Is It Safe to Come Out?

Coming out isn’t a one-off for LGBTQ+ people – it’s a decision to be made with every new person they meet. We ask whether it’s still safe to do so as society lunges to the right

Feature by Toby Sharpe | 04 Apr 2017
  • Deviance Coming out of the closet

This is a strange time to be out and proud as queer. In some ways, the world is better for us than it ever has been. We can get married in a bunch of places in the West, openly slaying us like vampires is seen as increasingly passé, and hordes of straight girls have now watched a few seasons of RuPaul on Netflix. Wow! Simultaneously, though, a chilling breeze lingers in the air, inspiring worry. As right-wing politicians vomit hatred and get elected regardless, there is a fear that it is not the safest time to be a queer person out on the streets.

Our rights, the newspapers (and presidents) warn us, can be taken away. In this difficult political climate, where even the US Vice-President openly supports conversion therapy, I find myself asking: how can queer people be themselves, be out, and be safe? Does that 'safety' really exist, even in progressive liberal bubbles? What's more, if a person is able to come out as gay with relatively low threat to their safety, do they have a responsibility to do so?

For anyone planning to come out, there's the question of what’s the best result to hope for. How will you know you’ve been accepted, and that you’re safe? Do you want your loved ones to simply say, “You’re gay? Cool, I guess. I don’t care. Let’s have dinner!”?

The dual narratives of coming out

Some people argue that the ultimate aim of gay rights movements is to simply make being queer as commonplace and mundane as being straight. Telling someone you’re gay would be the same as telling them you’re allergic to grapefruit – good to know, but not that interesting. Most queer people, though, want something more: to be welcomed, recognised, affirmed. However, we don’t want this from everyone all the time – after all, we have to come out a lot more than the average straight person might think. If you had to hug every person who realised you were queer, you’d never get anything done.

Every queer person lives through two narratives of coming out: the time you tell the significant people in your life (often family, close friends, a guardian – perhaps even your kids), and then the endless parade of moments when you have to decide whether you’re telling each new person you meet. Straight people seem to think only the former category exists, as if by announcing your outness, you’re suddenly sticking a neon tattoo on your head for all to see. They often don’t think about the exhausting grind of having to decide whether each new person you meet is a safe bet.

Should you scream you’re a big ol’ homo in the first few sentences? Do they think you’re hitting on ‘em? Will your cute outfit (with matching sparkly nails) tell them for you? Will they be cruel, either in ignorance, or in malice?

It’s exhausting to think about. The first, huge coming out is hard enough. You’ve probably heard some funny versions. Perhaps your friend literally hid in a closet, then stepped out of it to the tune of Diana Ross’s I’m Coming Out, bewildering her conservative and musically bland family. Or maybe your colleague just left a single pink cupcake on his desk, as if to say, “Stop hitting on me, Sandra; you’re repugnant and I’m calling HR if this shit continues.” You’ll also have heard some sad stories. Families can be terrible. Friends can betray you. A house can become a hell – remarkably easily.

Some stories aren’t full of hellfire or rainbows; they’re as painful or awkward as normal life can be. I was never really in. I came out to my school when I was 11, mostly accidentally, and to my parents when I was 14, after a few juvenile years of ineptly pretending I found girls attractive: “Yeah, Mum, she’s cool – I really like her… hair…” Over some pasta on holiday, I mumbled my ‘truth’ to my confused mother. I kinda figured I could run away and join a circus if it all went to shit; perhaps I overestimated how many circuses there would be near the restaurant.

Something important to consider when thinking about coming out stories like these is also the issue of passing; some people don’t come off as straight, so even if they don’t announce their queerness, they’re pilloried and despised by straight society. When I came out, there was the seeming option that I could stay in if I’d wanted to try to – and some people don’t have that luxury.

My coming-out story

Whenever I relate my first coming-out story to people now, I tend to be told that I am, or I was, brave. I normally reply that I was just a kid, that I wasn’t intelligent enough to lie – or, more accurately, to realise that some truths don’t need to be bellowed.

Staying in the closet would likely have spared me a tornado of low-key bullying, and a feeling of isolation that still clings to me at night as I try to sleep. Other things about being out that young weren’t great either. But some things were: I had an accepting family, and I grew up in a diverse part of the world. I was among the luckier of my friends, in terms of coming out of the closet, however limp my version of that narrative is.

More importantly than that, for my own purposes, I also grew up with a holistic version of selfhood: I wasn’t in for long, so I’ve never had the divided self that being in the closet brings. I’ve rarely had to second-guess my movements, hide my tics, pretend to love those I simply can’t. Instead, I’ve been able to present to the world that person I am, and who I want to be. It’s been scary – but I think it’s been important for me to, as a person with the privilege to do so relatively unscathed. We need to be vocal about our love and our selves for those who can’t, to pressure the often apathetic and the evil into recognising us and our rights.

Thinking back on it now, though, I think my first coming out was brave. Bravery is about doing something that’s hard for the greater good. In this world I’ve described, the world we live in, we’re told it’s not only becoming better and better to be LGBTQ+ – it's also tougher and tougher. You come out hoping that the world will accept you, not just as another grey figure, but, sentimental and silly as it might sound, as a rainbow of a person. Maybe the best response to someone coming out isn’t claiming you’re indifferent, but acknowledging their courage.

Coming out is scary, but it’s brave. You come out not just for yourself, but for queer people who are less privileged and less able to, and for those queer generations who will come after you.