples face, Sally and her partner Tam, likely had the economic privilege to buffer against that. (Although it’s been touted heavily on Facebook, I seriously doubt that Tam is going to become destitute without Sally’s social security death benefit.) On the other hand, Anderson Cooper may be more aware of his targeted group membership as a gay man, thus fostering the perceived need for silence, than he is of his many privileges as white, male, and upper-class (see Beverly Tatum for a great discussion of identity awareness and privilege). And for Diana and Frank, who also have racially marginalized group memberships, the complications increase as one considers what it means to come out as a marginalized person within a group that is already marginalized. Diana was cautious. Frank appears not to be and maybe he didn’t come out enough, according to some.
This has gotten really long – sorry – so I’ll wrap it up. In a nutshell, having a public forum to come out is a privilege – most of us have to do it the old-fashioned way, one conversation at a time. But coming out is also a declaration of identity and how one sees the world. And it’s always, always risky. Whether someone has enough other privileges stored elsewhere to buffer against the risk, really can’t be determined by counting up privileged statuses. It’s not a math problem. As intersectionality theories of identity discuss, people’s identities aren’t additive and unitary. You can’t amass privilege the way you can amass wealth and losing privileged status is much easier than gaining it. The costs of both silence and transparency are more complex than either is given credit for. As a mentor and friend, Dr. Cynthia Dilliard has said, we’ve got big work to do.