Public discussions around sexuality evoke simplistic narratives about gays versus conservatives. We automatically assume that anything gay is part of a leftist or progressive agenda. In this context, National Coming Out Day takes on the aura of a sacred rite of passage for an entire nation, a way to prove that its collective self is tolerant towards its lesbians, gays, bisexual, and transgender citizens (LGBT).
Well, I'm an out queer lesbian who sleeps with men. Clearly, there isn't a place for me in that acronym. But that's not my real problem with National Coming Out Day.
Consciously performing the act of coming out implies that I identify with a larger "gay community." I'm privileged enough to live and work among like-minded queers and straights (I use all terms loosely). But I've long felt disconnected from the mainstream "gay community" and its notion that "coming out" is a political act of great meaning and significance.
My friend B. once said to me, "We [queers] used to be the most interesting people in the room. Look at us now." Indeed. We're not just less interesting, but politically conservative. Let's consider the main causes of the "gay community/movement" today -- and why I won't come out on its behalf.
Gay marriage. I'm against the idea that marriage should grant rights and benefits, and I don't think couples - gay or straight - are special people who deserve to be rewarded for their "commitment." Gay marriage is an emotional, social, and cultural issue - by all means, argue for it if you'd like to have your relationship validated by whatever forces you deem important. But don't turn it into a social justice issue by pretending that it's about establishing parity and equal rights for everyone. When gays argue for gay marriage as the way to establish health care and guarantee benefits, they're essentially giving the finger to anyone - straight or gay - who chooses not to inhabit the institution of marriage.
Gays in the military. I'm a militant pacifist, so the idea that I should be able to fight in wars or to help establish the U.S. rule of law in other countries is repugnant to me. We now live in a war economy where recruitment into the armed forces is just another term for "job security," so I'm sympathetic to those who feel compelled to join for economic reasons. But I'd like to work on building a society where peaceniks, like a former student of mine who joined because she couldn't afford not to, don't feel compelled to join the army in order to pay off loans- whether they're gay or straight.
Hate crimes legislation. Hate crimes legislation only serves to enhance penalties, and can even lead to the death penalty. The basic idea behind hate crimes legislation is that people who somehow demonstrate prejudice towards a group (by yelling "fag" during a robbery, for instance) deserve to be punished much more and that the threat of longer sentences or even death will deter similar crimes. In its support of hate crimes legislation, the "gay community" demonstrates its bloodthirstiness - it's not enough for us that someone should go to jail for murdering, beating, or robbing us (crimes for which there's enough punishment); we'd like to expand the prison industrial complex by forcing them to rot in prison for the rest of their lives or be hanged or electrocuted.
"Coming out," as defined by the U.S "gay community," has also become a dangerous export. We've recently decided that there's an international gay community that has goals and ideals in common across borders, and we have no qualms in asserting that "gay rights" are the same everywhere. In fact, what counts as "gay" in the U.S. may be same-sex desire that can't be defined as such elsewhere. For instance, some men in India might have sex with each other but still see themselves as "straight" and continue to live with their wives and children. According to our logic, such men just need to come out and be happy under rainbow-hued umbrellas, an attitude that's both simplistic and dictatorial.
There is, of course, a need to establish solidarity with queers in countries where homosexuality and same-sex desire can be punishable by law. But as gay activists and writers like Joseph Massad and Bill Andriette have shown in their nuanced work, asking for help for queers elsewhere is a fraught enterprise. U.S. feminist groups like Feminist Majority and women like Laura Bush ignored the needs of Afghani women by demanding that the U.S. bomb Afghanistan to help liberate them from the men of the Taliban. Similarly, U.S./Western gays put queers elsewhere at risk by defining acts of oppression as exclusively gay.
"Coming out" may be freedom for some here but for others across the world, it's either a non sequitur or a dangerous calling out that puts their lives in jeopardy. Coming out is increasingly part of a commercialised notion of gay identity to which a lot of us can't subscribe, especially in light of the mainstreaming of gay community.
So when you come out as either a straight ally or as part of the LGBT community, ask yourself: On whose behalf am I coming out? What, exactly, does this community represent?
If you're someone to whom a co-worker comes out, don't be content with simple declarative sentences like "I support you!" or "So am I!" Instead, this year, don't be afraid to ask them where they stand on the particulars. Ask: So, do you really think that married and coupled people deserve more benefits than single people? How can you be against the war and also for fighting in the military? Do you really think that putting people in jail for long periods of time for what they think or say during a crime is a good idea, especially since most people in jail are the already disenfranchised, including the poor? Does "coming out" mean the same in vastly different cultural and political contexts?
What if your co-worker tells you you're being homophobic just for asking these questions? Well, then - that just means that he or she is coming out as a jerk who won't engage with you on a serious level. And that's okay. The best thing about National Coming Out Day, if you ask these questions, might be your discovery that we can be just as nasty as the rest.
Related materials (click for links):
The Guide's interview with Joseph Massad, author of Desiring Arabs.
Bill Andriette's piece on the Iran hangings of, which is also an excellent analysis of US queer politics and its (often misguided) relationship to geopolitics.
My interview with Arsham Parsi, head of IRQO (Iranian Queer Organisation), which touched upon the issue of Western queers agitating on behalf of queers elsewhere.