Coming Out Narratives Beyond the LGBT Experience
Last time I wrote, I briefly discussed coming out as a narrative particular to the LGBT experience. I claimed that coming out is not simply secret-telling, but that it acts as a way to concretize one's identity and orientation, that it is a dynamic exploratory process. Discussing or telling others of one's perceived marginalized or taboo identity will in turn force them to consider or reconsider their experiences and hopefully help one come to terms with being a statistical minority in their community. In the past couple of months, though, I've been questioning whether the coming out narrative is limited to the LGBT experience.
In the past couple of years, I've had friends try to relate to my coming out experiences, by comparing their experiences to mine. Sometimes, these friends needed to tell their irreligious parents or friends that they want to be ba’al teshuva, and sometimes they needed to tell their religious parents or friends the exact opposite. Sometimes, they wanted a new nose piercing or wanted to buy a pair of jeans that are tighter than their other pairs, and they were worried of the reactions they’d get. Either way, they were afraid of negative reactions, ostracization from their family or community or simply disappointing them. They discussed their problems with me, comparing them to my coming out, as both experiences involve expressions of true identity at the risk of an uproar.
In comparing their problems with my coming out, my friends were very polite, understating their experiences in the face of mine, making sure to stress that my experiences were probably more intense than theirs. But I'm not sure they're correct in assuming that my coming out experience should be placed on that kind of pedestal. As I've already expressed, my experience was relatively tame. Most of the turmoil happened in my head, fueled by my belief that people would react far more negatively than they actually did. Granted, that stress did induce a couple bouts of sleepless nights sitting by the toilet waiting for the next not-so-dry heave, but I'm sure I'm not the only YU student afflicted with the occasional bouts of stress induced vomiting. And ultimately, there’s no real way to evaluate the strength of one’s experience in comparison to others.
But we also need to consider that coming out isn’t simply the telling of a secret. If coming out is in fact exploratory, if it acts as a way to concretize an identity or orientation (whether its an identity based on religion, culture, or sexuality) then most of us have probably experienced coming out. Everyone has moments where they have to parse their identity, and that personal redefinition, not the specifics about the identity in question, are the core of the coming out narrative.
I think we need to acknowledge that the coming out narrative is not exclusive to the LGBT community. The term is chock full of LGBT connotations because that particular community has experienced the loudest outing in the past couple of decades. But should we then ignore other coming out narratives? Should we allow this construct to be monopolized by the LGBT experience when in reality it is so ubiquitous to the human condition?
As a member of the LGBT community, I know how easy it can be to get wrapped up in those experiences that are uniquely our own. Many of us have faced extreme prejudice within our communities and families, and have undergone tremendous redefinition and personal growth. But by monopolizing the coming out narrative (even unintentionally), we put our experiences on pedestals and lose our ability to explore common ground with members of other communities, including the communities from which we come.