Mo (mofic) wrote,

Is Coming Out a Big Deal?

This is prompted by a discussion in marag's journal. She talks about people who think that coming out is "no big deal" anymore and expresses the opinion that the tragic shooting in a Knoxville church is evidence that in "red states" coming out is a big deal.

I said there and will say here that I think coming out is a big deal - everywhere - and I also think staying closeted is a big deal - everywhere. I just don't think that this tragic event says anything about coming out and I think it's misguided to look at the violent actions of a disturbed individual in that light. Apparently the individual targeted this church (with a very liberal congregation and a history of supporting gay and lesbian rights) because he blames "gays and the liberal movement" for his own misfortunes. In another church shooting last December, the church was one that is distinctly anti-gay and the shooter also blamed the church for his misfortunes. I don't think either of these tragic events say anything about the risks and benefits of the closet. I do think that the Knoxville story is both sad and extraordinarily moving. I was so impressed with the courage and humanity of the people in the church - the man who died saving others, plus the people who stopped him. They didn't kill the gunman; they didn't beat him up; they stopped him and waited for the police. There would have been so many more people dead if not for their courage and quick thinking.

Okay, back to coming out. My personal story is that I came out to myself in 1974, shortly after turning 19 and came out to my family and friends a few months later. I have always been out, everywhere, since then, including in some very hostile environments. Here are some of the negative consequences I have personally experienced from coming out:

- I was disowned by my parents and ostracized by my extended family.
- I lost at least one job (probably more - people don't necessarily say they'd rather hire a straight person; similarly I'm not going to draw any specific conclusions from being passed over for promotion in favor of less on-paper qualified straight people but I imagine some of the time there was prejudice involved)
- I had colleagues who refused to work with me on projects, including one who said he wasn't going to be on a project with a "Jewish lesbian."
- I've been the victim of random homophobic violence including having beer bottles hurled at me while walking hand-in-hand with my lover
- I was physically abused by a physician who objected to my objecting to a homophobic comment
- I was victim of verbal harassment from time to time, including a couple spates of harassing telephone calls
- My supposedly progressive local school board voted - just as I was trying to choose an elementary school for my family - to implement city-wide lessons on tolerance with the proviso that no tolerance for gay men and lesbians could be taught (I got involved in school board elections the next year, in case anyone is wondering)

I could go on, but that's probably enough. Here are some of the positive consequences I've experienced from coming out:

- I never worried about people finding out about me.
- I found it easy to participate in gay culture and gay community wherever I lived, not worrying about who might find out from my involvement and out me.
- I could talk about my life in the normal way that people do, not leaving out mention of vacation or weekend plans or furniture or anniversaries or so on because doing so would betray the fact that I was married to a woman.
- I have three wonderful children, born to two mothers, the eldest at a time when very few were able to because it's so hard to do when you're not out.
- I could insist on being treated the same as others at work around things like having a baby, and push others to see the fairness in that.
- As Twain said, "If you don't lie, you don't have to remember anything."
- I found surprising pockets of support from people who seemed on the face of it to be just the kind who would hate me because I'm a lesbian.
- I helped to create surprising pockets of support (including the guy who wouldn't work with a Jewish lesbian. I won him over).
- I was able to escape a lot of the internalized homophobia that the closet induces and intensifies (I think this one is a *huge* deal and typically not one people see when they're in the closet).
- I gave my children a model of pride in our family and pride in myself that I hope they will emulate.
- I educated people who never realized that their colleagues, neighbors, bosses, subordinates, etc. are gay.
- Most importantly to me - I have a sense of wholeness and integrity in my life that I hear closeted people just aching for and wishing they could have.

I think when one is in the closet that it's very easy to see the risks of coming out, but it's hard to see the costs of staying in. This is what's called the baseline problem. Whatever your experience is, that's your baseline. You're used to it. You only see what might change.

Here's a good example of the baseline problem from another angle: I worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 1980 to 1997. When I started at the New York Fed, every senior position in the bank was held by a white man with an Irish last name. Over time, the senior management became somewhat diverse through Affirmative Action programs (amusingly enough, among the first inroads were two white women with Irish last names). To me, since it seems absurd to me to imagine that the skills necessary to run a central bank well are concentrated among white men with Irish last names, the fact of increasing diversity was likely to mean a more qualified senior management team, and I think that proved to be true over time. But to white men at the Fed - particularly white men with Irish last names - affirmative action meant taking lesser qualified candidates just because they were women and people of color and it meant "you just can't get ahead if you're a white guy." I saw a huge leg up to white men with Irish last names as being slightly reduced, but that leg up was their baseline - they didn't see it at all.

A couple of stories about coming out and unintended consequences:

- I had my first child when I was working in a very conservative department in a very conservative institution. I was the only woman at my level when I got a job as a "Chief" in the Bank Examinations Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, although everybody certainly told me that they had had a "lady chief" once before. How sexist the environment was is illustrated in part by the fact that the professional staff were routinely referred to as "the men" and the administrative/clerical staff as "the girls." I was not only a woman and a bit of a computer geek (when they still did everything with paper-and-pencil spreadsheets) but also an out lesbian. I think my colleagues thought I had dropped from another planet. And when I announced I was pregnant (very carefully worded to make clear that my spouse and I were having a baby together and we were very happy about it) I think the planet had moved out of the solar system. But bit by bit it got closer. Guys who had never said a word to me outside of meetings started stopping by my office, asking about how my pregnancy was going, talking about their kids. sharing their wives' best morning sickness remedies. You could almost see the wheels in their little heads churning as they processed the information. ("Hey! They have children; we have children. Maybe they aren't so different.")

- Fast forward four years and I'm in a different department and expecting my second child. I'm working with a closeted lesbian on a project. She's closeted enough that she would never come out to anyone at work, especially me since I am out (I find this all out years later when she does come out). She gets in an elevator and I'm in there with my boss's boss (a person of color with an Indian last name, incidentally) and he is asking solicitously after my pregnant spouse and talking about his own wife's pregnancy.

I have no memory of this conversation - it was one of many ordinary small talk conversations. But, as this woman told me later, it was the most exciting thing that had happened to her in a long time to overhear it. It was what spurred her to come out. As she described it, the idea that a senior officer at the Fed could talk to me in a way that suggested my being a lesbian was not a big deal gave her hope. It didn't make coming out not a big deal, but getting to where at least some of the time being out was not a big deal was the prize she now had her eyes on. And several years later she won that prize.

So back to the baseline problem and coming out. The closet is a place of fear, a place of deceit, a place of rationalization often (as in "I'm not scared. I just think my sex life is nobody's business"). But that fear and tension is the baseline.

It's only after people come out that they realize how pervasive it was. Much decision-making in life is risk/benefit analysis with inadequate information and this decision is no exception. But having listened to lots of people in lots of circumstances over the years on the coming out question I've come to believe that many people overestimate the risks of coming out and underestimate the costs of the closet and that they find that out for themselves afterwards.

Does that mean everyone should come out and should come out now? No, I think it absolutely has to be an individual decision. It's a huge decision and not one anyone can make for someone else. I keep meaning to write a post about outing but basically - other than when someone is a public figure who is publicly homophobic and secretly gay - I don't think it's justifiable.

I've never outed anyone, even when I was the only out person among my colleagues. But I think it's very good for people who are closeted to talk to those who are out - and particularly those who lived in the closet for years and then came out - about what the consequences have been for them, both positive and negative. Just so they can see that baseline a little clearer. So when people ask me about coming out I talk about both sides of the question and suggest formerly closeted people for them to talk to, too. I tell what happened to me (and with young people still dependent on their parents I tell them it's important they be prepared for the worst) and I tell them what happened to others and I leave it to them to make the decision. But I don't hide at all that I feel that more people being out is better for society as a whole.

The fascinating thing about homophobia (as opposed to many other forms of bigotry) is that it tends to dissolve when people know someone who is gay or lesbian. Repeatedly, over decades, the only constant in polls on equal rights for lesbians and gay men is that someone is much more likely to be in favor if s/he answers the question "Do you know any lesbians or gay men personally?" affirmatively than if s/he says "no". And, the thing is, everyone knows gay men and lesbians personally but they don't necessarily know it. Justice Powell, the fifth Supreme Court vote that denied a right to sexual privacy to gay men and lesbians in Bowers v Hardwick, later said that he regretted the decision, that he recognized it as a mistake. At the time he said to his law clerk that he "had never met a homosexual person." The law clerk was a closeted gay man and he did not choose to come out in response. What might have been the consequences - negative and positive - for him and for our society if he had made a different choice?

Coming out is a big deal, for everyone. So is being in the closet. The individual needs to decide for him/herself. And one of the things that makes coming out such a hard decision is that it's an irrevocable one. You can't just close the closet door again after you come out (or at least most people can't - like most things in life, this depends upon your personal situation). Still, I think many people find that the costs of the closet are so much greater than the risks of coming out, for themselves, for their families and for society as a whole.
Tags: coming out, politics
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