Monday, October 11, 2010

Come out for equality on National Coming Out Day

Coming out the closet as a lesbian played a huge role in my life, so I celebrate National Coming Out Day today with a video, links, prayer and book except.

Ever since National Coming Out Day was founded in 1988, LGBT people have been encouraged to come out and be honest about themselves on Oct. 11. This year  the scope has been broadened.

“Whether you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or not, be proud of who you are and your support for LGBT equality this Coming Out Day!” says the Human Rights Campaign, which manages the event.

I wrote about the process in depth in my book Hide and Speak: A Coming Out Guide, which is also available in a Polish translation.

I reflect on my own coming out process in the short video above. It’s still my most popular video, with 2,679 views. I made it for the Human Rights Campaign’s 2007 video contest.

My book Hide and Speak tells positive ways to come out to yourself, create a circle of supporters and deal with family, job and school. Each chapter includes real-life examples and tested, highly effective exercises that I used in coming-out workshops nationwide. Readers will learn how to live proud, free and balanced.

Here is an excerpt from Hide and Speak:

“Many people, myself included, assumed that LGBT visibility would make books like this obsolete. That day is still well in the future. The difficulties of coming out in the twenty-first century hit home for me recently when a younger relative finally told me he was gay. His big sister, a lesbian activist, had come out to the family twenty years before, but her example didn’t seem to make it any easier for her brother. “It was something I had to figure out and deal with on my own terms,” he explained to me. The newly visible LGBT community is no more appealing to him than the old stereotypes had been to me and my peers.”
I’ll close with an excerpt from a Coming-Out Liturgy by Malcolm Boyd, from the book Equal Rites: Lesbian and Gay Worship, Ceremonies, and Celebrations:
“Leader: Have you been forced to play a dishonest role in order to survive?

Participant: I have. My family seemed often to require it, at least to desire it. At school it was necessary, and whenever I dropped my mask I was punished. The same was true of my life at work where I sought acceptance and advancement. What I had to confront made me feel confused, emotionally fatigued, and often worthless. Any kind of a relationship posed a threat and a danger. I wondered how much rejection I could stand. When I reached out for understanding or help, I usually received yet another rebuke. However, I just could not be who I'm not. It nearly killed me when I tried so hard and found it hopeless.

Community: We offer you validation for yourself as you have been created and celebration of your gayness as a gift of God.”

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Denis Nzioka said...

We have come out together [:

CJ Barker said...

Two thoughts on this, Kitt-

First- any discussion of coming out always makes me think of Jane Rule's classic essay, "Closet Burning" (which I think was in her essay collection "Outlander" but I wouldn't swear to it.) That essay contained this classic line (or words very close to it- I don't have the book any more):

"To declare oneself a lesbian, to dare to wear that label publicly, is to insist that the emotional and psychic content of the word be changed."

That simple statement did drastically change my understanding of what it meant to come out, and how to think about what it was I had asked others to do by doing it. Up until then I more or less thought of it as a simple matter of not lying about something I very much didn't want to lie about (who I was in love with and why)- but I hadn't really thought about how the people on the other end of the exchange were experiencing it. I was in my late twenties when I read it - and it was like the proverbial light bulb going off in my head. I hadn't understood before that, that when I dared to use that word about myself, what I had in fact done was not to tell the people in my life, that I was in love with my high school sweetheart and ecstatic and happy about it (and simultaneously relieved at no longer having to try to conjure non- existent feelings for boys) but that I was really a degenerate and a pervert at heart, given to unnatural and filthy feelings that I didn't have the simple decency to be embarrassed about and hide, but instead chose to parade around in public where decent people had to look them.

I was, in essence, forcing the people in my life to take all the culture's horrible feelings about queers, hold them in the same heart and soul that had always loved and respected me, and then endure the resulting cognitive dissonance. And I was gambling my future with them on the proposition that, in the midst of that dissonance, their love for me would somehow eventually trump everything that church-medicine-psychology-and-state had up to that point told them about homosexuality.

Understanding that that was what I had been doing changed my attitude about it - alot. First, it made me acutely aware that, in the times and places where it most needs to be done, coming out is unavoidably an act of something resembling psychic violence. It forces others into places of emotional and spiritual pain that are not of their choosing - and often not their fault. And it made it possible for me to have much more sorrow for the fact of that pain- and compassion for those going through it- than I had up until then had. (That sorrow is *not* the same as being sorry about who you are - and I sometimes think we don't spend enough time telling that to people going through it.) And second -it made me face the uncomfortable fact that, in the internal battles that ensued from the dissonance, it might well be people's good opinion of me, rather than their low opinion of gays, that would eventually lose out - especially if the low opinion had its roots in deeply held religious beliefs. That was a hard one- and again, something I think we too often don't prepare people for adequately.

CJ Barker said...

The other thing I wanted to say is about that liturgy. It's very powerful- but the places in my soul that feel its power most aren't any of the queer places, they're the disabled ones. The hiding that I've done in my life- even the hiding around being queer- has almost all been not because someone was going to hurt me for being a lesbian, but because someone was going to do something to endanger my physical health and well being as a chemically injured person living with brain injury, immune disfunction, and chronic exhaustion.

Once many years ago, I met a young light skinned black woman, who had family members who were passing for white. It was fascinating, as a young recently out lesbian, to listen to her matter of fact stories, about who's weddings and funerals she was and wasn't allowed to go to, and who she had to pretend to be, to be in the lives of her own family. Because of her I eventually read alot of the classic black literature from that last century about "passing." I've often since thought that someone sometime should teach a class in, "comparative closets." So many communities have had to hide in order to survive at various times. In addition to the black literature on passing, and all the lgbt stuff, there is - or was- a whole under ground Jewish culture in Spain and the new world after the re-conquest, too, and on top of that there's all the folks with ei/mcs - world wide- who hide today because of the threat that the truth of our lives is to so many very powerful interests.

We could all learn alot from each other, I think, if we'd just take the time to.

KittKatt said...

CJ, I honor you for coming out and for sharing your thoughts on the coming out process. I like your Jane Rule quote, but does it contain a typo? It would make more sense to me if declaring oneself lesbian meant that the world (not the word) should change.

I appreciate your analysis of coming out as an act of psychic violence, forcing the listener into cognitive dissonance, at least “in the times and places where it most needs to be done.” I would add that the listener may go through a grief process as they mourn the loss of their (false) image of you. For example, some parents are forced to let go of a cherished dream of their child doing all the classic hetero rites of passage, such as the bridge-and-groom marriage. In my experience, another difficult response was people’s indifference. They’d say it was no big deal, but to me it was a HUGE effort to come out to them. Some say the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

Yes, we have to “come out” about a lot of issues besides sexual orientation. This was actually the premise of my coming-out guide, “Hide and Speak.” I tried to say that the gay and lesbian coming out process was similar to and a possible role model for people with all kinds of “secrets,” including race, disabilities, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy, rape, etc. Maybe this idea was ahead of its time, because only LGBT people embraced the book. One straight friend discounted by saying that she didn’t want to co-opt and dilute our unique metaphor of the closet.

I tried to read literature about blacks passing as whites when I was working on “Hide and Speak.” I also enjoyed the classic movie on this theme “Imitation of Life starring Lana Turner.”

I was able bodied when I wrote “Hide and Speak,” but now, like you CJ, I grapple with how to “come out” as a person disabled by Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. I look healthy, but I’m not. I find I often have to stop people who want to hand me heavy objects or interrupt their conversations so I can lie down. There is enormous social pressure to deny the needs of the body.
A classic book on “comparative closets” and their psychology is “Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity” by Erring Goffman. I highly recommend it! Here’s a link to it:

Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity