Long before I came out as a gay man when I was 49 years old, I had heard the saying: “Coming out is a process, not an event.”
I thought that I understood what that meant, but I didn’t. I thought it was a reference to the long, gradual process of coming to terms with one’s own sexual orientation—in other words, coming out to yourself. And it was certainly true that the process of acknowledging that I am gay took a very long time. My denial was deep and entrenched. My terror was overwhelming. The layers of my internalized homophobia did not even begin to surface until I was almost ready to come out. It was then that this lifelong straight ally of queer folk discovered how much being closeted had involved rejecting and avoiding every gesture, intonation, and expression that might cause someone to suspect I was gay. My straight friends could wear pink shirts; I could not.
I didn’t understand that the “process” was not going to end once I began telling people that I was gay. In my mind, I would just come out to lots of people for a week or two, and then somehow, I would be “out.” Everyone would find out—as if my sexual orientation would be a page-one news story across the continent!
In fact, what changed was that I was no longer afraid of having my secret revealed. Several days after I came out to my three children, I found myself riding Amtrak to Manhattan, reading a book with the title Finding True Love in a Man-Eat-Man World by Craig Nelson. A friend had recommended it as the best practical introduction to gay culture. I will never forget the moment when I pulled the book out of my shoulder bag, hid its cover, and then realized that it didn’t matter who saw it—I didn’t have to hide any more.
What didn’t change was that people who don’t know me assumed—and continue to assume—that I’m straight. Fifteen years later, it’s not such a big deal. I can make a casual reference to my husband if I want. Or not, depending on whether I think there is potential in the relationship or if it feels useful to make a political point. But right after I first came out, I felt duty-bound not to accede to being involuntarily closeted.
The problem was that I was bound to fail. I didn’t understand why until several years later, when I read The Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. We live in a heteronormative culture, she explains, and that has daily consequences. Heterosexuality is considered “normal”. If you don’t indicate otherwise—by self-identifying, for example, through what you wear, how you walk or talk, the bumper stickers on your car—most straight people who are not consciously homophobic will assume that you are straight. In fact, it would seem homophobic to them to assume that you are gay if you have not come out to them. They know that both straight and queer people adopt a range of gender role behaviors, so they don’t want to stigmatize anyone with suspicion about her or his sexual orientation.
Several years ago, I participated in a multi-day consultation that sought to develop strategies for helping congregations to become inclusive communities. In one workshop, we were asked what would indicate that a congregation is inclusive of queer people. There were many useful suggestions: notices in the monthly bulletin about LGBT support groups; forms that ask for Partner 1 and Partner 2 rather than Husband and Wife; publicly celebrating anniversaries of same-gender couples; gender-neutral restrooms. I suggested that queer couples kissing each other on the lips at the end of a service just as straight couples often do would indicate real comfort and full inclusion. My suggestion was met with nervous laughter, and I had to affirm that I was not kidding.
The kissing test still seems to me to be the right one. It is one thing for a straight congregation to reach out to include queer people in its midst. It is quite another for a congregation to relinquish its heteronormative assumption that everyone is straight except for those who are not but who are included nevertheless. When I can kiss my husband at the end of a service without anyone noticing, then I know that the community is mine.
It is 2014, but some straight people still wonder why queer people find it necessary to come out. Straight people, they observe, don’t feel a need to talk about their sexual orientation. The answer is that as long as heterosexuality is considered normal, queer people have to self-identify or be rendered invisible.
Coming out is definitely a process.
Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.
This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/coming-out.