Coming Out means different things for different folks, and circumstances change constantly
By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—
This morning with a column looming and a brain that feels—after one of the hardest months I’ve had in recent memory—like it’s been put through the spin cycle in the washing machine, I opened a document on my computer that I use to keep track of all the questions that people ask me. As I was reading through these questions trying to find one that might make a good seed for a column, I read two questions that on the surface seemed unrelated, but which my brain, in its spinning and beaten state, connected to each other.
The first question, was this:
Would you consider it wise to come out to a severely disapproving family?
This was a specific question, from a specific person. But unfortunately, it is also a variant of one of the most common questions I get. I hear it from adults, of all ages and stations in life, as well as a disheartening number of younger folks.
“Should I come out?”
It’s a question I generally have two answers for. The first answer is the one I want to give, the philosophical, moral, and political answer. That answer is, come out! Do it! Be yourself! Be proud and visible and happier in your own skin! It can make such an incredible difference in your life.
The second answer, however, is an entirely different one. It is the answer born of caution and hard reality. That reality is that each of us must weigh the benefits of coming out as ourselves against the very real risks of disapproving families, friends, and communities.
And here is the second question:
In the age of Trump, is it wise to try and be “stealth” until this regime is gone? Or, do we take the risk of being out and proud, with the risk that things could get much worse?
You might notice, as I did, that there was one word that connects these two questions. In each, I am asked if it is “wise” to come out.
The second question, however, already gets halfway to the root of the answer. Marian J. further asks if the “risk” of coming out is worth it?
As a side note, though, I know with fair certainty that the identity both of these people are asking about is that of being trans. You could easily sub in “queer” as well, with much the same answers.
It’s that question of risk that we really all have to weigh for ourselves. To be clear, coming out as trans in this society is not a safe choice, not by any stretch of the imagination. Maybe someday it will be, hopefully. Just now, it’s not.
Yes, it’s quite a bit safer than it was 50 years ago. It’s even debatably safer than it was 20 years ago. And, there are parts of the country that are certainly safer than others. For instance, I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s one bubble of safety inside another statewide bubble of (relative) safety. But even here, just in the last month, two trans people I knew personally, friends of mine, have died. One was murdered. The other took hir own life (note: The word “hir” is a third-person singular pronoun often used by female-identifying trans people) .
They both took a risk in coming out, in being out, as trans. Given the fullness of other people’s lives, I cannot say here whether either of them would have considered that risk as worthwhile in the final calculation. But, there were factors leading from that risk of being out as trans that certainly contributed to their deaths.
They both lived inside rings of this bubble. And it still wasn’t enough to protect them.
So yes, there is serious risk in coming out. It is not safe.
Then, I would also argue that many of the most worthwhile parts of living a full life are not necessarily safe. We take risks all the time. Whether it’s moving to a new city for a new job; telling someone we’ve started dating that we love them; playing a physically dangerous sport; or even just driving across town. All of these involve risks either to our emotional or physical wellbeing.
We are constantly doing a calculation to decide if those risks are worth it for us. Do the potential benefits outweigh the likely cost in our lives?
Does the potential for alienation from family members or the dissolution of a marriage balance with the sense of wellbeing and confidence that can come from being able to be yourself, to no longer hide who you are? Are you an adult who will be able to be self-sufficient if you make this choice? Or are you a youth, still dependent on your family for your basic needs? Is life simply too difficult to face if you must continue to live a lie? Would you rather be poor and whole rather than comfortable and closeted?
The answers to these might affect your personal calculation on the family and community level.
Similarly, you need to consider if the risk is worth it, for you personally, to come out as trans in the current national atmosphere where our hard-fought-for rights—most only recently won—are being daily stripped from us. Are you prepared to be out and visible as trans in a country where we seem to have become one of this regime’s favorite scapegoats?
There are certainly benefits. But many of those benefits may be more to the greater society than to you personally. I personally know that one of the most unexpected and wonderful results of my own choice to be out and visible as trans is that I often meet younger—and even some older—trans folks who tell me that seeing me, and the things I do in the world, gave them the courage to come out themselves.
That, for me, is a big check in the “worth it” column in my own cost-benefit analysis of being out as trans. Also, a big check in that column is the confidence I feel in myself now and the renewed strength of my relationships now that I am no longer hiding an important part of myself, no longer lying to those I care about.
For me, both personally and politically, it’s worth it too, despite the admittedly very real hardships and despite the discrimination and harassment.
Being myself makes me fundamentally happier much of the time. Coming out as trans was the best thing I ever did for myself, and possibly for my community.
So, to both of these people, and to the rest of you who might have similar questions, my answer is this: I hope that you will come out. I think it’s incredibly important. Politically, the more of us who are out and visible, the stronger we are and the safer each us is likely to be.
However, I don’t know your life. I cannot calculate your cost-benefit equation. That is something only you can figure out for yourself.
Though I would love for you to join me, to join us, I will still love you and I will not for one moment judge your choice to take care of yourself, whatever that self-care looks like.
*Lorelei Erisis is an actor, activist, adventurer, and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender, and sexuality to her at: [email protected].
[This column was originally published on The Rainbow Times’ March 8, 2018 issue].