Are LGBT People Obligated to Come Out? (For National Coming Out Day)

I’ve always found National Coming Out Day to be a powerful and inspiring day of the year. It’s a day that’s representative of the community saying “if you come out, we’re here for you, and you have nothing to worry about.” It’s a day that serves as a reminder to anyone who may be struggling with coming out that they aren’t alone, and that if they choose to come out, they will still be supported no matter how bad it could go for them. However, with how powerful it is to be out and to represent a community, it begs the question: is there an obligation for members of the LGBTQIA+ to come out? 

It’s hard to say what an exact knee-jerk reaction to this should be, because the word “obligation” puts a lot of pressure on those who might not ever be ready to come out. Sure, it’s important to come out to show the masses of intolerant straight people that we’re here, queer, and not likely going to disappear, but those same straight people who want to erase our existence also create the society that makes it terrifying for so many members in our community to even think about trying. Coming out can be dangerous, and losing sight of that would be a harmful misstep. However, society doesn’t make it any less scary by how aggressively it suggests that people should be out, putting out a rhetoric suggesting that we don’t have a choice in the matter.

Here’s an example: when rumors about a celebrity start swirling around about them not being straight, media outlets and people all over the web begin their own private (or sometimes very public) investigations. As a society, we do all we can to try and get that celebrity to just admit to whatever identity we think they are, as if they aren’t allowed the autonomy to keep it more private. We create the feeling of necessity in these poor people who might not be ready to let the world know. On some level, I think that they have more of an obligation than some others because of their potential impact on a larger chunk of society, but at the same time, it’s a more daunting decision for them because their audience is so large. Since they’re in the public eye so often, coming out would make for a powerful statement, and it could inspire anyone who’s struggling with their sexuality to do the same. However, treating them like they’re obligated to come out is incredibly unfair to them as a human being. We’re so quick to tell them to “just come out already,” but we don’t know whether or not they have aspects of their lives barring them from doing it safely. We don’t know if they have family members who are against it. We don’t know what kind of people they’re working with to where being out could be potentially dangerous. We don’t know what kind of fears they have in regards to their sexuality becoming public, and we have to respect that. When we’re antagonizing people to come out before they’re ready, we’re forgetting just how terrified we were to come out, ourselves. Treating it with such simplicity ignores the fact that it’s a truly daunting experience.

We even see the sense of creating obligation for people to come out in the subtle ways we talk about how we felt about our own coming out stories. So many LGBTQIA+ people will say that they felt like they were “living a lie” before coming out, as opposed to “waiting for a safe time to do so.” There’s this attitude that “staying in the closet” becomes equated with “not living your life authentically,” which is incredibly straining to the person who is struggling with coming out, especially when they might be in a situation where coming out could be unsafe. I’ll admit, coming out really does allow you stop “living a lie,” and it definitely helps with living a more authentic life. However, depending on the person’s current life situation, living authentically could come at a price that they’re not ready to pay. Whether it’s parents who have said some bigoted nonsense about gay people, or even something as simple as a friend using the word “faggot” nonchalantly, there are small moments around every corner that can make a person question whether or not it would be safe to expose such an important aspect of their identity. 

I’ve said this in many other pieces of content I’ve put online, but I’ll say it again: I still get nervous when I have to “come out” to people who don’t yet know I’m gay. There’s always that chance that the person will be against it, because reactions aren’t always easy to predict. Though I have a sense of obligation within myself to make sure my sexuality is visible to those around me, it’s still hard to make that leap over the wall of anxiety to make sure my homosexuality is out in the open. Granted, I don’t run around talking about being gay (that’s a hilarious visual, though), but in situations where I feel like I need to make it visible, I get anxious about whether or not it will be received positively. When I “come out” to people today, I’m not sweating with anxiety like I was when I hadn’t yet come out to anyone, but even that little bit of nervousness says a lot about how hard it could be for someone who doesn’t have it as easy as I do.

Coming out is a process, and it’s not just a one-time deal. Most often, you come out to friends and family first, but after that, you could be coming out almost daily to people you meet at work, school, social events, or wherever it is that your everyday lives take you. The family and friends part could be hard while the rest of it is easy, and vice versa. It could all be easy, or it could all end with losing connections and getting alienated. Because coming out can be such a gamble, it’s already a nerve-wracking journey to think about, much less actually put into practice. To act like we’re all obligated to act against this fear as soon as possible, despite possibly losing people we love most, starts to look insensitive after looking at all of these possibilities. Though it’s really easy to say “well screw ’em, you don’t need them if they won’t accept you,” that doesn’t change just how destroyed you could become when doing something as vulnerable as coming out.

To put it simply: no. No one is obligated to come out. Though coming out today in our country is definitely easier than it was ten or twenty years ago, it doesn’t mean that 100% of the people in your life will wave the rainbow flag in celebration of your sexuality. It’s one of the most vulnerable times of an LGBTQIA+ indivudual’s life, and because of that, even just one sign that the person doesn’t accept their sexuality could be damaging. In some parts of the world, it’s still a crime to be anything other than straight, and people get beaten senseless, even to death, just for being a part of our community. That’s enough to show just how terrible human-kind can be to us. Though coming out and becoming voice of representation would be a necessary way to combat discrimination like this, suggesting that people must come out against their own fears isn’t the way to go.

It’s no one’s job to force people out of their closets. Our own relationships with coming out will always be different from the next person’s, and no matter what that relationship is, the obligation has to come from within ourselves to be out and proud. Dragging everyone into coming out suggests that we all must be the same in order to stand in solidarity; acting on our own obligation to stand proud as who we are is what really shows the strength behind LGBTQIA+ community. 

Because this post speaks heavily about coming out, I thought it would be appropriate to put out some reminders in regards to coming out:

  • Come out ONLY when you’re ready, and when it’s safe.
  • Do NOT out anyone. That is their choice, not yours.
  • Do not come out as straight as a joke. It’s not funny.
  • If someone comes out to you, your reaction will matter. Make sure it implies nothing other than acceptance of their sexuality, and love for them as a human being.

To anyone who’s thinking about coming out, but still needs some guidance on how and when to do it, this article should definitely help. Having a support network is a big one when it comes to making the decision, though. Even if it’s just an online forum of people giving you advice, it’s more than enough to help gather your thoughts about coming out in the safest way possible.

No matter what you decide, whether it’s to come out tomorrow, in five years, or maybe not even in the foreseeable future, just know that you’re loved, accepted, and you have a giant family who will always have your back. You’re never alone, and I hope you always remember that.

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