October 11 is National Coming Out Day. Sam Sanders has a great episode all about the history of the day (hint: Harvey Milk had a lot to do with it) as well as its implications for queer communities of color. His guests also point out something that I absolutely know to be true: coming out is a process, not an event. Sam asks longtime NPR contributor Bob Mondello when he came out, and Bob’s answer speaks volumes. “Do you mean to myself? Do you mean to my friends?”
Coming out–and being out–used to be much simpler for me. I would mention my female partner, and then people would know I was some kind of queer, even if they didn’t get the exact flavor right. It also helped that I had the other shibboleths fellow queers would recognize: a certain haircut, a certain way of dressing, certain cultural references. The fact of my queerness hasn’t changed–it’s always been complicated and fluid, but the way in which I express it has. My partner has been a cisgender heterosexual man for more than 10 years. I treasure my relationship with him; he has a degree of emotional intelligence I haven’t experienced very often in partners of any gender. But especially early on, I found it difficult to reconcile my radical feminist queer identity with the assumptions people made about me when they saw us together. The whole point of the LGBTQ liberation movement, of course, is that love is love. And after multiple trips through the love blender, I feel lucky and blessed to have found someone who still makes me happy all these years later.
That still leaves me with the sticky problem of visibility. Since coming out in 1993, I’ve slid over to the femme side of the gender expression spectrum. And like many queer, cisgender femmes, I struggle with the way that being a cisfemme renders me invisible to my own community. I even have trouble recognizing other queer femmes! And then there’s the question of bi–or pan, as the kids are calling it these days–visibility. I’m not exempt from the assumptions people make based on the gender of a person’s partner. For instance, I only learned that my neighbor down the street identified as bi rather than lesbian after mentioning my own struggle with bi/femme invisibility. Unless one has that most unicorn-like of domestic situations–a group marriage with partners of different genders–it’s unlikely that everyone will guess correctly.
These issues are less of a concern to me than they used to be. Yes, I am still queer, and my queerness is still an important part of my identity. But I’m also a poet, a person living with a chronic illness, and many other things besides. Ultimately, none of these labels are as meaningful as how I conduct myself on a daily basis; I aim to treat everyone I meet with the same care and consideration I would like for myself.
To those of you who are still struggling with your own sexual and gender identities, I say, welcome. Things are better than they were 25 years ago, when I first came out. Attitudes toward both gender and sexuality are much less binary than they used to be, and being able to say “her wife” and “his husband” carries with it a power you’ll never understand unless you’ve lived without it. Yes, you will encounter people who don’t understand or approve of you. But you are also entering in a beautiful, colorful world full of chosen family. I hope you benefit from it as much as I have. If you’re still struggling to find your people, the Nancy Get a Gaggle Project may be a good place to start. Here is a list of US and Canada resources compiled in 2014.
And here are some Boston-specific resources:
- LGBTQ Meetups in Boston
- Queer Exchange Boston on Facebook
- BAGLY (Boston-Area LGBTQ Youth)
- Fenway Community Health
- Bay Windows (GLBT Newspaper)
- Bi Resource Center
- Boston Bi Women’s Network (I’m hosting the October brunch!)