I have a problem with the idea of coming out of the closet.
No, it’s not that I want to stay in the closet; I just object to the idea that there is a closet. I certainly didn’t choose to be in one, but dammit, every time I’m not doing something or wearing something or saying something that marks me as different—and I mean different in a way that’s legible to the mostly-illiterate mainstream—people put me in a closet. And for all that the physical reality does not involve a door literally shutting in my face, or the sound of a lock clicking shut and the darkness of a small, cramped space surrounding me, the emotional reality of being put in a closet against my will is a very close approximation of exactly that.
So when people ask me to tell my coming-out story, I’m never entirely sure what to say.
I didn’t have a single triumphant moment at which I made a generalized public service announcement—or even several—about my difference, never to be closeted again. I only wish it were that simple. But no, not for me. I didn’t even have a single, shining moment at which I “figured out” my own identity, or “came out to myself” as some people say. No, what I had, starting in childhood, and what I continue to have as a fully grown adult, is a never-ending series of moments at which I’m going about my everyday life in the ways that suit me best, and I think I’m being perfectly clear about what those are, and I am suddenly faced with two realities simultaneously. Number one: other people don’t do things my way, and that makes me the odd one out. And number two: they assume I do things their way, and that makes me invisible.
Why did it somehow become my responsibility to challenge their assumptions? I didn’t tell them to have those assumptions in the first place. They chose them, and they’re placing them in my way. They’re pushing me into a closet and closing the door. And every time it happens, I have to wrestle with a tangle of hangers, and fiddle with the doorknob, and sneeze at the mothballs, and trip over the shoes as I push my way out into the open air again. Or, when it’s really bad, I need to throw my shoulder against the door over and over again until the wood cracks and I’m bruised and I finally burst my way out, angry and dishevelled, with someone else’s necktie hanging off my sweater. I’m not closeted, you fuckers. You closet me and I have no choice but to find my way out in any way I know how.
Some people say coming out is empowering.
Sure, it can be. But it’s only empowering because your power was taken away from you, and you managed to take it back. Some people say coming out is the only honest thing to do. And yes, on some level, that’s true. But it’s only honest because people create a lie around you, and you call them out on the falsehood. Some people say coming out is a political act. I agree. But it’s the kind of political act that can only be accomplished by people with a certain degree of privilege in the first place—some people never get to come out because it just takes one look, and everyone already knows what makes them different. And some people can’t come out, because everyone else’s mistaken assumptions are the only thing that keeps them alive. I have the blessing and the curse of being invisible and of having little to lose—such as kids, a conventional job in a conservative environment, my parents’ support, a monogamous and/or heterosexual marriage, or standing in a church or conservative community. I don’t have those things in the first place, so nobody can take them away.
So with all that in mind, what’s my coming-out story?
It would probably be simplest to tell you what people assume about me in the first place, and how they’re wrong.
Okay. So I’m in my early 30s. I’m white, educated and female-bodied, with a body type and facial features that place me into the category of generally approved attractiveness in Western society. I have short hair and a number of visible piercings, which means that most of the time, if a lesbian sees me, she figures I’m also a lesbian (more on that in a sec) and if a kinky person sees me, they figure I’m also kinky (more on that too); but my markings are not so outrageous as to garner much notice among the general population, at least not in an urban setting.
My gender expression sometimes fits with the set of assumptions usually associated with being white, female-bodied and conventionally attractive: yeah, I wear skirts and high heels and lipstick and underwire bras. Sometimes. But sometimes I wear wingtips and ties and loose pants from the men’s department. I’m not one of those people who delights in playing with gender to fuck with people’s heads (although that’s cool if that’s your thing). I just follow what feels right to me every day, and some days that means I’d rather poke my eye out with a fork than acknowledge my curves, while other days that means I thank the heavens for the small miracle that is a good waist-to-hip ratio and a C-cup. On the former days, people assume I’m butch. Feminine creatures hit on me. Flight attendants call me “Sir—oh, sorry! I mean Ma’am.” Masculine creatures ignore me utterly. On the latter days, people assume I’m femme. Femmes give me knowing winks and call me “sister.” Masculine creatures hit on me. Masculine creatures of all sexes also assume I can’t lift things, open doors or stand up for myself.
Really, both situations can be quite amusing. And sometimes infuriating.
People assume I’m racist, because I’m white. They make racist jokes when I’m near because they think I’ll laugh, and tell racist stories they think I’ll sympathize with, and come up with theories and policies and judgements they think I’ll agree with because they create advantages for people with my skin colour. People assume I’m ableist, because I’m able-bodied. They use words like “lame” or “retarded” because they think I’ll know what they mean. In the Western world at large, people assume I speak only one language, because I speak English; and in Quebec, where I lived for 20 years, people assume I look down on Francophones because I’m Anglophone. People assume I am not a sex worker, and they’re right, but with that they also assume I think hookers are dirty and depraved and immoral, and they certainly don’t think I might count any amongst my closest friends and colleagues. Because I’m slim, people assume I think fat people are gross and ugly and irresponsible. People assume I’m well-off because I’m middle-class—which is sometimes, but not always, true. But they certainly assume I won’t notice when they charge prices beyond what is accessible to many people in my community, and that’s not true. People assume I’m transphobic, because I’m not trans. They say ugly words and ask inappropriate questions about other people’s genitals and use the wrong names and pronouns for my friends and partners, and, when I correct them, they wave their hands and say, “I’m not used to it yet,” or “oh, you know, whatever,” when basic respect doesn’t require an adjustment period, and it is not whatever at all.
When I mention my partner, people assume there’s only one of them.
When I use the pronoun “he,” they assume the partner in question is biologically male, and masculine, and that I am therefore straight. When I use the pronoun “she,” they assume the partner in question is biologically female, and that I am therefore a lesbian. When I mention both “he” and “she” at once, they assume I have a boyfriend and a girlfriend, and that the boyfriend is masculine and the girlfriend feminine, and that I’m bisexual in that “a little of column A, a little of column B” sort of way. (They further assume there are only two columns.) Sometimes they assume I’m cheating on one or both of them, or that I’m easy, or that I’ve got a disease, or that I’m greedy or pathologically horny. When people find out that both of my partners are female-bodied—one fairy trans guy, one masculine dyke—they assume I’m not interested in men, or in trans women (if the latter even occurs to them). People assume I support the institution of monogamy even if I don’t participate in it, and they invite me to weddings where preachers say things in the pulpit that totally erase the realities of my entire community, and expect me to congratulate them and buy them gifts.
When I talk about love and intimacy and commitment, people assume I mean marriage and kids and the missionary position. When I say we don’t want kids, and that we prefer floggers and needles and strap-ons and fisting and biting, and that my two partners are collared submissives to me in a dominant/submissive dynamic, and lovers to each other—well, then they assume we’re sick, or crazy, or emotionally stunted, or abusive and abused, respectively.
When I mention my family, people assume I mean my mother and father and maybe some siblings and possibly a dog, or, alternately, a husband and children.
Nobody ever assumes I’m talking about my ex-partner and his lover and her wife and their two kids—the Spawn and the Spawnlet—for whom he donated sperm in two extremely different ways depending on the birth mother in question, and to whom I am known as “Spaunty Andrea” (my ex is the Spuncle).
Not to mention, nobody assumes I’m talking about the five other people who helped create and sustain those kids’ lives. Nobody assumes I’m talking about my three best friends, and the daughter of one of them, or about my triad. Nobody assumes I’m talking about the tight-knit group of women and trans people with whom I’ve shared blood and leather and pain and pleasure and lots of cuddles, not to mention many a clean-up job in the wee hours of the morning after a successful play party. And once people understand all these things, and understand that choice comes before blood in my definition of family, they certainly don’t assume I also include my three brothers and their partners and my uncle in that chosen family.
Anytime people make these assumptions, and many more I could list here, I correct them. But, you see, there are a whole lot of them. So I come out of the closet—or rather, the many, many closets—that other people place me in, sometimes dozens of times in a day.
I don’t remember when it started. As far as I can recall, it’s been like this my whole life. When I was a kid, it took me a number of years to realize that some people drew lines about who they could love in “that way” based on sex or gender. It also took me a while to notice that the people who stepped outside the two approved sex/gender boxes—the very people I found most intriguing—were seen as weird, despicable freaks. I noticed pretty quickly that a lot of people thought masturbation was wrong, and sex was dirty and bad, but to this day I haven’t figured out why. A bit later, I noticed that not everyone seemed to find power and pain to be sexually arousing, and that was confusing because still today, I’m not sure what else actually is.
It took me quite some time to understand that some of the things I liked to do, and some of the things I didn’t like to do, didn’t line up with the things other people thought I should be doing or not doing because I have a vagina. Even though I was bored by both Barbie dolls and trucks but loved baking and construction sets and books and art supplies, and even though I started lifting weights at the gym when I was 13, right around when I took up needlepoint and started listening to both heavy metal and hip hop, it took me a while to clue in that most people thought these combinations didn’t make sense.
It took me even longer to realize that in some contexts, my difference was best kept quiet, because I might get sent to my room, or made fun of, or grounded, or assaulted, all depending on who noticed, and how many of them there were, and where I was at the time, and who else was watching. I never liked the closet much, but sometimes it was preferable to the other options.
I haven’t deliberately visited the closet in a decade or more now, but who knows, perhaps I’ll find shelter there at some point in the future. Perhaps the closets that people shove me into without my consent are, oddly, their own form of shelter. Those closets paradoxically protect me from the people who put me inside them. Who knows what my life would be like if everyone always saw all that I am? Perhaps it would be okay. Perhaps it would be much harder—life certainly is much harder for all the people who walk around fully exposed in their race, their gender, their sexuality, their dis/ability, at all times, safe or not, chosen or not. I likely won’t ever know what that’s like, as my privilege is written all over my body. In a sense, my body itself—my white, able-bodied, female, often-feminine body—is a closet, and no matter how many efforts I make, no matter how many times I throw open its doors and step outside, I can’t quite leave this particular closet behind. It’s always there.
So what can I do? If I’m in an eternal closet, imposed by the people around me and even by my own body, what can I do?
I can come out. So this is my coming-out story. I’m writing it down here, but it’s not over, and it will never be over. I’m living it every day, and doing the best I can.