It’s a strange, brittle and highly personal thing, the Out.
It’s been a week of discussion of outs and privilege and
intersectionality. I’ve talked with polyamorous folk who aren’t out to their entire circles, non-heterosexual folk who are out with nearly everybody except their parents, friends who have fought a thousand fights in other ways.
All of us have our own ways of managing our outedness, our own worlds we protect when we make the choices we make on how out to be about what and with which people, and we may therefore blink and worry if someone unthinkingly circumvents that little raft of calculations we make each time and outs us instead of allowing us to out ourselves. These moments may be no more than a passing comment or a surprising but unproblematic revelation to you, but depending on the potential cost to us if you are less than cool with this part of us, we may be holding our breath and wondering if we will suddenly have to start hefting a defensive conversational axe or, more likely, Dealing With The Inevitable Questions.
Because the thing is, there *are* myriad calculations involved in each revelation to each person of each way in which we colour outside the lines. When we don’t get to make those calculations ourselves we can feel unsettled. Because there is shit at stake for us. We’re risking – every time – the disapproval or withdrawal of a person who makes up a part of our life to a greater or lesser degree. Some of these things may be relatively minor, but some of them, for some people, in some places… well, the flicker of a shutter of disapproval coming down in an acquaintance or colleague’s eyes is hard enough to deal with, but at the more extreme end we can end up losing jobs (oh come on, even where it’s hard to kick people out directly people’s prejudice operates on their interactions and career decisions), losing friends, with splintering families. Losing life and liberty, even, because this global village has some houses that ain’t so fond of certain things.
So even where there’s an assumption that Most People Will Be Cool With It, we may get twitchy when the control is taken from us and we don’t get to assess the threat level ourselves. You might have, all innocent and unknowing, just pitched us unprepared into a battle.
Outing other folk – not cool.
And then there’s the other side of things. The side which says if you *can* be out…
A group, a few drinks into the evening, as the conversational depth increases.
Michelle used to put a fake wedding ring on when she took her child to events with other parents, a decade older than her, because when they clocked it they relaxed around her in a way they didn’t when they thought she was a young *single* mum. Clara is black, and while mostly people aren’t so unaware of the conversational norms in this corner of this world as to be super-blatant in their racism, micro-aggressions are everywhere and she’s developed a thick skin and a tendency to make notes of dates, times and comments and judge when the time is right for more. I was a bisexual kid who was confused only in that there didn’t seem to be a word for me, and that the prevailing rhetoric wanted me to ‘pick a side’ or called me greedy, or worse, and so I didn’t tell anyone and I didn’t challenge the homophobic and biphobic comments I heard and so carried on feeling… unsafe, along with everyone else who must have been doing the same thing I was doing. I’m not even sure I told the diaries I wrote as a teenager – the conversation never really snuck outside of my head. At that age so much is an AmINormalShouldIBe dance, and that was one of a few ways in which I felt I must be wrong or broken. Never ashamed, as I know some people were made to feel. Just… like I couldn’t be totally honest about various aspects of myself, and never understood or supported accordingly because how can you be when you’re so hidden? All of that? If you didn’t know what the word ‘othered’ meant, there’s your heap of shifting definitions.
Our experiences are not directly analogous – some of us have privilege(s) that others don’t and have had an easier ride of it accordingly. But we found a degree of common ground in having each had to defend key aspects of our selves from stupid questions, vapid assumptions and hurtful behaviour at one time or another.
The conversation meanders around these things for a while as we each poke at and share the places in which we’ve developed extra layers, and then at some point, Clara asks why I bother labelling my sexuality, since it doesn’t matter. And to anyone in that room, in terms of how we relate with people, it doesn’t.
But. It does matter.
It matters to me, because it matters to other people. The label is needed for (or is it by?) other people, because other people are the ones who make the unthinking assumptions that result in people feeling othered.
I am a white, middle class, well-educated, cis woman in a reasonable position in my career and with the constructive support of my family and the only aspect of that which doesn’t have inbuilt privilege is that I’m a woman. And yes, parenthetically speaking I’ve turned a blind – well, wincing – eye to some of the sexist crap at every workplace I’ve ever worked because when it comes down to it, no-one has the energy to be a warrior all day every day and it’s even harder to find that when you’re young, powerless in one sense and not fully aware of your power in others and at the start of your career with credibility battles to fight as well.
For the rest, though. I have power in ways that some don’t. I work somewhere where although there’s a flicker of surprise and not knowing quite what to do with the information when senior management ask what the pink, purple and blue flag pinned to my handbag is or find out which organisation I’m planning on volunteering for, there is also no negative consequence. Diversity support is coded into my contract and protected by the laws of my country, and I work with decent people and have enough power – both professionally and in terms of personal articulacy, confidence and education – to smash back any lazy assumptions lobbed my way.
And yet. If it comes up in situations where I’m a little unsure about reception, it’s not uncommon for me to begin by saying that I’m not straight – which is problematic because my identity shouldn’t be defined by what I’m not, but it’s a gentler sell to the unaware from ‘presumed straight’ to ‘not straight’ to ‘bi’ and it sidesteps a whole raft of issues around identifying as bisexual vs pansexual vs queer.
But. If I – with all my privilege – can own a label which attracts prejudice, then just maybe it will help just a tiny bit to change the climate for those for whom it’s less safe to be out, and maybe other kids won’t be quite so likely to reach the conclusion that they must be broken in some way and bury vast aspects of their make-up until they’re well into adulthood.
It’s a small and relatively easy thing for me in most of the settings in which I find myself. But it isn’t, for some, and while I’d love for positive social change to be seismic, in reality it’s usually incremental and because of that every tiny way in which I – and people like me, if they feel able – can influence prevailing culture and rhetoric is a tiny way in which I stand against the things that made me, Michelle, Clara and a million other people have to go into battle against the weight of culture in ways people with other sets of privilege never even considered.
So if you didn’t know – and it’s no secret, but the thing with coming out, as anyone who thinks about it knows, is that it’s not a one-time only announcement so much as a succession of conversations – then this is me making it crystal clear, because I am the only person who should ever out me, that I am bisexual.
We’ll save the rest for another day, shall we?