When I was a teenager, my parents watched a short documentary about then-newly famous k.d. Lang and her rural Canadian upbringing. I guess something about it roused a suspicion my stepmother had been nursing. The next time I was home from boarding school for the holidays she asked me point-blank if I was a lesbian.
I said the only thing that felt safe: no.
What I didn’t know was that that was it -- my one chance to come out as something other than straight -- and it had slipped away. Anything I said about myself later was proof of my dishonesty, even though, at the time, I lacked the words to even articulate my identity. Back then I thought queer was just a word Enid Blyton used to describe an eccentric person. Coming out of the closet was impossible since I didn’t really know I was in it.
Of all the narratives about coming out that I’ve heard over the years, the predominant one is that it’s like ripping off a bandaid. Just say it, that one time, and suddenly the door of that closet you’re hiding in (or have been pressed into) will just fly off its hinges and vanish. Permanently.
This is a story that straight people love to hear. Videos of high-schoolers inviting a same-sex date to the prom and coming out in the process go viral, people who out themselves on Facebook have legions of strangers share and like screencaps of their big reveal, and celebrities like Ian Thorpe have 60 Minutes specials made about their first steps out. But the perpetuation of the narrative of the big, bold coming out is harmful both because it obscures the truth of quotidian life for queer people, and because they over-simplify sexuality as a fixed, binary identity.
I didn’t tell my stepmother that I was a lesbian at 16 because I’m not a lesbian, and my farm-girl upbringing had not given me the vocabulary to talk about queer desire. Bisexuality only existed as a punch-line in that world. And more than that, my instincts told me that it wasn’t safe to open the closet door yet, anyway. What kids actually need is to never be put in a closet in the first place -- there’s no need to come out, if you’re never locked in.
"Our culture relies so strongly on the trope of the heterosexual nuclear family that most people seem to assume that if a woman has a kid, she’s married. To a man."
Unfortunately, straight people don’t seem to realise that building closets is part of their day to day life. I’m a professional woman in my 30s who writes and speaks about queer issues and I still find myself having to out myself on a regular basis.
Part of the reason for that is that I’m a mother. Our culture relies so strongly on the trope of the heterosexual nuclear family that most people seem to assume that if a woman has a kid, she’s married. To a man. These assumptions make for awkward conversation when shopkeepers ask your kid whether they look like ‘daddy’ or when other mums at the park ask you what line of work your husband’s in.
There are more insidious consequences than social awkwardness, though. Kids of same-sex parents constantly overhear these exchanges, further reinforcing that their family structure is not respected or approved of. And people take shocking liberties with queer families, asking intimate questions about genetic parentage and turkey basters even before knowing your first name.
Having to constantly reaffirm your identity can be a form of minority stress. This can be doubly true for those of us who are bisexual. In fact, some studies suggest that those who identify as bisexual are the most at risk of mental health problems, compared with heterosexual and gay and lesbian people. It’s likely that this is because bisexuals are more readily forced into the closet: the more acting on same-sex attraction appears to be a choice, the less acceptable it is. What’s more, queer identities are often contested. When I first fell in love with a woman, most of my friends asked if I was ‘a lesbian now’, as if my previous relationships with men were instantly negated.
For most people on the LGBT spectrum there are decisions to be made, every day, about whether it is worth being honest even at the risk of a homophobic response. These may seem insignificant in themselves, but over time, the stress adds up. Once I had a massage therapist ask me about my husband whilst she was rubbing oil onto the tight muscles in my buttocks. In that particularly vulnerable position, I didn’t feel it was a great time to broach the issue of my sexuality. Another day I was having a congenial chat with an older woman on a train, who suddenly turned hostile when she realised the woman holding my daughter was my partner, not my friend. More comically, a shopkeeper we both saw regularly for over a year insisted on calling us ‘sisters’ even though we’d explained the nature of our relationship. When others think your coming out is too much information, it’s pretty hard to be authentic.
"When others think your coming out is too much information, it’s pretty hard to be authentic."
Honestly, I don’t particularly need the world to know the intimate details of my life. But to assert that the private lives of LGBT people don’t need to be visible is a homophobic fiction. Straight people are public about the intimate details of their lives all the time. What else are wedding rings for? Queer people have just as much right as anyone else to name our relationships and make our family structure public. My daughter should not have to choose between which mother she holds hands with in the playground, and which she treats like an aunt. I should not have to answer questions about which of us is the biological mother in a shoe shop. No one should have to endure an awkward silence while they’re trying to buy insurance or apply for a joint loan. But every day, LGBT Australians have our humanity denied as we are met with heteronormative assumptions.
We don’t want to come out anymore, so stop putting us into the closet. Shelve those heteronormative assumptions, instead.