It’s Coming Out Day and I’m wondering about both the act of coming out and the use of the phrase “coming out”. A very dear transgender friend today said “Being an ally is not something you come out as, it’s just something you do,” and that’s what got me thinking.
My first reaction to this, I will admit, was indignation. In that moment, I got on my high horse and said to myself “Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot say?” Then I thought that she was being unnecessarily belligerent to people who are on her side. Why would you say something so negative about people who are trying to be supportive? It just seemed counterproductive to me.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how the phrase might be devalued by being misappropriated. Coming out is so difficult and fraught with so much risk of familial and social conflict that the significance of the action should not be minimized by anyone. It is an incredibly courageous thing to do. We can only applaud the strength of character that it takes.
If I, in trying to be supportive, say I am coming out as an LGBTQ ally then I am, in effect, trying to steal a little bit of that applause. I am not only drawing attention to myself instead of the real heroes, I am assigning a new meaning to the phrase “coming out”. Now, instead of it referring to the boldness of declaring one’s personal sexual or gender identity it is reduced to something like “Oh, by the way, I’m just letting you know what a noble character I have.” The two have no moral equivalence at all.
In a similar way, the statement “Black lives matter” has been misappropriated by people who insist that “White lives matter” or “All lives matter”. The whole point of the phrase is to draw attention to the injustices black people have experienced. It is not intended to be understood in a limited, denotative, sense. It is a rallying cry to raise up the disadvantaged. If I then respond with “White lives matter” I am missing the point entirely. White people collectively (if not individually) are and have always been privileged in our society, don’t have the same experience as black people, and don’t need to borrow the phrase. The significance of “Black lives matter” is that, because of the social and legal wrongs that are thereby exposed, it stings.
So today I realized that the phrase “coming out” is not simply about making a public statement about a personal issue. It is about people taking a huge risk. They are taking a chance on all their relationships, their social standing, and even their employment. LGBTQ people who come out are putting so much of themselves on the line that it is breathtaking. I should not diminish that by borrowing the phrase for myself. I don’t need it, and I’m not that brave.