Coming out should not be a requisite for queer people

Ayanna Columbus

This is the first column by Ayanna Columbus ’24 talking about her experiences with race, gender, and sexuality.

In middle school, I would spend hours on YouTube watching “coming out” videos, trying to imagine what it would be like when I’d have to do what, at the time, I thought was inevitable. Most videos would start out of focus, with someone trying to find the ideal recording spot: where the camera was invisible enough that their families wouldn’t see, but showing enough that their reactions and responses could be picked up in the video.

They would sit, take a deep breath and then call their family into the room. Sometimes it would be one parent, sometimes two, sometimes a sibling, or if they were feeling really ambitious, maybe it was all at once. Though people’s reactions varied in each video, the one commonality is that they were always white.

I remember coming across one video with a Black boy in it, but I deliberately ignored it because it felt too close to home.

I avoided all “coming out gone wrong” videos like the plague — they gave me stomach knots. Though the thought of my family rejecting me made me feel uneasy, even the regular “coming out” videos caused me no less anguish. Something about them made my skin crawl, and didn’t sit right with me in a way I could never explain.

I was 12 then, and seven years later, I am no less uncomfortable with the concept. The only difference is now, I finally have the words to articulate it. My experience has led me to conclude that “coming out” is a heavily racialized expectation, rather than a choice, one that ultimately reinforces a heteronormative standard against a characterization of queer people as deviant.

  1. Love the sinner, hate the sin

One of the most popular arguments in support of “coming out” is that it helps expose non-queer people to different “life- styles,” which helps them to become tolerant. The fact that this argument focuses more on the impact that “coming out” has on the person receiving the news, rather than the queer person themself, suggests that it is a practice that serves non-queer people. The notion of someone being “tolerant” or “accepting” of queer people is always a red herring meant to sound like allyship or support, but relies heavily on a notion of non-heterosexuality as inherently deviant. This is what is evoked by the concept of “loving the sinner,” but hating the “sin” of queerness. The contradiction lies in that society has queered people by turning what is merely preference into a distinct social category as a means to define what deviance (and by extension the norm) is. Therefore, claiming that someone can separate queer personhood from their hatred of their alleged sin is impossible, since their entire understanding of their personhood is intertwined with their sexual preference.

In addition, to suggest that one can separate the alleged “sin” from the alleged “sinner” is to suggest that queerness is a mere choice, and thus fixable. So such tolerance discourse appears to be progressive, but is a more discreet homophobia.

  1. The racialization of coming out

Coming out is often branded as a rite of passage, and thus a common ground that all queer people share. The idealization behind “coming out” is that one leaves a state of repression and enters one free from guilt and shame, where they are able to be their most authentic selves. While I don’t dispute that “coming out” allows people to be more expressive in the manifestations of their queerness (i.e. clothes, aesthetic, language), to suggest that someone is now “authentically themselves” when they come out reinforces the idea that queerness is only a truth if legible or visible to straight people. It ignores the ways that queerness can be equally valid in private.

Though an event that enables one to be their true self sounds good on paper, this transcendence into authenticity is not a universal experience, especially when race is involved. Queerness has been conflated with whiteness so much that when people think of queer people, the default image that comes to mind is a gay white man. If we are to collect a tally on who generally benefits from “coming out,” this same gay white man comes to mind. This is because while “coming out” gives queer white people the opportunity to connect with the marginalization faced by the “queer community” (that is still majority white), those already a part of a racial minority risk ostracism from their community.

Pointing out this truth often elicits criticism from white queer people, who condemn people of color, but especially Black people, for being homophobic. This criticism of the homophobia perpetuated by people of color is not just a feverish support for queers of color, but also rooted in a notion of moral and racial superiority that plays into the narrative of a backward, sexually repressed minority and a civilized, sexually fluid white majority, while ignoring the ways that deviance itself is a white construction.

Of course, homophobia is certainly not justifiable, but it is important to understand that the specific homophobia of many in the Black community is extremely complex and is linked heavily to respectability culture and conceptions of masculinity, both of which developed out of living in a white supremacist state. Therefore, to condemn whole communities who have been othered for existing outside of the white norm for being homophobic is to ignore the ways that the liberation white queer people experience from “coming out” is heavily linked to the privilege that whiteness affords them.

  1. Illusion of agency and freedom in ‘coming out’

Though I heartily applaud those who formally come out, and am even more happy for those whose coming-out experiences go well, I often wonder if they felt there were invisible forces that mandated their confessions. People rarely directly say, “You need to come out” to people they suspect to be queer, but do it through suggestive questions like “Do you have a boyfriend yet?” or by pointing out behavior that they see as abnormal. While nobody explicitly says queer people must come out, we understand it as a mandate because of society’s overwhelming insistence on policing and inquiring about our so-called deviant behavior.

Because we can understand straightness only in terms of what is not, the norm of coming out forces queer people to affirm that their sexuality is a noteworthy point of differentiation, when it is really a detail as minute as your favorite color. A cultural obsession with placement has framed an idealized ritual as the pinnacle of queer existence, thus upholding heterosexual hegemony in the long term.

Ayanna Columbus ’24 is from Brooklyn, N.Y.