opinion

Opinion | 'Refusing the closet: Is it time LGBTQ people moved past the concept of ‘coming out’?'

Dr Kate Tomas, a queer anti-capitalist with a doctoral degree in philosophical theology from the University of Oxford, argues that the traditionally accepted ‘rite of passage’ argues the rite of passage reinforces a heteronormative structure.

2020-12-04

On National Coming Out Day in October, we all witnessed and celebrated another round of our fellow queers coming out as gay, or bi, or trans*. Coming out - hereafter capitalised as a proper noun - has become rite of passage for those of us who realise that perhaps we aren’t as enthusiastically or easily slotted into heteronormativity.

This rite of passage is heralded as a joyful and exciting turning point in someone's life, but while it may be like that for some, it is important to acknowledge that pressure to ‘Come Out’ is itself rooted in division and oppression.

An involuntary Coming Out is also something that ‘closeted’ queer people are constantly threatened with: For those for whom it is not safe to be ‘out and proud’, the cementing of Coming Out as a rite of passage that all queer people must go through does not liberate us.

Coming Out is a way for the dominant culture of white settler colonialism to cement what it considers the ‘norm’: As long as heterosexual people don’t have to ‘come out’ as straight, it’s worth questioning whether we should buy into a concept that identifies us as the exception, and continues to marginalise us.

Of course, for many of the least structurally-privileged people, Coming Out is sometimes the first and sometimes only opportunity we have for something close to our authentic selves to be seen. But I believe it is possible to claim one’s voice as a dissident from dominant culture without unconsciously buying into the assimilatory oppression of Coming Out culture.

One of the most oppressive concepts within the systems of structural oppression at play today is the idea of the binary. This suggests that there are two polar opposites, and that congregated around one of these sides are one ‘type’ of energy and congregated around the other is its ‘opposite’. This polar binary way of thinking is not modern, but neither is it universal and without its own history.

It was Aristotle in around 350BCE who spoke about a table of ten principles and their opposites. It was an attempt to understand and categorise the world: on one side of this table was Men, Straight, Light, Good, and on the opposite; Women, Bent, Dark, Evil. From this nearly two and a half thousand-year-old idea, we can see the modern division of oppressor and oppressed that has been passed down through generations. ‘Coming Out’ implies a movement from shadows and darkness to exposure and light.

Dr Kate Tomas is a queer anti-Capitalist. She is the Women’s Spiritual Empowerment Mentor and works with women* through a year-long mentorship as well as one to one sessions. She holds a doctoral degree in philosophical theology from the University of Oxford and is a best-selling author.

Western Colonialism, still the dominant power and influence on our world and its oppressions, has its roots in this concept of division and binary. The idea that the multiplicity of human experience, feeling, preference, ability to love and sexuality could be cut in two in this way is beyond simplistic: It is ridiculous, it is reductive, it is violent. It is the antithesis of gay liberation; it is the antithesis of queerness. We must resist it at every turn.

Celebrating Coming Out is a mistaken and I think, unconscious reinforcement of this idea that there is a sexual binary. Even the concept of being ‘bisexual’ is an explicit endorsement of this same binary. Bi - from the Latin for two – is the same Bi that gives binary meaning. Queerness, by its definition, is non-binary.

The concept of queerness is powerful because it rejects the idea of the binary. It rejects the idea that if one is not heterosexual then one must be homosexual. Instead, queerness is about being The Other, and refusing to be categorised. To ‘Queer’ something is to make it weird, bent, without limitation or definition. As queers, it is our responsibility to refuse being subsumed by this dominant narrative of ‘Coming Out’ as something other than what Western Colonial Capitalist oppression wants us to think is the ‘norm’. We should ignore, reject, and refuse.

Coming Out – or not doing so - also reinforces ideas of shame and fear. Queer people often feel a pressure to let other people know that they are queer as if somehow ‘flying under the radar’ is unethical; as if somehow being queer is something everyone in society has a right to know about you.

I propose we reject this narrative of ‘Coming Out’ as queers. As queers we need to recognise that continuing to buy into idea of Coming Out as an event in the long-term is harming ourselves, our siblings, our community. We should see it for what it is, and slowly start having these conversations with each other, with our friends.

The sign of a truly healthy and sustainable community is one that is able to be self-reflexive, to undergo a process of self examination, of change, or dialogue. I can think of no better place to start for the LGBTQA+ community than with this idea of Coming Out.

Dr Kate Tomas is a queer anti-Capitalist. She is the Women’s Spiritual Empowerment Mentor and works with women* through a year-long mentorship as well as one to one sessions. She holds a doctoral degree in philosophical theology from the University of Oxford and is a best-selling author.

*trans women are women.