By Blair Imani – From “Read This To Get Smarter about Race, Class, Gender, Disability, and More”

Read an excerpt from the chapter on coming out below, and check out Blair’s Instagram Live conversation with our Youth Voices ambassador Jace D.

Coming out is not solely about sharing our LGBTQ+ identities with other people—it is also a journey of self-understanding, self-definition, and self-acceptance. Returning to the concept of personal and social identities, we should remember that who we are in the context of our personal identity (the way we understand ourselves) is legitimate regardless of whether it can be expressed or accepted as part of our social identity (the way others perceive us). While it is a heavily emphasized aspect of LGBTQ+ identity, coming out is not mandatory, necessary, or always possible for everyone within our community. We might come out about our gender identity and later come out about our sexual orientation, or vice versa or not at all. Whether you have previously come out at a younger age or come out later in life, whatever timeline works for you is the appropriate one for you. Importantly, LGBTQ+ people do not have to come out in order to live authentically or to be validly and genuinely LGBTQ+.

Many people and institutions often place the responsibility on LGBTQ+ people to declare our identities instead of disrupting the assumption that everyone is or should be straight or cisgender. No one can tell anyone else how, when, or if they should come out to other people. Coming out is a process, and coming out to yourself is a beautiful experience that no one else can give us or take away. The only perfect coming-out story is the one that happens in our own hearts and minds, because that process is on our own terms. Learning to validate ourselves regardless of the approval and rejection of others is an important gift to give ourselves.

In regard to coming out to other people, media often portrays this as a one-time event, but coming out is not a singular occurrence. I have come out in different contexts and at different times. At fifteen, I came out to my mother. Throughout my life, I have come out to coworkers, classmates, colleagues, friends, family, and partners. Perhaps most prominently, though not most recently, I (inadvertently) came out on a prominent conservative talk show on Fox News in 2017. The day after I came out on national television, I felt extremely vulnerable. Feeling this way is common for many people who come out, particularly if we come out before we planned to, or if we are outed. “Outing” is the harmful and violating circumstance when someone else discloses your identity without your consent. And while every LGBTQ+ person should be able to decide if, when, and how they come out, the unfortunate truth is that this does not always happen on our own terms. Outing is a form of dehumanization and bullying. To avoid outing other people, it is crucial to get smarter about what to do if someone should come out to us.

No advice can be universally applied to every instance of coming out. One of the most blatantly harmful ways to respond to someone who has come out to you is to reject them, mock them, dismiss them, or out them to other people. If someone is sharing their innermost reality with us and we reject them, we discard part of their humanity. And while humor can be used to make an uncomfortable situation less so, coming out is a generally serious and profound experience that should be honored as such. Some coming-out situations may be decidedly more light or casual, which is also okay. No matter how someone comes out to you, it’s important to respond in a way that feels respectful, affirming, and appropriate to the situation. When in doubt, asking, “How can I best support you in this moment?” is a direct and clear way to determine how to be affirming. Perhaps most importantly, getting smarter about coming out means remembering that any personal information we have been made aware of does not suddenly become ours to share without consent. LGBTQ+ people should be able to come out on our own terms. Follow-up statements like “Thank you for sharing with me,” or “I appreciate you being vulnerable with me,” and questions like “How do you feel about this?” “Are you out to other people?” and “How can I support you?” are excellent places to begin.

Reprinted with permission from Read This To Get Smarter about Race, Class, Gender, Disability, and More by Blair Imani copyright © 2021. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. 

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