Happy Pride Month! I know, it’s a bit of a bleak one, this year, due to Coronavirus cancelling all our plans, but despite the lack of parades, events and gatherings for the community, this pride month can still be a time to celebrate ourselves, and the steps our community has taken over the years, whether it’s on your own, or on a zoom call. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about recently, is the act of coming out, and what it means in the modern world. There is a lot of debate about it, from within and outside the LGBT+ community, with some believing it is still an important part of a person’s journey, and some believing it no longer matters. I think it matters, and I want to explain why.
Recently, TV presenter Phillip Schofield used an episode of This Morning to announce that he was coming out as gay. It was emotional, with Phillip, and many of the nation watching at home crying, and it was a powerful message to closeted LGBT+ people that it is never too late to be true to yourself. However, some people were not moved by the moment. There were many responses stating that he was selfish, for having married and started a family before coming out, for example, which ignores the reality that the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, in 1967 was not the end of discrimination for gay men, due to stigma continuing for decades.
It hurts to have built a relationship with someone, to then discover that they didn’t and couldn’t love you the way you loved them. One of my earliest relationships was with a gay man. I had no idea, but looking back, the signs were kind of obvious. Our relationship was almost entirely platonic, just with a fancy “in a relationship” facebook label. We never had sex, in fact, he never once even discussed it, or attempted it. When he kissed me, it was gentle and sweet, but entirely without passion. When he came out to me, a part of me was hurt, because I knew that he loved me, just not in the same way I had loved him, but I understood why. His parents were homophobic. He was frightened of being kicked out of his house, or abandoned, and so, he found a girlfriend. I was hurt that our relationship was essentially built on a lie, a little humiliated, because it turns out, most people around me could see that pretty clearly, but I knew that he hadn’t done it deliberately to hurt me. I imagine Phillip Schofield was in a similar situation, because for all the changes made by society, there has always been, and probably always will be stigma against LGBT+ people. By the time he was an adult, homosexuality was legalised in the UK, but there were still huge amounts of discrimination in British society, so it wasn’t (and to be honest, still isn’t) so easy to just come out, and be done with it. I sympathise with his wife and family, but I sympathise with him too.
Other complaints were essentially “Who cares, lots of people are gay, why does it need to be a big deal?” and honestly, this is a complaint I have only ever really seen from straight or cis people. Coming out doesn’t have to be a big deal. It doesn’t have to happen, if a person doesn’t want, but for a lot of people, it is a cathartic and essential declaration of who they are. Yes, to a straight or cis person, seeing another celebrity come out, or seeing a viral coming out video from a member of the public might make it seem like this is just a normal, run of the mill thing, that all us rainbow bitches are doing, on an almost daily basis, but the reality is, the act of coming out publicly, is the end of a long road of self discovery, and acceptance. Most people come out to themselves, a long time before they tell anyone else, and that in itself is a hard road to walk down, so when a person reaches the point, where they feel comfortable inviting others on that journey, being met with responses like “Who cares?” or “We always knew!” can be very hurtful. Yes, maybe you did always know, or maybe you don’t care, but the person opening up has probably had a long road to finding out who they are, and this is something that matters to them. It costs you nothing to keep your cynical comments to yourself.
Coming out is a route to defining who you are, and what that means for you, on your own terms, and is by no means the end of an LGBT+ persons journey, but an important milestone, that they have every right to celebrate. It doesn’t matter if you already know lots of LGBT+ people, or if you think that society should move on from LGBT+ people being seen as different. You don’t know this particular LGBT+ person, because them coming out, is you meeting them, as they truly are, for the very first time, and it isn’t much to ask to just let them have their moment. You don’t even have to participate, you just have to not be rude or dismissive about it, really.
A lot of people will make the argument that coming out is redundant, because being LGBT+ is normal, or that we are just like straight and cis people, but that isn’t really true. LGBT+ hate crime has risen over the years, with homophobia, biphobia and transphobia still being consistent issues. When was the last time you saw someone being murdered because they were straight, or harassed in the street for being cis? I’m not trying to sound angry here, but, well, I am angry, because telling us that we are accepted is dismissive, when there is still open discrimination against LGBT+ people. If we are just like straight and cis people, where does the discrimination come from? You might personally have no problem with LGBT+ people, and that’s lovely, but evidently, a lot of people still do.
There are some who are never able to come out. Living their lives in isolation, or living them without the honesty that they deserve to have, out of fear, both in the past, and now, in the modern world. Annual pride parades, brands covering themselves in rainbows every June, and LGBT+ representation may give non LGBT+ people the idea that everyone is accepting, but everyone’s personal circumstances are different. People’s environments can effect whether they feel safe to be open about who they are, and for some, the open joy of pride month is just a bitter reminder of a life they will never get to fully enjoy. Sometimes, I feel those of us that are out take our openness for granted. Once you’re out, and living your life as you want to, it can be easy to forget how you got there, and even harder to imagine how difficult it would be with even more obstacles.
There are also some who come out, to seemingly deaf ears. This is a problem that is often faced by us bisexuals, and can be demonstrated by looking at one of the most famous bisexuals on the planet, Lady GaGa. Lady GaGa has been open about her bisexuality since the beginning of her career, and has essentially come out, multiple times, as every time she discusses it, it is met with a lot of doubt. People doubt her bisexuality constantly, she is constantly labelled as an ally to the LGBT+ community, and rarely recognised as a part of it. Her years of activism, openness about her sexuality, and frankly, very obvious lyrics about her bisexuality are ignored, because people invalidate her at every turn. Bisexuality in particular seems to be difficult for many to understand, with assumptions such as it being a phase that takes you to either heterosexuality or homosexuality, or that if a bisexual person doesn’t openly and loudly date all kinds of people, they are not in fact bisexual. Coming out, allows us to define ourselves. In some cases, it has to be done repeatedly, due to people doubting that we know ourselves best, but it is still an act of power that allows us to openly state who we are. The invalidation of people like Lady GaGa often comes from a lack of understanding. Despite bisexuals having always existed, we are very misunderstood (don’t get me started on the constant invasive and incorrect assumptions about threesomes, my alleged lack of fidelity and whether or not I hate trans people). It might not seem as complicated when it is your lived experience, but to people who have never experienced bisexuality, it might be hard to understand, so, I would argue, that more bisexual people coming out, or talking about who they are, will increase that understanding, break down harmful stereotypes, and minimise things like this in the future. The same can be said for all parts of the LGBT+community, especially, in current circumstances, the trans community. There is a lot of confusion around trans people from outside of the LGBT+ community (and even inside it, if we’re being honest), which leads to difficult experiences for trans people, and also leads to discrimination. Allowing trans people the space to discuss and define who they are, on their terms, once again, increases public awareness, and has more of a chance of lowering discrimination, than just pretending there is no discrimination.
Coming out is not only an act of expression for yourself, but a way to connect with a community of people that know your experience, and can support you in the next steps of your journey. It can also be a message to people who are a few steps behind, as was the case with Phillip Schofield, and other high profile LGBT+ people. Yes, to a straight or cis person, it’s just another celebrity, coming out, but to a person who is afraid to be themselves, it is a message that they are not alone, and at a time like this, there is no more important message for the LGBT+ community (both open and closeted) to hear.