Some time ago, a friend texted me a video of a now-viral meme where a son came out to his mother with the tune of ‘Boom Boom Pow’ by the Black Eyed Peas.
A week before, an old acquaintance’s latest Instagram post popped up on my feed. She was wearing a black dress and holding a martini glass with the caption “guys im coming out, im bi”. I already knew that, and continued scrolling.
My uncle recently recounted how he publicly announced his sexual orientation on Facebook a decade ago.
First recognised in the US in 1988, National Coming Out Day (NCOD) has become a global celebration of the queer community in “coming out of the closet”. October 11 has become synonymous with living an authentic life. The foundational belief was grounded in the idea of the personal being political, and the emphasis on coming out as the most basic form of activism since homophobia thrives in an atmosphere of silence and ignorance.
Sounds great, right? Well, not quite.
It takes great courage to publicly identify as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Putting your true self out there for the world to see knowing you may receive backlash is a courageous act. Heck, I fret over posting a selfie on Instagram for three to five business days and this is a far more daunting feat.
While I applaud those who take the leap, coming out is not, and should not, be for everyone. The danger in over-emphasising coming out as the most defining moment of a queer person’s life is that it, at least in the short term, benefits the group sometimes more than the individual.
Coming out may not always be safe for LGBTQIA+ people who are a part of multiple marginalised communities. Contrary to mainstream depictions of an economically secure, predominately upper-caste community, LGBTQIA+ people come from diverse backgrounds.
In post-Section 377 India, the battleground has shifted from the courts to the samaj at large. Making a public declaration about your sexual orientation and gender identity directly correlates to how you live – or, rather can live. Coming out can lead to hypervisibility for those with intersecting identities. Some testimonies are not warmly received, as illustrated by the countless stories highlighting workplace discrimination, family exile, and physical violence. Such pragmatic considerations necessarily complicate LGBTQIA+ people’s negotiations of the in/out binary.
A study of 70 lesbians in India revealed that the 11 women who did not experience violence had disclosed their sexual identity to fewer people (on average to three) than those who had experienced violence (average disclosure to six people). Thousands of other cases of intolerance and bigotry go unstudied, undocumented. There are no legal safeguards to protect queer people from societal discrimination.
People’s ability to continuously negotiate their identity is necessarily mediated by varying circulations of power relating to age, family background, economic position and caste. The dominance of coming out discourses in LGBTQIA+ politics belies the idea that coming out is not necessarily an option, or a desired objective, of all people who are non-heterosexual and/or non-cisgender identified.
Every time I mention to someone that I’m bisexual, they promptly ask “When did you come out?” and are left confused when I tell them “I haven’t”. We tend to forge a relationship between inclusivity and coming out, a relationship that often situates the closet as a zone of shame and exclusion. Lesbian and gay politics tend to reinforce this relationship.
Coming out is seen as imperative in combatting prejudice. Those who do are celebrated as role models promoting tolerance and inclusivity, empowering themselves and others, while those who “fail in their duty” are marked as lacking. NCOD calls on people to embrace their identity – one corollary of such a statement being that those who don’t come out are uncomfortable in their shoes.
Ultimately, coming out is important because it makes the community more visible. But focusing so intensely on coming out places the burden on the individual to brave the fallout for the sake of the greater political good rather than on society to secure the safety of the individual.
Policing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity journey – and its level of openness – will always be troubling, even when it comes from within the community. There is no correct or incorrect way to be a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Our personal journeys are just that: personal.
This NCOD and every day thereafter, be there to support and encourage LGBTQ+ individuals in whatever decision they make even if it doesn’t align with popular political imperatives.
Anahita Ahluwalia is an aspiring writer and student at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. When she isn’t scrolling through social media in the name of “research”, she’s probably making bad jokes and reading. You can connect with her on Instagram @anahitaahluwalia.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty