Coming out is a near-universal queer experience. The coming-out story recurs again and again in queer cinema: it’s our version of the coming-of-age tale. But where the traditional narrative and reality diverge is at the assumption that coming out is something that only happens once in a lifetime.
In the movies, the quiet boy starts dating the football star or the misfit girl starts dating the cheerleader, everyone at school finds out, somebody tells the parents, and after some drama the whole experience is over. Television tells us that you can’t have a satisfactory same-sex relationship until everyone is out of the closet — take Dana on The L Word, Kevin’s actor boyfriend Chad on Brothers & Sisters, or David from Six Feet Under as examples.
But what happens after you leave home, and have to come out to your college roommate? Or your first boss? Or your second boss? For most of us, the process of coming out lasts our entire lives, and every new situation offers an opportunity to jump back into the closet.
Now that being queer is less and less of an issue, you might imagine the pressure to come out has lessened. Instead, the reverse seems to be true. Fail to share your sexual identity with your co-workers or semi-obscure relatives and they assume either that you’re a tortured closet-case, or worse, that you’re keeping quiet because you think they’re going to be an asshole about it.
The pressure is even more acute for those in the public eye: getting photographed leaving the wrong bar or with the wrong person can spark years of speculation about celebrities’ sexual orientation. And nothing causes a media field day like a public declaration of homosexuality. R.E.M.’s frontman Michael Stipe has been openly bi since the ’80’s, but in a manner so casual that every few years some interviewer writes up his reference to a male partner as if it were breaking news.
Lately, I’ve been wondering why the relentless parade of self-revelation is necessary. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to announce our gender preferences to everyone we meet, any more than anyone has to announce that they like slasher flicks, only date blonds, or don’t like ice cream?
The answer, I think, is that being gay is about more than who you sleep with. There is a whole culture and history and set of experiences associated with it, and identifying as queer means claiming that set of references. We don’t all go to the same nightclubs or listen to the same music, but we share an identity with some external significance.
I’ve been trying to imagine what queer identity without coming out would look like. Even if it meant total equality to the extent that we no longer had political interests in common, in a world where accidentally hitting on somebody straight was no more awkward than hitting on someone who just didn’t fancy you, the end of coming out would erase part of our history, culture and identity. Even if an identity is created out of oppression, eradicating that oppression doesn’t unmake that community.
I guess the best we can hope for is that, when there’s no longer anything to hide from, coming out becomes less dramatic, less revelatory, more like telling your friends and family that you’re going to become a lawyer or, gasp, a Conservative. Come to think of it, maybe that’s already more controversial than telling them you’re sleeping with the football star.