National Column: Coming out hasn’t come as far as we think

by Emma Teitel

When I came out to my parents almost 10 years ago, my mother hung a Rosie the Riveter poster on the inside of my closet door that read “Sorry Boys, I’m Gay!” She was so enthusiastic in her acceptance of my sexuality that I couldn’t even step into a closet without being reminded I was out.

But not every gay or transgender person is so lucky.

A new survey published this week suggests that many LGBTQ people in Canada remain reluctant to come out to friends and family, despite the fact that we live in one of the most progressive nations in the world.

According to the online survey, commissioned by the Fondation Jasmin Roy, a Quebec organization that battles bullying and violence against children, 54 per cent of respondents reported they aren’t out to their work colleagues, while 45 per cent said they keep their sexual orientation or gender identity hidden from classmates. The majority of LGBTQ respondents (81 per cent) agreed that Canadians are open-minded about gender and sexuality, but 73 per cent believe that the fight against anti-LGBTQ discrimination is not yet won and there is more work to be done.

They’re right: there’s always more work to be done. In my wedding speech last summer, I told my wife, “I can’t wait to grow old and grey with you so that when we kiss on the street strange men no longer proposition us for group sex.” This was a joke, of course, but it was a joke borne from truth: strange men do proposition us for group sex when we kiss on the street, because any PDA on our part – no matter how chaste or how early in the morning it occurs – is still perceived as an open invitation for guys to accost us with bad pickup lines.

Perhaps a public service announcement is in order to remind predatory men that contrary to what they might believe, they are not “the cure” for lesbianism, but rather an incentive to take up the practice. In other words, yes, there is a lot more work to be done – not only so that lesbians can kiss their partners in public unmolested by creeps, but so that thousands of transgender people no longer fear for their lives every time they step out their doors.

But when it comes to the issue of coming out and the reluctance of so many people to do so, I wonder how effective activism can be in speeding this process up, let alone in making it a positive one. The takeaway from the Quebec survey seems to be that more must be done in order to eradicate the barriers to coming out, and the anxiety people experience when they do manage to live their truth. This is no doubt a lovely goal, but I think it’s also a hopelessly unrealistic one.

This is because coming out sucks for a number of reasons totally unrelated to societal prejudice and bigoted family members. I predict (fingers crossed we make it this far) that in a wholly enlightened Star Trek-inspired future, coming out of the closet will still suck, because admitting to yourself and those around you that you are fundamentally different from the average person in the ways of sex and romance is an embarrassing drag.

In other words, coming out sucks, even for the lucky ones like me whose mothers plaster their bedrooms with gay propaganda posters. It sucks because even in the best-case scenario, telling your friends and family you’re gay or transgender or what have you, is an act that invariably attracts outsized attention to yourself, and not everybody likes being the centre of attention – even if that attention is positive and congratulatory.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a straight friend say about a seemingly closeted one, “I wonder why he doesn’t just come out already? He has such a liberal family and half his friends are gay.

Nobody would be upset. I would be so happy for him.”

He hasn’t come out, I tell them, because he doesn’t want you to be so happy for him. He just wants you to say “OK” and go on minding your own business. (Having friends who are enthusiastically supportive is a good problem to have of course, but it’s also, for many people who avoid the spotlight at all costs, an inhibitor to living an openly gay life.)

The other excruciating thing about the coming-out process that many straight people may not think about as such is the historical inquisition gay people face from their friends and family. This Barbara Walters line of inquiry usually goes something like this: “So, when exactly did you know?” “That time you kissed so-and-so at the dance in seventh grade, were you actually dying inside, living a lie?” “When we showered together at summer camp, did you ever sneak a peek?”

Sometimes curiosity, unhinged, is a barrier as powerful as bigotry.

Of course, bigotry is far worse than curiosity and exponentially worse than enthusiastic support. But I believe that if our goal is to facilitate a more positive coming-out process for everybody, we ought to preach not only a message of acceptance, but one of complete and utter indifference. “Congrats!” or “Mazel Tov!” is a wonderful way to respond to a friend or loved one’s coming out. But so, too, is a heartfelt “Meh.”

Emma Teitel is a national affairs columnist.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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