In the big picture, the concept of coming “out” as LGBTQ+ is a complex topic that’s generally interesting to cisgender, heterosexual people and often dangerous for the people coming “out” (or being outed, or staying “in,” and so on). Still, many people of all ages find National Coming Out Day to be deeply empowering and healing. It can also be meaningful, especially for young people, to see celebrities, elected officials, and others in positions of power come out.
There is the flip side too: a quiet movement of folks who argue no one should have to come out, that private life is private, and people shouldn’t speculate on anyone else’s sexuality or relationship. You’ll find people both within and outside of the LGBTQ+ community who agree with that; like any other group, LGBTQ+ folks are far from a monolith.
Still, coming out is an ongoing, incomplete process. Many people would consider me more “out” than most—professionally, personally, to my landlord, to my boss, etc.—and yet I still find myself reminded that strangers assume heterosexuality (and being cisgender) as the norm. A recent example from my own life comes in the form of a carpool for a hiking trip. I recently moved to a city known for its ample hiking (Seattle) and joined a Facebook group that organizes carpools to local hikes. Overall, it’s lovely. And yet the last ride I took, every single person in the car assumed my partner was a man. Over and over and over.
What’s dangerous about that? I referred to my partner (a woman) with the carefully chosen “they” repeatedly, my usual route when I’m vulnerable amid strangers. Every single time, people responded back by using “he” pronouns, or using the word “boyfriend” when I said “partner.” I know the obvious advice is for me to correct them, and that’s something I’ve done in many situations in my life.
But I can’t say anxieties didn’t—don’t always—run through my head while sitting in that stranger’s car. I wasn’t with anyone I knew, I didn’t have cell service, I was close to three hours driving from home. These people were my return ride as well as my group for the hike. I knew nothing about their beliefs or their values except that they did not communicate even slight recognition that I may be gay, or that they would be comfortable with it. No matter how long you’ve been out, that situation is not a happy one, to put it lightly.
Still, I have many privileges that kept me, as it were, “hidden” in plain sight in the event I was carpooling with a bunch of queerphobes. I’m white, cisgender, able-bodied, and don’t present my identity outside of typical norms. For, say, a butch woman of color, or a trans Black woman, that situation might have easily felt loaded in a more severe way.
The very notion of “coming out” tends to put an onus on the LGBTQ+ person always giving the recipient the benefit of the doubt. The person coming out has to essentially take the leap of faith that the person they’re speaking to won’t be violent, won’t ask inappropriate questions, won’t give them the cold shoulder, won’t—as I briefly worried about in my aforementioned hiking example—drop me off in the middle of a national park. In the end, I had a good hike on a beautiful day and made it home safely. There are many stories I could tell that do not end that way, as I’m sure many, many LGBTQ+ folks could share as well.
But my hope on National Coming Out Day (and of course, every day) is to remind people that being a good ally is not only about baking a rainbow cake after someone comes out to you. You can practice good allyship and present yourself as a safe person simply by remembering that heterosexuality (as well as being cisgender) are not defaults, norms, or standards. Using gender-neutral language isn’t about erasing anyone, but rather about giving more people the chance to safely opt in (or out) of a conversation.