As an openly gay professor at a large, public university in the Midwest, I have witnessed many students come out. Whether in my office, by email or even through class essays, students make these proclamations sometimes through anxious tears but always with a sort of existential relief and a new sense of freedom.
“Coming out,” we’ve been trained, is one of the most important parts of a gay person’s life — something he or she gets to do on his or her own terms, when ready. I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of this act: the self-affirmation, the discovery of a new community and the broadening of worldviews for friends and families.
But I’d like to propose a new practice for my gay students and gay people everywhere: Stop coming out.
Wednesday was the 29th National Coming Out Day. In the 1980s, when many people did not know any openly gay people, ignorance and silence allowed homophobia to persist. Coming out was a form of activism — a way to challenge conventional ideas and fears by showing that gays and lesbians were a part of everyday life. Since 1988, this day has fostered a safer world for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people by raising awareness of the community. It continues to affirm our lives, worth and dignity.
But America is a safer place in 2017. Polls suggest most Americans consider same-sex relations morally acceptable. Same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. And the latest Gallup survey indicates that most Americans believe new laws are needed to reduce discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.
That doesn’t mean things are perfect, as the shooting in Orlando last year tragically testifies. Further, I recognize that as a white, 30-something, married professor, I am writing from a place of social, institutional and personal security. And I realize I probably would not be able to make this argument without the existence of National Coming Out Day for the past 28 years. For people in different circumstances, this day might provide much-needed support and strength.
Nevertheless, we should question whether the benefits of National Coming Out Day still outweigh its harms. Continuing to use the rhetoric of “coming out” reinforces a view that heterosexuality is the norm. “Coming out” implicitly announces — to LGBTQ individuals, allies and enemies — that gay people are aberrant. Our homosexuality is so different that we must proclaim it; heterosexuality, however, is normal and expected.
Imagine we proclaim a National Coming Out Day for everyone — lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, questioning or straight. Oct. 11 could be a chance to broadcast all our sexual orientations.
Or imagine we assume everyone is gay. Oct. 11 could be a day for straight people to announce their sexuality. Until he comes out, casually ask your neighbor’s son if he has a boyfriend. Nudge him and point out the cute boys in the neighborhood. I suspect your neighbor’s son will not be pleased, assuming he’s straight. The reaction is understandable. Having one’s sexuality mistaken is alienating and destructive to one’s sense of self.
These alternatives would be absurd. But they make clear that sexuality is no way to organize our judgments about people and that no particular sexuality should be the expected default. Whether one adopts a homonormative or heteronormative view, clinging to a belief that a certain sexual orientation is normal and natural marks those who fall outside it deviant — a label that has long proved to be the basis of prejudice, discrimination and hate.
Let’s dismantle the norm altogether and abandon the concept of “coming out.” Straight people don’t come out. Why should gay people?
Of course, National Coming Out Day helpfully raises awareness of the gay community, its interests and its rights. But, paradoxically, the more coming out is celebrated, the more it reinforces a normative ideal that is harmful to gay people. In the process of trying to make ourselves safe and visible, we are marginalizing ourselves. This will end either when all people are expected to come out or when no one is expected to do so.
So this week, to promote a safer America for the LGBTQ community, to normalize our existence and to show that we are a part of everyday life, I propose we cease reinforcing the idea that heterosexuality is the norm. Stop fortifying this implicit assumption, and maybe eventually we won’t have any concept of “normal” or “aberrant” sexuality. Celebrate being gay — just don’t come out.
Matthew H. Birkhold is an assistant professor at Ohio State University.