Every year at the Delhi Queer Pride march in India, amid all the streamers and coloured balloons and dancing and photo-taking, I have to remind myself of everybody who’s not here walking with us. At the march, the numbers there run into a thousand or more, but we know that in a country of a billion, queer people account for more than the capacity of a corner of Jantar Mantar Road. While that’s encouraging in the face of people calling us a “miniscule minority,” it’s also necessary to understand that some amount of privilege operates at Pride events, privilege that allows certain individuals, and not others, to don their ‘gay apparel’ (sorry, I had to) and proudly declare their sexuality. What this means is that a whole bunch of people missing from Pride aren’t missing because they had a flat tyre. For whatever reason, a whole bunch of people are still sealed firmly behind those dreaded closet doors.
‘Queer Fundamentalism’ is a phrase I first came across when writer R. Raja Rao was interviewed by Sridhar Rangayan for Project Bolo. Rao describes how some openly queer folk emphasise ‘coming out’ even at the expense of individual comfort. It’s the idea that if you’re queer and you don’t ‘come out’, you’re of no use to the movement. You don’t count.
The idea that queer politics can be fundamentalist and even problematic should not be surprising, since cohesive, marginalized communities can reproduce the same exclusionary hierarchies they want to escape. In this case, it’s the belief that one has to ‘out’ themselves in order to sincerely participate in queer politics. To be fair, this sense of urgency, this ‘all-or-nothing’ approach is not misguided. Queer erasure is a very real challenge; it should be evident from both mainstream media and our everyday conversations how we assume the ‘default setting’ on everyone we meet is ‘heterosexual-heteroromantic.’ This ‘mythical norm,’ to borrow Audre Lorde’s term, is ever present in unsolicited questions about our partnerships, having children, the reprimands about the way we dress and talk, and even the careers we choose (what’s man’s work, and what’s women’s work?). Coming out has always been a strong political tool, resisting this mythical norm, but it’s not every queer person’s preferred tool.
Many question the politics of these labels (given that they can be limiting), and many more face the threat of violence which prevents them from coming out. Yet, this massive pressure to do it anyway still remains.
Sometimes the pressure to come out is because of an intense and personal desire to “stop lying by omission.” Sometimes it is the collective urge to remind everyone that queer people have always existed. But often, this pressure can be externally created by other LGBTQIA+ people, as if to say “you’re either with us, or against us.” Something is telling us that we have to make our ‘debuts.’ Perhaps the heteropatriarchal-world will respect us a little more if we’re blunt about who we are?
Now, the social value of coming out is evident – it is a way of claiming space, of asserting selfhood. Without visible and openly LGBTQ writers, performers, activists, business people, academics, children, parents, and friends, our fight for universal human rights would be sorely lacking. In fact, just having role models like Ellen DeGeneres, Ellen Page, Laverne Cox, Cara DeLevigne or Troye Sivan has helped so many others ‘come out.’
But it can also be a mind-boggling exercise. What’s more, it’s never a one-off event. When I came out using Facebook as my medium, thinking so public a declaration would be the end of it, I quickly learnt that this was something I had to constantly do with every new person I met. And it doesn’t end with saying “I’m xyz.” Oh no. Now everyone suddenly starts treating you like their personal sexuality educator. God forbid you happen to get tired of it, because then you’re just being “difficult” and “unapproachable”. Sounds stressful? You’re right. It is. When you consider all of this, you start to see why ‘coming out’ isn’t everybody’s game.
Something we don’t talk about a lot is the high rates of mental health issues queer people have to deal with. No, I’m not saying that the ‘queer gene’ and the ‘mental disorder gene’ have welded themselves to our DNA at the embryonic stage. But hate crimes directed at queer-identified persons (and even those who are not!) have created an environment of fear. This in turn contributes to increasing cases of anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns. Why else would suicide rates among trans teens be up to 41% in the US alone? So when we discount the political identities of those who are still in the closet, this is just being counter-productive. It’s difficult reaching support services to people who are already out. Now imagine how much harder it is to identify mental health needs of closeted queers, leave alone address them!
It’s alright to be forceful about your queer politics, it’s alright to want to create safe spaces that must not be co-opted by the heteropatriarchy. It sure as hell is alright to be unapologetic about your sexual, gender or romantic identity. But somewhere some concessions ought to be made for those of us who haven’t had the luxury, or the support, or the security of coming out to the world. Even if the ‘presence’ of these persons is marked by a heavy absence from our pride marches and our roundtable conferences, we still need to be able to provide that space.
Nobody likes their closet doors, it’s true. But are we going to forget everyone who’s shut in behind them? Are we going to wear this albatross around our necks, when we know so much better?