Why coming out still matters.

Note: A different version of this post originally appeared on my other blog, Scattered Thoughts.

In March of this year, I presented at my first academic conference. Hosted by my department’s Communication Graduate Caucus, the theme of the 11th annual CGC Conference was Play/Rewind, which focused on the notion that, in order to understand the present and how to shape the future, we must first understand the past.

I presented on YouTube coming out videos. These videos have become hugely popular in the last few years, with some of the more popular videos receiving millions of likes and thousands upon thousands of comments, which many comments coming from young individuals saying the videos helped them find the strength to come out themselves. Yet, for all the positive comments, the negative ones are still there as well, and I wonder whether the negativity, homophobia, and queer shaming hinders the coming out process for some individuals who are still in the closet.

For my conference presentation, I argued that in order to understand what’s happening today on YouTube, it’s essential to first look to the past and learn more about the coming out process itself. As I mentioned before, this research into the past allowed me to learn some new things, like where the term to “come out of the closet” finds its origins.

Here’s some of what I spoke about in my presentation:

Chirrey (2003) defines the phenomenon of coming out as being, “recognized by most self-identified lesbian or gay individuals as an experience they have in common: that moment of recognizing and asserting their gayness” (p.24). Of course, this goes beyond just lesbian and gay individuals and encompasses the whole queer community. When someone comes out, they are challenging the heterosexist view of the world by refusing to accept a negative evaluation of themselves and their lifestyle (Chirrey, 2003).

Coming out is, according to Judith Butler (1990, 1997), a performative process. Liang (1997) calls it a speech act that, “not only describes a state of affairs, namely the speaker’s gayness, but also brings those affairs, a new gay self, into being. By presenting a gay self, an individual alters social reality by creating a community of listeners and thereby establishing the beginnings of a new gay-aware culture. Coming out is, in this respect, a performative utterance that can be seen as revolutionary” (p. 293).

This revolution is extremely significant in the LGBT community. Delany (1999) argues that coming out has acquired extraordinary significance in the gay community—so much so that, “through much of that quarter-century [after the Stonewall riots], when, if you hadn’t ‘come out of the closet,’ many gay men and lesbians felt you had somehow betrayed them, that you couldn’t really ‘define yourself as gay,’ that you had not ‘accepted your gay identity’” (p. 67).

Looking beyond the act of coming out, I also want to briefly touch on where the terminology itself comes from. The use of “coming out” was introduced to the academic community in the 1950s when Evelyn Hooker observed that, “very often, the debut—referred to by homosexuals as the coming out—of a person who believes himself to be homosexual, but who has struggled against it, will occur when he identifies himself publicly for the first time as a homosexual” (Hooker, 1965).

As Chauncey (1994) explains, coming out is, “an arch play on the language of women’s culture—in this case the expression used to refer to the ritual of a debutante’s being formally introduced to, or ‘coming out’ into, the society of her cultural peers” (p. 7). He goes on to explain that a gay man’s coming out originally referred his being presented to prewar gay society at drag balls that were patterned on debutante and masquerade balls. In those prewar years, gay people did not speak of coming out of a closet, but rather into the, “‘homosexual society’ or the ‘gay world’, a world neither so small, nor so isolated, nor, often, so hidden as ‘closet’ implies” (Chauncey, 1994, p. 7).

Both Brown (2000) and Okrent (2013) suggest that the closet metaphor stems from the idea of “skeletons in the closet”. As Okrent says, “It is unclear exactly when gay people started using the closet metaphor, but it may have been used initially because many men who remained covert thought of their homosexuality as a sort of ‘skeleton in the closet’” (Okrent, 2013). Brown (2000) says that, while the exact origins of the metaphor are unclear, “it is clear that between 1968 and 1972 the term [‘closet’] came to signify the concealment and erasure of gays and lesbians” (Brown, 2000, p. 5). Sedgwick (1990) called the closet, the defining structure for gay oppression in the 20th century (p. 71).

According to Tamashiro, “In the 1950s, the term signified a coming out into a new world of hope and communal solidarity. However, by the 1970s, after the Stonewall rebellion, it came to signify not so much coming out into a new world as coming out of the loneliness, isolation, and self-hatred of the closet” (Tamashiro, 2004).

Rhoads (1994) argues that, “The normalization of sexuality created and continues to reinforce the closet. “Because heterosexuality is the norm, most people assume that everyone is straight. This makes leaving the closet an ongoing process, since one continually makes new acquaintances” (p. 61). Of course, this means that I have again left the closet while this presentation is happening.

(References below.)

It’s important to understand the past because that allows us to understand the present and plan for the future. As a young gay man, knowing what has happened in the LGBT community before my time is essential, especially when I hope to research something happening now.

But, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t know as much as I should. That’s something I am working to change. I recently bought a book on 100 years of LGBT activism, which I hope to read soon. Plus, I also just read Merle Miller’s 1971 essay called What It Means to Be a Homosexual, which featured this incredible quote:

“I have never infected anybody, and it’s too late for the head people to do anything about me now. Gay is good. Gay is proud. Well, yes, I suppose. If I had been given a choice (but who is?), I would prefer to have been straight. But then, would I rather not have been me? Oh, I think not, not this morning anyway. It is a very clear day in late December, and the sun is shining on the pine trees outside my studio. The air is extraordinary clear, and the sky is the colour it gets only at this time of year, dark, almost navy-blue. On such a day I would not choose to be anyone else or any place else.”

I too wouldn’t choose to be anyone else, and that’s another reason why it’s important to understand the past, because it helped shape and make way for the world I live in now.

If there’s one thing I learned from this research, from watching the YouTube videos, and most recently from the massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, it’s that coming out still matters. Coming out is still an act of defiance, where one stands up in the heteronormative world we live in and dares to be different. I recently read a couple of articles (here and here) about people who chose to come out in the wake of the Orlando attack.

In my opinion, YouTube coming out videos are exceptionally important, as they bring more and more LGBTQIA+ identities into the mainstream. If Orlando proved anything, it’s that, now more than ever, we need to keep queering the mainstream, we need to keep being out and we need to show the world that we’re not going away.


References:

Brown, M. P. (2000). Closet space: Geographies of metaphor from the body to the globe. London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1997). Excitable speech: A politics of the performative. New York: Routledge.

Chauncey, G. (1994). Gay New York: Gender, urban culture, and the makings of the gay male world, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books.

Chirrey, D. A. (2003). ‘I hereby come out’: What sort of speech act is coming out? Journal of Sociolinguistics, 7(1), 24-37.

Delany, S. R. (1999). Coming/Out. In Shorter views: Queer thoughts & the politics of the paraliterary (pp 67-97). Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Hooker, E. (1965). Male homosexuals and their “worlds”. In Marmor, J. (Ed.), Sexual inversion: The multiple roots of homosexuality (pp 83-107). New York: Basic Books.

Liang, A. C. (1997). The creation of coherence in coming-out stories. In A. Livia & K. Hall (Eds.), Queerly Phrased (pp. 287-309). New York: Oxford University Press.

Okrent, A. (2013). Where did the phrase ‘come out of the closet’ come from? Retrieved March 04, 2016, from http://theweek.com/articles/464753/where-did-phrase-come-closet-come-from.

Rhoads, R. A. (1994). Coming out in college: The struggle for a queer identity. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Sedgwick, E. K. (1990). Epistemology of the closet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Tamashiro, D. (2004). Coming Out. Retrieved March 4, 2016, from glbtq.com.

The books that changed my life.

boymeetsboyNote: A similar version of this post originally appeared on my other blog, Scattered Thoughts. Since it’s about my love for LGBT YA, I decided to share it here as well.

I’ve read many books, and I believe that many of them have changed my life. For example, if you were to ask me which books have had the greatest influence on me, I’d tell you it was the Harry Potter series without thinking twice. I grew up on those books. I learned from them, lessons of friendship and the importance of doing good, lessons of embracing and welcoming everyone despite their differences.

However, it was only within the last few years that another genre of books has started to change my life as well, and it all started with David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy. Until that point, I can’t recall reading any other books where the storyline focused on two boys falling in love. Sure, I’d read books with gay characters, but not like this. Not where the gay characters were the central part of the book, where there story was about them and their lives and their love. Mostly I’d just read books where gay characters were secondary, or even less––the best friend of the main character, or just a casually mentioned character whose story is never discussed.

Now, I’m not saying that those were bad books. I’ve loved, and still love, many books whose characters aren’t gay, lesbian, bi, trans, etc. But David Levithan changed things for me. Boy Meets Boyfilled a void in my life that I didn’t know was there. Books like this one are the kind that I wish I had had when I was a teen.

When I was twelve-years-old and first started to question my sexuality, I think that reading a book about two boys falling in love would have helped me immensely. But I didn’t know these books existed. I’m sure there were some of them out there (probably not as many as there are now, but some nonetheless), but I didn’t know about them, didn’t know where to find them.

So instead I spent the better-part of five years trying to convince myself that being attracted to boys was wrong, that if I kept those feelings buried deep inside that they would eventually go away. They didn’t.

When I was seventeen, I finally told someone I liked boys. But I still said I liked girls too. After all, I was dating a girl at the time. And, while I really did love her, I think she may have been an exception to the rule. I think the biggest reason why I told everyone I was bisexual was because I wasn’t willing to let go of the option of liking girls too, because even then when I was opening myself up and admitting that I liked boys, I think part of me still believed that it wasn’t right, so I wanted to leave the option to take it back and stick with girls.

I continued telling people I was bi for another five years. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties, after I had started reading books like Boy Meets Boy and other young adult novels along the same lines that I finally fully accepted myself and started identifying as gay.

Part of me often wonders, if I’d had books like these when I was a teen, would I have accepted myself sooner? Maybe, but I also know that I can’t go back and change the past. What matters most is that I finally got to that point where I am not ashamed of who I am, where I am proud to call myself a gay man. And I like to think that it all started with David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, and other books like it.

I’m currently in the process of putting together a proposal for my major research essay for my Master of Arts where I will focus on researching identity formation in Young Adult novels with LGBT themes. I think these books are so important that I want to study more on them and look at them, not just from a personal and emotional viewpoint, but from an academic one as well.

Looking back, I can’t help but think about how much I’ve changed, how far I’ve grown since the first time that I read Boy Meets Boy. Books like this have changed my life, and I’m sure they’ve changed the lives of others who have enjoyed them just as much. That’s why I love LGBT YA so much, why I love to talk about it and tell others about it. I think spreading the word about these amazing books is so important since I truly believe they can be influential on someone’s identity.

I’m here, I’m queer… get used to it!

Ok, I’m just going to come right out and say it: sometimes, the world sucks. Actually, scratch that: a lot of times, the world sucks. But if there’s one thing that I’ve been noticing a fair bit recently, it’s that the world especially sucks if you’re LGBTQIA+.

I’m an optimist. I’ve described myself as always having my head in the clouds, and I will admit that I like to pretend that the world isn’t really that bad (Side note: it is!). And while I can absolutely recognize that the world actually isn’t as bad as it has been in the past for the LGBTQIA+/Queer community, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

Which brings me to the reason behind this post, and the reason why I’ve decided to create this new blog. Queering the Mainstream is an idea that’s been growing in my head for a little over a month now, and that idea is this: despite how far the queer community has come, there is still a lot that needs to be done.

Lately, a few instances have really jumped out at me that really drive home this point.

First, there was the horrible shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 dead and 53 injured. It is the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, and even though I’m Canadian, this one really upset me and I wrote about it on my other blog. This was an attack on the entire LGBT community. You can read all of my thoughts there, but gist of it is this: even in 2016, being out and proud in this world is still a dangerous act, it can still get you killed. (For more on the Orlando shooting, click here and here.)

Then there is Donald Trump and the U.S. Republican party and their stance on LGBT issues. To quote Kira Lerner at Think Progress:

To some, the Republican Party is still unwelcoming to LGBT voices. The official platform, finalized this week, defines marriage as between a man and a woman, rejects what it calls the Obama administration’s redefinition of sex discrimination laws to include transgender individuals, and says parents of LGBT children should be allowed to force their children into conversion therapy. Committee members even rejected an attempt to include language condemning foreign terrorist attacks against the LGBT community.

It’s really sad, but the Republican Party makes the Conservative Party of Canada look like a bunch of New Democrats. Their party, and their leader Donald Trump, are the worst possible option for America.

Garrard Conley, author of Boy Erased, is a survivor of conversion therapy. He wrote an excellent piece for Vice on how an America with Donald Trump and the Republicans in power will signal more LGBT children forced to undergo conversion therapy. As most sensible people know, conversion therapy doesn’t work. The Human Rights Campaign has some excellent information on the lies and dangers associated with this practice.

America may be bad, but it’s actually not the worst (for now). There are over 75 countries in the world where it is actually illegal to be LGBT, many of which carry a death sentence for those who are caught. I dream of a world where everyone is free to be whoever they want. But sadly, sometimes I can’t help but wonder if that will always be just a dream.

I am lucky, and I am privileged, and I recognize that. Canada is not perfect, which I will get to in a minute, but we are much more progressive on LGBT rights and issues than America and lots of other places in the world, and I’m thankful to live in this country. A country where same-sex marriage has been legal nationwide for over a decade, where the federal Conservative party recently removed the definition of marriage from their official policy because they’ve recognized that it’s not something they need to fight anymore, where our Prime Minister promises to do more for trans rights, unlike in the US where you get all those stupid bathroom bills, like the one in North Carolina, which actually can increase the risk of suicide amongst transgender people. Our kick-ass PM, Justin Trudeau, also became the first sitting Canadian Prime Minister to march in a pride parade earlier this month, and back in June the Pride Flag was raised on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for the first time ever.

There is still work to be done in Canada too, though. Back in May, Canada’s only clinic that provides sex reassignment surgeries suffered over $700-thousand in damages from an arson attempt, the “gay day” at Canada’s Wonderland was recently cancelled after a homophobic incident where two men were told they weren’t allowed to hug by a park staffer, and then there is the issue of MSM blood donation in Canada.

Starting in 1977, Canadian men who had any sexual contact with other men were banned from donating blood. Then, in 2013, that policy was changed to a five-year ineligibility period, which is completely unrealistic and just nonsense to ask gay, bisexual, etc. men to refrain from sexual activity for five years to donate blood. In its platform for the 2015 Federal Election campaign, the Liberal party promised they would end the MSM donation ban, saying, “We will bring an end to the discriminatory ban that prevents men who have had sex with men from donating blood”. Yet, it was recently announced that the deferral is being shortened but not ended. Instead of following through on their promise to end the ban entirely, the Liberals are instead shortening the ineligibility period to one year. Better, but not far enough.

Needless to say, all of the things mentioned above have been swirling around in my head for quite some time and I’ve decided to create a new blog that focuses on all things LGBTQIA+. Queering the Mainstream will be an outlet for expression when I feel like writing about them.

My other blog, Scattered Thoughts, will remain active for when I want to write about anything else, but Queering the Mainstream will focus entirely on all things queer. I will use it for book, movie, TV and music reviews when I feel like something is just so good that I need to write about it. I will definitely use it for social commentary on issues like those already discussed in this post, and on any others that I feel like talking about going forward.

The name Queering the Mainstream came from a Tegan and Sara interview I saw back in May, and it really stuck with me. As I mentioned above, and in my post on the Orlando shooting on my other blog, even in 2016, being out and proud in this world is still a dangerous act, it can still get you killed. Or harassed, injured, bullied, tormented, teased, etc.

As the tagline for this site says, my goal here is to make the world just a little more gay, one day at a time. I long for a world when there is no more homophobia, transphobia, hatred, discrimination, etc. of the queer community. But I know that day is still way, way into the future and there is still a long way to go before it gets here.

And that is the point to this blog, to give me a place to say all I feel like saying, to stand up and shout my gayness from proverbial internet rooftop, to be loud and proud and to keep shouting until the world gets better or until I can’t shout any longer.

To my post on Orlando one last time:  “We won’t be silenced, because that’s what people like the shooter want. That’s what people who are filled with hatred want. They want us to be silent. They want us to be afraid. They want us to slip into the shadows. They want us to return to the closets we came out of.

But we won’t be silenced. We won’t be afraid. We will be loud and proud, and days like Orlando will only make us louder and prouder.”

Thank you for taking the time to read this.