Content warnings: mentions of sexual violence and harassment, but no specifics
I don’t think of myself as a particularly private person (she says, on a public blog on the internet).
That said, in January I realized that a classmate of mine, who I have known for two years and consider a friend, not only did not know that I was ace–he didn’t even realize that I had a partner. It’s not that I ever lied to him; it’s just that…it never came up. And if I saw a dozen openings to bring it up and failed to take them, well…
I have written an awful lot about coming out since starting this blog, including a series of tips for coming out that is still one of my most widely read pieces. Yet in the past two or so years I have pretty much stopped coming out. It’s not that I’m not out, because I most certainly am. It’s more that I’ve stopped doing the theatrical, Sit Down and Come Out and Field Questions style of coming out. If you become close friends with me, I will just assume that you already know I’m a queer ace, and behave accordingly. For example, we got a new roommate last year, and I don’t think I’ve ever officially come out to him, but he’s almost certainly caught on by now, given that he’s met my partner and I’ve talked about doing ace activism and he’s heard me make a series of truly terrible ace puns while drinking tea out of my Aces Run on Cake mug. If we’re not close friends, well, I probably don’t mention enough about my personal life for you to have much of an impression of me. As one of my friends put it, “Before you came out to me, it wasn’t so much that I thought you were straight as that you seemed very, very private.”
This is, needless to say, quite a shift from when I first started blogging, back when I was coming out (in that really intense manner) to pretty much everyone. It’s been a slow transition, and it’s hard to pinpoint a single cause so much as a series of contributing factors.
First, there’s the matter of my job, and the fact that I can’t be 100% out due to the research I’m conducting. That certainly puts a damper on the impulse to come out to everyone all the time. But that’s been hanging over my head for years at this point, so I can’t say that’s entirely to blame.
Second, in the past few years I’ve had some truly terrible coming out experiences–including one that ended in my filing a formal complaint about harassment and another that required a literal get-away car. But, again, my first coming out experience ended in sexual violence, so I can’t entirely blame those experiences on my recent reticence.
Third, I’ve become an increasingly private person, in large part because of how difficult it is to talk about any part of my personal life without explaining all of it. For example, explaining my relationship with my family requires coming out and explaining all the drama and hurt there. Coming out often leads to people asking when I knew I was asexual, which requires disclosing my history of sexual violence. Even responding honestly to as benign of a question as what I’ll be doing over summer/winter break requires a lot more personal information than I particularly feel like divulging. It’s less that I feel uncomfortable telling people about my family situation or my trauma history or my mental health or my sexual/romantic orientation, and more that it feels unfair to dump that on someone without warning. So I’ve gotten very good at keeping conversation at a superficial level, because if it goes beyond a superficial level, my conversational partner often doesn’t know how to react. I once casually mentioned my partner–having forgotten that I hadn’t actually mentioned her to anyone at the table before–and that derailed the conversation for at least ten minutes as everyone expressed surprise that I was “a…uh…dating a…someone.” I don’t enjoy everyone being shocked by (what I consider) trivial information about my personal life, so it’s easier to just not mention it unless we’re already close and I know they won’t be weird about it.
Fourth, I simply don’t have the energy or desire to do the massive coming out production anymore. When I first started this blog I was moving to a new city and starting graduate school and had to come out to a whole bunch of people. Now I’ve been living in the same place for several years and simply don’t have as many people to come out to. More than that, though, I just don’t have the energy to field the inevitable barrage of questions that accompanies coming out. Yes, I really am asexual. Yes, I have had partners in the past. Yes, I currently have a partner. Yes, she is aware that I am asexual. Yes, she is fine with it. Yes, she is also asexual. Yes, we have a “real relationship.” Yes, I’m sure I’m not a lesbian in denial.
Even when I come out to people who already know what asexuality is, coming out is such an anxiety-inducing experience that I’d rather just avoid it. There’s always the chance that people will react negatively or violently or that they’ll just be dismissive or disbelieving. I also carry a tremendous amount of emotional baggage due to my experiences as an ace online and a metric ton of anxiety about coming out or even inhabiting space because I might be harming people who need that space more. Coming out has always been some flavor of terrifying for me, but compounded with recent negative coming out experiences and an increasing propensity for privacy, it just doesn’t feel worth it anymore. I’ve compared coming out to ripping off a band-aid before–at a certain point, you just get tired of ripping off band-aids and would rather wait for the adhesive to dissolve naturally. If people know me well enough and long enough, they will eventually (presumably) catch on, and I can avoid the coming out production with its attendant anxiety.
While being private keeps me safe, it also takes a toll on my relationships. Constantly monitoring what you say, trying to stay truthful without letting anything slip is exhausting, and it’s not a good basis for a relationship. That classmate who knew me for two years but didn’t know I was ace? Part of the reason it took me so long to say anything to him is because…how do you begin to bridge that huge gap, especially if the other person isn’t aware that there’s a gap there to begin with? “Oh, by the way, I have a partner who I have consistently failed to mention for two years, and also my family situation is a lot messier than you seem to think it is” isn’t the best conversation opener. “Did you not catch the forty million hints I kept dropping? Good grief, man, I explicitly talked about how I couldn’t bring my partner to Japan on a visa in front of you and you still didn’t catch on” is equally bad. There’s a point at which it may just be easier to continue to say nothing, to duck questions that might raise suspicion, and hope, somehow, that he’ll catch on. (He did eventually catch on, at least to some of it, although it did take some fairly graceless information dumping on my part.)
In an ideal world, I’d like to be able to be out to everyone, to be able to mention my partner or my sexual and/or romantic orientation without it turning into a huge production. In an ideal world, I would still be doing what I did my first year of grad school–coming out to anyone and everyone, willing to field questions and direct people to resources and being sure of myself and my orientation(s) and my right to occupy space. In an ideal world, I could be a visibly out ace, serving as a role model for the next generation of aces. But this is not an ideal world, and I am not an ideal person. I am tired and I am anxious and I simply don’t have the energy or desire to be out all the time, if being out all the time means explicitly telling people that I’m ace, that I’m queer, that I have a very cute partner, and then telling them again and again and again until it penetrates. Given the choice between fighting for respect in the classroom or being very, very quiet about my personal life at school, I’ll take the latter over the former. I know that I deserve respect, and I know that I should be able to casually mention aspects of my personal life without fear, but I also know that I am just one person and, although I may try to sometimes, I cannot fight every fight simultaneously.
I have considered (many times) revising my coming out tips–I wrote them years ago, when ace communities were different and I was different and coming out as ace was different. I’ve considered adding more emphasis on safety and what to do if things go horribly wrong, adding more information on partial coming out (e.g. coming out as bi rather than as a biromantic ace), adding yet another reminder that you never need to come out ever and you shouldn’t feel pressured into it. But, at least for now, I’ve decided to leave it. People seem to find it helpful, and I don’t know that terrifying a bunch of already terrified aces by talking about all the negative repercussions coming out can have on your life would be productive. That information should exist somewhere out there, sure, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be written by me right now.
Instead, let me say this: Coming out can be a relief and can lift a weight from your shoulders, but it can also be risky and bring unforeseen complications. You don’t need to come out if you don’t want to, and you’re not a lesser person for not coming out. You’re allowed to be out in one social circle and not in another because of safety concerns, a desire for privacy, a lack of energy, or just because. You can be out while skipping the Coming Out and Asexuality 101 production, although that may be more complicated if the people surrounding you don’t already have some basic knowledge of asexuality (or a willingness to consult a search engine). You’re the person best equipped to know if coming out is the right decision in a particular situation, so trust your gut and do what you need to to keep yourself safe.