I Have to Come Out Every Day, And It's Exhausting
At the doctor’s recently, she asked the default question for all female patients of childbearing age: “Any chance you could be pregnant?”
This touched off a conversation so familiar I could recite it from heart:
“Are you sure?”
“Are you sexually active?”
“What kind of birth control are you using?”
“So you’re currently trying to get pregnant?”
“Not so much, no.”
“So how do you know there’s no chance you could be pregnant?”
This is where I usually step in to explain that, duh, my partner is a lady. I could do it earlier in the conversation, but it’s fun to watch the doctor squirm while they go from befuddled astonishment (“How did this pregnant lady make it through life without learning about how babies are made?”) to mild shame (“How did I make it through medical school without learning how babies aren’t made?”).
This conversation occurs with problematic frequency, but isn’t the least annoying incidence of mistaken-sexual-identity in my life. I’m often assumed to be straight by everyone from colleagues and hairdressers to county clerks, baristas and bartenders.
And that’s mostly fine: I understand that I suffer from what’s known as femme invisibility, a term I learned about from the fabulous Effing Dykes. It means I don’t "read" immediately as queer. In my case, I have long hair, wear makeup, carry a purse and paint my nails: To strangers (straight ones and gay ones too!), I look like your typical straight lady.
What’s NOT fine is that it’s left entirely up to me to break this assumption, and break it forcefully. Subtle tactics designed to let the assumptive party save face -– like referring to my ladyfriend using the word "partner" (cringe), casually dropping female pronouns, and other gentle corrections plain ol’ won’t work. Seemingly, once people have formed a picture of my life in their heads, everything that violates that picture gets glossed over, to the point where I’m often asked to repeat myself "to make sure they heard right" when I officially "come out." Most conversations ultimately end with me having to explicitly state: “HEY! Listen up! I AM NOT STRAIGHT.” Lather, rinse, repeat.
The thing is, though –- I shouldn’t have to come out. The idea that I, as a queer person, owe an explanation of my sexual preferences to every single person I meet (really, to anyone other than my doctor) is flawed at best. But god forbid I don’t explicitly come out to someone who later finds out:
“Why didn’t you tell me? Don’t you trust me? Come on, I’m not like, a bigot or anything! I mean, you live in [insert liberal-sounding metropolis here], fercrissakes! It’s not a big deal! Don’t be such a drama queen!”
And like magic, they’ve deflected their liberal guilt by redirecting the blame for their own obliviousness on ME instead of leaving it where it belongs: squarely on their shoulders for making privileged assumptions in the first place.
Nevermind the fact that during the polite niceties that occur at the beginning of friendships, they could have easily amended their small-talk to be more inclusive. Instead of asking, “What does your boyfriend/husband do?” they could have asked “If you have a partner, what does he or she do?” Easy peasy!
Instead, what they are saying is that A) I should trust them, so far a perfect stranger, with a piece of information about myself which is, like it or not, fairly controversial; and B) feel bad about the fact that I was hesitant to do so. Sure, they may be the most liberal, queer-hugging person on earth, but there is no way for me to know that. My modus operandi is assume-guilty-until-proven-innocent. Like all coping mechanisms, it’s not ideal. But we don’t live in an ideal world -– and until we do, I don’t plan on changing.
The phrase "coming out" almost always conjures a single big, dramatic reveal: You do it once, usually to your parents in late adolescence -– there is a lot of handwringing beforehand, but it’s got a group-hug Hollywood ending and a Happily Ever After: From that moment on, you are “Out.”
But like with everything, that’s not the whole story. (For many, the group-hug ending isn’t even in the picture: 20 percent of homeless youth are LGBT, and they typically experience severe family conflict as the primary reason for their homelessness.)
The “Big Reveal” is great, but there isn’t some magical gay phone-tree that’s triggered as soon as the group hug is over, cascading out from your hometown to the wider world, letting every person you meet know that you –- yes you! -– are a girl-lovin’ girly girl.
You have to keep coming out, over and over, every day, to dozens and hundreds and maybe even thousand of people. It. Is. Exhausting. It takes so much energy and courage to come out to a litany of perfect strangers every single day. Often, I choose not to –- many of the people I talk to will never become friends, so, I figure, it doesn’t really matter if I skip the micro-out. Why risk the awkward silences, overblown apologies, or the ever-delightful, overzealous, “Wait, what did you just say? I have to be sure I heard you right! Oh I have no problem with that! I just wanted to be sure I heard you right!”
Great, thanks. I’m so glad you “have no problem” with who I am. Can we move on?
When was the last time anyone responded to a woman casually mentioning her boyfriend with, “I have no problem with that”? When was the last time you saw a straight person forced to submit to a battery of questions about his or her sex life at all? Let alone by people who claim to be insulted that they weren’t filled in on the details before they even asked any questions, or had any right to know at all?
Yes, I understand that education is a key part of any social justice movement. Yes, I understand that people who bother to get to know awesome queer people like myself are statistically less likely to commit hate crimes and more likely to vote for social justice. But I do not exist to serve as a “teachable moment” for straight people.
The awesome s.e. smith has much to say on the teaching role that disadvantaged groups are so often thrust into by well-meaning (or not-so-well-meaning) privileged people:
“There is a common expectation in social justice movements that people experiencing oppression should educate other people about their oppression; that, in fact, one of the things they need to do, as activists, is to use themselves and their experiences as teachable moments. This even as people living in marginalised bodies protest that one of the key parts of activism is self education, and that, in fact, people who want to learn things should seek out that information on their own rather than demanding it.“
So while I get that every person who goes through the formal “coming out” process –- however many tedious, irritating, and awkward times -– makes it easier for the next person, I still can’t find the motivation for making an example out of myself, particularly when doing so can be dangerous, both physically and otherwise.
Coming out is, still, a mostly necessary evil. But it’s also a tyrannical byproduct of a ruling-by-exception culture of sexuality. We need to reevaluate our blind acceptance of the necessity of sitting down to explain romantic gender preferences to friends/family/co-workers/entitled strangers. And straight people (heck, all people) need to shoulder some of the responsibility themselves: Asking the right questions can go a long way toward ensuring gender and sexual minorities feel safe in your space -– safe enough to be themselves, and maybe one day be your friend. And we’re all pretty much just here to make friends, aren’t we?