I Want the World to Know

John D. Martin III
October 11, 2017

I love the idea of National Coming Out Day. I always have. But a few things about it and my personal life experience make me think really deeply about it every year. I thought that it might be useful to share these thoughts. I consider most of what I've written below whenever I approach a group of people, particularly in the context of teaching and working in the academy. But all of this extends well beyond those boundaries.

National Coming Out Day is something that I first encountered in college and I think that for many students it still provides a first opportunity to publicly say something unequivocal, brave, and affirming about themselves. There are those who believe that it is no longer relevant and we should stop celebrating it because in 2017 we are all safe now.Matthew H. Birkhold. 10 October 2017. It’s time to end National Coming Out Day. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-time-to-end-national-coming-out-day/2017/10/10/a9db94ec-ad2b-11e7-9e58-e6288544af98_story.html That is clearly incorrect. More on that later. For now, here are my thoughts on coming out of the closet and celebrating publicly the fact that I have done so.

I don't really want to have to come out.

I don't want there to be a default position that I have to acknowledge I don't fit into. I really just want to be left alone to live my life. That is, I think, what most queer people want: to simply be left alone.

Some advice about what to do when we come out:

Don't kill us. At a bare minimum, don't kill us. Also, don't discriminate against us at work. Or shun us from your social circles. Or stare at us. Or make us feel like we have to qualify our existence and explain it. Just... leave us be. And don't make us come out, but let us do so if we want to.

I come out all the time.

That is not quite true. I come out regularly. I come out a lot. I have come out hundreds, thousands, an endless number of times. I come out every day, at least once. I'm coming out right now.

And do you know why? It's not because I want everyone to know I'm queer and demand that they acknowledge it in my presence.

Half the time I come out because I mention my husband/partner casually in conversation and that is when it occurs to someone that I am queer. Let's make that a quarter of the time.

Another quarter of the time, it is because someone mentions my wife offhand (I wear a wedding ring) and I'll correct them. Or someone will ask about my girlfriend or if I have a girlfriend and I'll correct them.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not pedantic about this. I just say, "Oh my husband, blah blah blah..." like nothing happened. I do this because I don't want my interlocutor to be embarrassed or feel like they are putting me out.

But guess what: It puts me out.

This is why I tend to use the word "partner" instead of "husband." I want other people to be able to talk about themselves. But I want them to do it without feeling ill-at-ease because I misgendered their partner. It's also tactical, on another front, because I want it to signal to people that maybe we should be using non-gendered language about this.

I don't come out all the time.

Half the time I don't come out. I don't say anything about myself. Or I straight up lie and misgender my own partner until I can leave the conversation and get away from it.

And why?

This is all self-preservative behavior. If someone misgenders my partner, and there are enough other cues, I know I'm not safe. If I hear someone using violent, queerphobic language, I know I'm not safe. I'm not coming out. If anyone specifically asks if I'm gay: I'm not coming out. If I hear someone speculate about someone else being LGBTQIA: I'm not coming out. I'm also ending the conversation and leaving it as soon as possible. I don't need to be around all of that.

Self-preservation is first. Everything else is second.

Why do I let someone else's behavior affect me?

It is important to remember two structural features of our social worlds when we talk about how great coming out is and wish each other happy National Coming Out Day: it is impossible for some people to come out, and impractical for others.

I spent a number of years living in the Middle East. I was not out then. I lived with my partner. That was difficult. We were "friends" and "roommates" most of the time. Some of our friends knew, most did not. It was always uncomfortable. It has taken me six years since moving back to the United States to feel comfortable talking publicly about being queer. It has taken me years to return to being comfortable talking about myself because I spent all those years constantly on guard about it.

Before that, I had no problem talking about it. I was in queer student groups. I worked for an LGBTQ support office. I talked to classes about being queer. I helped found Kalamazoo Pride. But it was impractical to be out for a certain period, so I went back in.

Loads of people do this all the time. We collectively force them into it.

In "professional" settings, straight people talk about their wives and husbands and kids and personal lives all the time. But the whole mood changes when a queer person does the same thing.

Why is that?

Your behavior may signal to us that we're not safe.

When that happens, we don't talk about ourselves. People ask if we're married: we demur. We change the conversation. We leave the room. We also leave the profession/the academy/our jobs/our careers/public spaces, etc. You get the idea.

People have lots of reasons, both situational and structural, for not being out: and they are all good reasons. Don't ever expect someone to put themselves at risk like that. And don't you dare out people.

Finally, don't think that the world no longer needs days like this when queer people can make themselves visible if they so choose. We still do.

Just because you think the world is ready for us all to be who we are doesn't mean that it is. Give people space to just be people. Leave them alone. Let them be. Be happy for those who are out on National Coming Out Day. But remember that it's also okay not to be.

This blog post came out of my tweeting about National Coming Out Day this morning after I saw the usual mix of things in the news and on Twitter about it.

So here is a thing about #NationalComingOutDay.

— John D. Martin III (@jdmar3) October 11, 2017

I Want the World to Know - October 11, 2017 - John D. Martin III