According to the most recent data from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, an estimated 4.5% of the United States population identifies as LGBTQ+. Over the course of the past week, those approximately 11.3 million people watched while the United States Supreme Court began to deliberate whether LGBTQ+ folks are protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin and religion. Coincidentally, the week closed celebrating the Human Rights Campaign’s 31st annual National Coming Out Day. As a bisexual person, the overwhelming juxtaposition of fear followed by the happiness I experienced this week left me feeling reflective on my journey to accepting my queerness.
As many LGBTQ+ people can attest to, coming out is often not a one-off. Because we live in a heteronormative society that views straightness and cis-genderedness as a default, people tend to make assumptions and are surprised to learn that someone they know may be queer or trans. This societal attitude can make coming out feel like trying to escape a closet with a revolving door, where you are constantly half in no matter how hard you push.
I am privileged to live in a country that I am generally able to be open about my sexuality; there are 70 countries where same-sex relationships are punishable by law, 7 of which allow the death penalty for offenses. I also now reside in a town and work at a job that is accepting of LGBTQ+ folks, which allows me to be my true self in most situations and empowers me to be candid about my decisions regarding coming out.
Every time a person chooses to disclose their sexuality or gender is deliberately calculated. Best case scenario: nothing changes and life continues as normal. Worst case scenario? You could be fired from your job, denied life-saving medication and housing opportunities, prohibited from adopting children, kicked out of your house, or fall victim to hate crimes ranging from harassment to murder.
Needless to say, this decision is never taken lightly. With that being said, I’d like to share the several times that I’ve decided to come out.
Technically, first, it was to me. I was 13. I had, unbeknownst to myself at the time, fallen in love with a close friend and realized that something was different about the way I felt when I sat next to her on her porch that summer. I had had crushes on boys before, but that felt different in a way. Like how vanilla and mango are both great flavors, yet distinct from one another. I wondered if that meant I was a lesbian now.
Second, it was to three of my dearest friends in college. My twin sister and closest confidant were unsurprisingly completely understanding. I cried from the relief of someone finally seeing me as I was. I told the other two closely after. After one of them said in passing that I wouldn’t understand something because I was straight, a wave of unfamiliar anger bubbled up within me, a feeling I now know to be the red-hot sting of being called something you are not. When they found out that I was bi, they were ecstatic.
The third was to my undergrad PI and lab mates. That research job was the first time that I felt like being honest about myself would be an asset rather than a liability. The confidence I gained through being accepted for who I was lead me to apply for several travel grants that allowed me to attend national conferences where I found a vast and welcoming community of fellow LGBTQ+ scientists and sincere allies. At one of the conferences, I announced to an entire room full of people that I was queer when I was answering a question about how straight professors can be better allies. My heart soared. (I wrote in detail about the impact that having an inclusive work environment had on my life here).
The fourth and most difficult was to my mom. We are incredibly close and I love her dearly. Despite this, I didn’t choose to come out to her. I figured that since I wasn’t dating anyone I would keep her on an absolutely need-to-know basis. A part of me worried about what she would think, even though for years she had acted as a stand-in mother figure for a close friend whose own parents were not accepting of his sexuality. Our closeness betrayed me, and she saw through my flimsy facade of straightness. One day as I was getting into the car with her after a long day of classes, she inquired how my day was. I responded generically. There was a pregnant pause. The car was still parked in the lot. I felt her eyes on me as I absent-mindedly gazed at my phone.
“Are you gay?”
The question caught me off guard. That wasn’t part of the equation. I figured that I would tell her that I was bisexual as I was introducing her to my future wife. Feeling ambushed with nowhere to run to, I told her that I was bi. There was more silence, which bred panic in me that lead me to clumsily try to explain myself like a child caught standing next to a broken vase by a disappointed mother.
“But I haven’t had a girlfriend you know, so… And you know I don’t really factor in gender, there are so many people out there I don’t want to limit myself… It’s just how I feel, you know?” I trailed off, fighting back the inevitable salty tears.
She responded, “Oh well, that’s okay. I was just wondering. You post a lot of gay stuff on Facebook.”
We didn’t talk about it for weeks. Then, after she had a few beers one night, we crossed paths in the kitchen. She said, “You know, one day I just know you’ll marry someone so cool, whoever that person is they’ll just be the best. And you know what else? I realized I don’t care if I ever have grandkids.” We hugged.
The fifth time was on a date. This was the easiest time. He seemed interesting until he mentioned how he feels that there are so many gay people nowadays because people are just faking it to seem cool since being gay is in style. I laughed while I was putting on my coat. He asked where I was going and I told him, “Home”.
He wanted to know why. I came out to him while I passed through the exit.
And finally, the thousands of times I didn’t come out. The reasons are many. In some instances, it was for convenience, others for safety, and still others for fear. Like I mentioned earlier, each choice someone makes about how much of themselves to disclose is carefully considered and deeply personal. No matter how many people you have or haven’t come out to, know that the LGBTQ+ community is always there to fall back on when you feel dizzy from the revolving door.
Happy National Coming Out Day.