Coming out (and coming out [and coming out {and coming out}])

Content warnings: brief references to violence against aces and corrective sexual violence

When I was a teenager, I was somehow under the impression that coming out was something you did once and only once.  Adults talked about certain people being “out” or “closeted.”  YA lG(b[t]) books inevitably had the main character “come out” in the climax, and then suddenly everyone magically knew he was gay.  The few queer kids I knew (and was comfortable enough around to even talk to about these sorts of things) consulted in whispers about how they would come out, when they would come out, to whom they would come out, and plotted it down to every last detail because they only had one shot and they had to make it count.

8+ years and 20+ coming outs (comings out?) later, I have realized that “being out” isn’t one of two binary states.

As much as YA fiction would have liked me to believe, coming out once doesn’t magically grant everyone the knowledge of your outness.  I don’t exactly disguise the fact that I’m ace (or that I’m queer), but I would guess that maybe 1/4-1/3 of my cohort knows (unless someone has been gossiping about me like whoa).  The thing is, no matter how “out” I am, unless I explicitly say, “Hello, I am an asexual person,” or “Hello, I am a queer person,” people don’t pick up on these things.  Unless I say something, regardless of how non-closeted I may be, people are going to assume that I am straight.  So if I want people to know that I’m ace (or that I’m queer), I can’t just not “hide” my aceness (or my queerness); I have to explicitly state it.

Nor does coming out to someone guarantee that you won’t have to come out to the same person again.  Last semester I came out to a group of classmates, and then some weeks later, when I mentioned something or other related to being ace, one of them went, “Wait, hold up.  You’re asexual?”  As it turned out, despite the fact that I had explicitly said that I was asexual, he had, apparently, only caught the bit where I was queer, and, in his words, “just saw a ‘super queer’ sign on your face and I guess I missed the rest of that sentence.”  That was one of the better double coming out experiences I’ve had–others have included people thinking I was joking the first time (I wasn’t), people thinking I was being metaphorical the first time (????), people thinking I would change my mind later (nope), people mishearing me entirely, and so on.  That’s not counting the double (triple [quadruple]) coming out experiences I’ve had when people discovered that I’ve dated people in the past (“I thought you were asexual, though!”/”I have a friend who says she’s a lesbian but she’s dating a man.”) or that I’ve dated men in the past (“But aren’t you interested in women?”/”So you’re really straight then?”).

The fact of the matter is that coming out is exhausting (and nerve-wracking [and occasionally dangerous]), and I just don’t have the energy (or desire) to come out to every random person I meet.  Does that mean that I’m not really “out”?  I don’t know.  Maybe.  But I doubt that, following that criteria, anyone is really out.  “Out” isn’t a binary state to be contrasted with “closeted”; coming out is a constant, unending process.  When I finally decided to come out as ace, I didn’t come out just once–I’ve come out dozens of times, in ice cream shops, in restaurants, in cafeterias, in my apartment, in other people’s apartments, on trains, via IM, via letter, in person, accidentally and intentionally.  I expect that I’ll probably spend the rest of my life coming out (and coming out [and coming out {and coming out some more}]).

Nor is “being out” a single, monolithic state of being–what exactly am I coming out as?  Am I coming out as queer?  As ace?  As both?  Does this person know my dating history?  Do I emphasize one aspect of my messy ball of attractions over the others?  Do I say, “I am queer,” or do I say, “I’m attracted to women,” or do I say, “I’m rarely attracted to men”?  Do I specify what kind of attraction I experience toward people?  Do I mention the frequency with which I experience romantic attraction?  Do I have to preface with, “I’m not coming onto you, but”?*  Do I try to do Asexuality 101 while coming out?  Do I even have time to do Asexuality 101, or do I just promise I’ll bombard them with links later?  Do I have to tell them not to tell every other person they meet, or do I expect that they will grant me some modicum of privacy?  Or do I just not say anything and see if they gossip about me and save me the trouble of coming out to another three (five [ten]) people?

On the upside, since coming out is a process,** if you goof it up, there’s always next time!  The first time I came out, I was terrified, because if I did it wrong, it was wrong forever.  Fortunately, that’s not the case!  Yes, the first few times I came out I did it with approximately the grace and finesse of a bowling ball through a stained glass window, but, in the grand scheme of things, that’s only a tiny fraction of my total coming out experiences.  There have been times when I’ve come out gracefully, when I’ve educated with speed and precision, when I’ve walked away thinking, “Well, that went pretty okay.”

If you’re less of an optimist, though, coming out being a process means infinitely many times to royally screw it up, to receive uncomprehending stares, to be patted on the arm and told soothingly, “Don’t worry, you’ll grow into it.”  It means infinitely many times for people to react negatively or violently, to think that my declaration of identity is a cry for help that only their genitals can answer.  And when I think about it that way, coming out is terrifying, and I’d rather that coming out was something I could do once, that coming out was like ripping off a band-aid, not like ripping off a million separate band-aids.

When people come to my ask box on tumblr, they often want resources for coming out or advice on how to come out or reassurance that if they come out the world won’t end.  If you’re one of those people, let me tell you: The world won’t end.  It might be scary.  It might be awful.  You might freak out and trip over your feet and wind up babbling.  But you also might not.  And every time you come out is practice for the next time, and the next time (or the time after that [or the time after that {or the time after that}]) it will go better.  Coming out isn’t something you do just once; coming out is a never-ending process of reiterating and recapitulating and restating your identity in a hundred (thousand [million]) different ways.

And, yes, that might sound awful (not to mention exhausting and dangerous), and it kind of is.  It’s exhausting to have to constantly correct other people’s misconceptions (and then reiterate and hope that it sinks in this time).  When people present the only “authentic” way of being ace/queer/LGBT+ as being out to everyone and anyone, I shake my head and back away slowly.  Being out doesn’t make you any more authentic than being closeted, and being out to your best friend and no one else doesn’t make you less authentic than being out to every single person who crosses your path.  When you look at coming out as a process, it might seem like it’s better to just stay closeted and save yourself the trouble (and the headache [and the anxiety]).  If you’d rather stay closeted, that’s entirely legit, and far be it from me to censure you.  If you’d rather come out only to the people who are directly affected by your sexuality/romantic orientation/gender identity/what have you, that’s also entirely legit, and anyone who tries to convince you otherwise should go sit in the corner.

Personally, the reason I keep coming out (and coming out [and coming out]) is because I think back to my fifteen-year-old self, hiding under my bed in terror when I realized that I had a crush on a girl.***  If I had known one person who was out as ace, who was out as some flavor of queer (other than gay), who sat me down and said, “Hey, listen, coming out is a process, not a one-time only event,” I think my adolescence would have been a lot less nerve-wracking and dramatic and full of me thinking that I was broken or that there was something wrong with me.  So, to some extent, I come out (and come out [and come out again]) not just because I’d like people to know who I am, but also in the (perhaps vain) hope that I can be that one other person for someone.  I would like, by my coming out, to make the coming out process smoother for someone else; coming out has been so much easier for me when the other person has said, “Oh yeah, my friend [so-and-so] is ace!” and so I’d like to be that so-and-so for someone else.

And, to be entirely honest, every time I come out and the apocalypse doesn’t occur and the people I’m coming out to listen and learn and are actually respectful and decent about it, I realize how far I’ve come from being the fifteen-year-old girl hiding under her bed.

*The number of straight girls who think my coming out as queer is some sort of confession of secret love for them is truly astounding.

**My brain is supplying the phrase “a process of becoming,” probably because I’ve been reading way too much queer theory.

***Why was I hiding under my bed?  I don’t even remember.  I was a strange and somewhat unconventionally melodramatic teenager.

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
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19 Responses to Coming out (and coming out [and coming out {and coming out}])

  1. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    Oh, yes, to all of the above, though I’ve had the luck to not having to come out to the same person twice. (Yet.) And I’m ace/aro, which is easier to explain.
    However, as to the YA-literature representation of the truth. I believe that this first “telling the family/someone in RL I actually care about” is a momentous occasion, especially for people who are teenagers. I remember that back then, I was naturally a lot more dependent on my parents’ good will, and also more painfully longing for my friends’ approval than I am now. So I’ve no idea whether I would have had the guts to come out as anything, even if the correct words had existed at the time.

    • queenieofaces says:

      Oh, yeah, I definitely thought that coming out to my parents would be some sort of huge ordeal when I was a teenager…which is why I still haven’t done it. It was also commonly accepted knowledge among my peer group that if you weren’t out to your parents, you couldn’t really tell anyone (and you shouldn’t participate in the GSA, because you weren’t REALLY out).

      • Hollis says:

        I mean, as someone who is still in college, I’m not out to my parents*. I’m in a nebulous half-closeted place where most of my friends are nebulously aware that I’m not straight, though few are aware that I’m trans. And not coming out to friends before parents has been an entirely practical decision for me**. I have a name that is not my birth name that I prefer and I prefer different pronouns, and after coming out I would very much like people to use them. However, my parents visit enough and interact with my friends when they do. And just, making people keep two names (and sets of pronouns) in mind for two different scenarios is asking a lot, and I’m not confident that they wouldn’t mess up, especially given that I’ve messed up myself and unintentionally outed myself to professors before I had intended to (whoo writing the wrong name on papers submitted online). And I do think that my parents deserve to hear the news from me. (Also they will be Very Unhappy if they hear it from an outside source, and as coming out might already be a mess, keeping them from being Very Unhappy has been a priority)

        *I mean, if they were a bit more perceptive, they probably could/should have figured out that I’m Not Straight because I’ve really, really not been subtle.

        **Mostly because I’m not a huge fan of 101 level conversations that can be rather stressful, and I’d rather have all the conversations at the same time. I’d just rather get it all on the table so people can ask all the slightly to moderately offensive questions at once and get it over with, as opposed to having 3 or so sessions of that with regards to various aspects of my gender and sexuality.

        Final note: this is super relevant because I’m planning on having the “You do not have a heterosexual daughter” talk with at least my dad on my break next week. Should be a good time.

  2. Rose says:

    Part of my fear of coming out has to do with the fact that it *isn’t* a binary in/out. If it was, I would take a deep breath and get it over with but I can’t face the fact that I would have to come out to parents, aunts, grandparents, siblings, and cousins and that doesn’t even cover the extended family who will hear rumors that will later need correcting. Friends are easier, or at least mine are because they don’t really know each other. But perhaps I need to look at it from your perspective where this all just offers me chances to do-over and gain experience… Real life rehearsals, really.
    About Carmilla’s comment where being aro/ace is easier, I actually find it harder because I feel the need to explain that even though I don’t experience romantic attraction it doesn’t define asexuality…

  3. Kat says:

    Excellent points. Coming out is almost never a single, indivisible event. There will always be other people to tell (unless you somehow manage to never meet new people who make assumptions about you) or additional degrees of nuance to impart (due to multiple, intersecting identities or just a general tendency not to conform to random people’s stereotypes).

    I think, however, that it might be useful to draw the distinction between “coming out” (as an act of disclosure) and “being out” (as an attitude). The people I know who are the most unequivocally out are not necessarily the ones who give their life story as a salutation or are stereotypically obvious, but rather they genuinely do not care who knows. They’ll come out to people when it becomes relevant to a conversation (e.g. by mentioning ex’s instead of declaring “I’m [x]”). While this definition very clearly doesn’t work for a great many people (due to temperament, concerns over safety etc etc) and I’m most certainly not implying that this attitude is better than the alternatives, it does elucidate the importance of the “canonical” coming out. This is typically when one tells the most important person(s) that their assumptions about you were wrong in some way. Presumably, once one has dealt with this high stakes coming out, one can then be out and not care about who knows what. The other times one comes out don’t cease to occur, but they are not as important in this picture. (Again, not saying this picture is right, just that it seems to have some explanatory power.)

    • queenieofaces says:

      Good points, and I think that distinction is really useful. I think the relevant-to-conversation coming out works better for some identities than others, though–for example, it’s easy to impart the knowledge that you’re attracted to women by mentioning a female ex or talking about a current crush, but it’s difficult to convey lack of attraction. For a while there, I didn’t really have any way of casually mentioning that I was ace, although now that’s less true given that I do stuff with NEA. (Whether I can actually casually mention it is another question entirely; the last time I came out, I nearly put my head through a sheet of glass in a fit of nerves.)

      I also think, to some extent, the image of the high-stakes coming out works best for people with unified social spheres? In my case, I have a bunch of social groups: friends I grew up with (who are now scattered around the world), friends from college, friends from graduate school, friends I met while in graduate school but who are not actually in graduate school, friends from NEA, my family gets their own category ’cause they’re not allowed near my other social groups, etc. And even those categories can be broken down into smaller categories (in graduate school: my Japanese history proseminar gets its own category, friends in Japanese studies, friends doing gender studies, etc.) that may or may not overlap. So there isn’t a single high-stakes coming out so much as a dozen high-stakes coming outs (comings out?). I think people’s social spheres might be slightly more unified when they’re in high school (which seems to be the Accepted Time for Coming Out), but I feel like, by college, most people’s social lives are pretty scattered.

    • namipuffin says:

      I would consider myself in that ‘being out’ category. I’ve done the whole official coming out thing several times, and no doubt I will do it many, many more times over the course of my life, but I don’t particularly enjoy it and I can never figure out how to do it gracefully so mostly I just drop my being ace into conversation when it seems relevant. “I’m ace and I think…” or “Yeah, well, very terribly ace over here” are pretty common phrases for me.*

      The problem with doing it this way is it ups the number of times you have to come out to someone significantly. Most of the people I’ve sat down and actually done official coming out and 101 with have only needed to be told once (with the exception of my parents, who only sort of get it and with whom I really don’t want to have the conversation again and so whose assumptions I don’t bother correcting anymore). People with whom I just bring it up in conversation need to be told *multiple* times before they actually finally get that, no, I’m not a lesbian, sorry. I suspect it would be different if I were coming out as something someone had actually heard of — the people who assume through (understandable but incorrect) context clues that I’m gay only need the once to make and keep that assumption** — but as it is it kind of goes in one ear and out the other.

      (I should also clarify that I consider myself out about being ace and still more or less closetted about being aro, not because I have any particular issues with being aro or because I don’t want people to know, but because even fewer people have heard of it and even fewer people will believe it without lengthy explanations (especially since I’m in what appears from the outside to be a romantic relationship) and I have better things to do with my life than convince people that I am a)not lying, b)not wrong, and c)not broken.)

      *Well, okay, not *that* common in the grand scheme of things.
      **To be fair to them, they’re also not assumptions I work *that* hard to discourage, because I really don’t like doing the 101 thing and if I have to settle for people just thinking I’m some more standard form of not-straight in order to avoid going through the basics for the nth time then I’ll live with that. I am not cut out to be any kind of activist.

  4. threadmangler says:

    “*The number of straight girls who think my coming out as queer is some sort of confession of secret love for them is truly astounding.”

    Maybe because otherwise, why is it their business? Unless they’re always trying to set you up.

    • queenieofaces says:

      …because sometimes I’m friends with straight girls and would like them to know what’s going on in my life? Same reasons I’d want to be out to anyone else, to be honest. I don’t come out to people solely because I’m interested/not interested in specific types of relationships with them.

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