Much too frequently, the legitimacy of a queer person’s identity comes to be defined (both within and beyond the LGBTQ community) by whether or not they are “out”, and their commitment to the LGBTQ cause is measured by the same. And while it’s great to celebrate a ‘coming out’, placing so much importance on the act is perhaps unfair.
“Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out”, queer activist Harvey Milk had famously said in 1978, invoking the LGBTQ community to break out of their closets and proudly lay claim to their identities so that queerness became more visible in society. Though Milk’s words were said in a far different context from what us queer Indians face today, it’s emphasis on ‘coming out’ and the importance of it, somehow still remains.
Historically, the act of ‘coming out’ has carried political weight. One of the biggest reasons why the LGBTQ movement has come so far; has fought against the oppression, violence and silencing against the community has been because people came out of their closets and claimed their space. Because the world still sees gender and sexuality within binaries, coming out can actually be crucial to have alternate sexualities recognized – but this very thing can prove to be counteractive.
Too often, it doesn’t take into account the sort of pressures an individual might be under so that they are unable to declare their sexuality openly. One’s family, religion, or culture might not permit them to come out because of internalized homophobic prejudice, and in such cases, remaining in the closet becomes an act of protecting oneself from violence. The case of the lesbian couple from Mumbai who were forced to commit suicide because of their sexuality, or the case of the journalist who was gang raped because he was gay all prove how dangerous coming out can be in India. But even in situations where there’s no clear threat of violence, staying in the closet can be a personal choice that a queer individual makes.
Human sexuality is incredibly complex and since not everyone is in the same kind of closet, each person experiences their ‘coming out’ in different ways. Many people may not have a binary experience in terms of being ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the closet – and I speak from personal experience. I’m out to a few of my friends and colleagues, but absolutely and firmly within the closet when it comes to my family and childhood friends, and I’m actually content keeping it that way. For some, a ‘closet’ might not even exist and there might not be any circumstances leading to them keeping their identity secret. A friend of mine in the US, who grew up in a gay-friendly neighborhood has never had to explicitly “come out” because he’s been open about his sexuality from the start.
But more often than not, the pressure to come out comes from within the queer community itself, which often insists that one can contribute to the LGBTQ movement or have a valid experience of being LGBTQ only when one is out of the closet. This kind of a thought process is so deeply instilled within us, that we see coming out as an universal marker of queer success – almost as if it’s the only hurdle out there for us to cross.
While class, gender, cultural background all play a key role in determining the conditions for one’s coming out, ‘coming out’ is also a deeply personal process and there can be multiple ways in which one can approach it. While being ‘out’ should not become the standard to judge one’s queer success, the closet shouldn’t be the target for uniform shame either.
In a country like India where queer people face the very real threat of being denied jobs and housing, facing physical harm, or even being put in prison, staying in the closet can in fact, become more about self-preservation than anything else. Without doubt, ‘coming out’ matters to many within the LGBTQ community, but to impose the same importance of ‘outness’ upon everybody else ultimately reduces the different experiences one might have in terms of their queer identity. It’s great to celebrate coming out, but to celebrate a ‘coming out’ that fails to understand the nuances of the process does more harm than good.