Suzanna Danuta Walters in Refinery29: The Phrase ‘Coming Out’ Doesn’t Work Anymore
by Sadhbh O'Sullivan, Refinery29
There’s a dominant cultural vision of what a coming out story looks like: a young person (most likely a cis white gay man) sits their parents down and tearfully tells them they are gay/queer. Reactions vary from shock to rage to loving acceptance. But central to this trope is the idea that by coming out, the person has revealed their ‘true’ identity. If they’re lucky, the people they told accept them there and then. If not, well…
Either way, the coming out narrative is a sob story. Queer people endure it in order to emerge, phoenix-like, from the closet into a place where they are Officially Out, ready to live their best queer lives.
This trope might not be reflective of many LGBTQ+ people’s realities but ‘coming out of the closet’ is a framework which, historically, has been useful for Western society. For years people have been forced, by the law and societal norms, to hide who they are. LGBTQ+ identities were – and still are – seen as shameful, abnormal, a danger to the status quo.
The closet as a concept, then, was born out of necessity: a useful way to describe repression for safety’s sake. But as Suzanna Danuta Walters, director of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and professor of sociology at Northeastern University, writes in her book The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality, it was only in the post-Stonewall world that ‘coming out’ became a political exercise: “Coming out as a representational form – as a genre and a tellable tale – really only emerges with the development of a movement for which coming out has salience.” In order to fight for liberation, gay people would own their identity with pride by publicly owning their gay identity. The more gay people came out, so the thinking went, the more normalised gayness would become.
However we cannot escape the fact that, generally, it is cis gay identities and not the vast spectrum of queer identities which have been given the biggest platform. “Coming out as a singular process,” writes Suzanna, “depended on the establishment of a gay identity and a gay movement to make it happen.” In other words, for the coming out narrative to be successful, you need the category of ‘the homosexual’ – and while we may imagine that to have always existed, it’s very much a 20th century phenomenon. As Suzanna writes: “As many historians and theorists have convincingly argued, the homosexual as a distinct category, a demarcated identity (rather than, say, a set of possible sexual acts or preferences) is a very modern invention, as is the heterosexual.”