I share a lot about myself for this column. Usually found in the opening anecdote, I have spoken about experiences as trivial as constantly hearing the Weyerhaeuser bell as a Kirk resident, and as sensitive as my history of sharing beds with family in the context of a working class reality. I have claimed a lot of identities and alluded to a lot of contexts important to understanding my perspective: working class, person of color, fat, sock hater, New Yorker, feminist, sex positive advocate. I use Bringing Sexy Mac as a stage to explore, reclaim and proudly acknowledge my experiences that are so often ignored or disrespected on campus, but in doing so I am conscious that I must also serve as an educator for a wide audience. I think I have done a decent job in balancing the responsibilities to myself and my readers, except in perhaps two major regards. Today, I want to discuss around why I don’t (yet) talk about my gender, my sexuality, or my sexual and/or romantic history.
Considering that this article will be published on National Coming Out Day (NCOD, October 11), I want to first acknowledge the historical implications of the day since I chose it to be the platform of this discussion. Coming out “of the closet” is the act of revealing your queer gender, sexual and/or romantic identity, an act made a necessity due to living in a society that assumes uniformly cisgender and heterosexual (which I will shorten to cishet) experiences. Although he wasn’t the first to advocate for it, the first openly gay American politician Harvey Milk promoted coming out as a political act because it raised visibility for a severely underrepresented group. To Milk, coming out both humanized the queer experience for cishet people and encouraged queer people to more easily build a stronger community. Started in 1988 to commemorate the first gay and lesbian march on Washington, NCOD began as, and continues to be, an important day of the political rallying call for queer and allied advocates.
It would be foolish to me to deny the worth of the decades-long struggle of advocacy around NCOD and coming out in general. For many, being in the closet means to deny who they are; to identify yourself as queer, then, is liberating and a way to assert yourself and your position. To this point, Queer Union co-chair John Stark ’16 offered the following: “The QU co-chairs view coming out as a brave act that necessitates courage and strength. Coming out is a process, starting with self-acceptance and growing from there as individuals to develop and change. Wherever you are in the process of coming out (sexually or otherwise), today is a day to celebrate you. Be proud of the person you are.”
While I support this empowered understanding of coming out, I must also acknowledge those for whom coming out is not or cannot be constructed as a wholly positive and brave experience. Coming out is a process, and it is also an individual act that can be performed in drastically different ways depending on the context. The queer community, after all, is not a monolith, and even for an individual, not every coming out situation is the same. Everything in age, race, class, ability, gender, presentation, sexuality and geographical situation can affect your safety, comfort and urgency in coming out.
Because of the tremendous variety of contexts, I asked for contributions to this article to cover a plurality of experiences. One such contribution came from Trevor Berberick ’17, who said: “I’ve never been a huge fan of the idea of coming out. To me, coming out seems to acknowledge the presence of a norm, and subsequently the abnormality of being gay. I tell people when they ask, but I’m not one to actively inform people of my orientation. I am a multifaceted individual, and I don’t want to be known for one thing only.”
Trevor, I think, points to the way that coming out not only is an internal process, but an interpersonal one as well. Because we are raised in a society that assumes cishet experiences, to identify outside of that norm can Other you in the eyes of your peers. Having people’s opinions about you change after you come out can be an extremely negative and potentially dangerous situation. A second contributor, who wishes to remain anonymous, shared with me his story which I feel encapsulates coming out as a difficult project both individually and interpersonally.
“I always cringed,” he wrote, “when I would come out to friends who would say ‘we saw it coming’ or ‘yeah, we expected it.’ Even though they were trying to be supportive, it always frustrated me to be treated like my identity was inevitable. (It also has to do with some unfortunate internalized homophobia on my part—I became slightly offended when I was told that I somehow act or look gay.) I often get frustrated right after I come out that people, especially women, start to treat me, even speak to me, differently. When I come out to someone, I get addressed as honey more frequently, and my fashion opinion suddenly holds a little more legitimacy. I’m suddenly a gay man, no longer a male friend.” I would name any of these examples as a microaggression, meaning a “small” non-violent act that depend on and are ingrained in systems of oppression (in this case, homophobia). What makes microaggressions so salient to people who experience them are that they are rarely isolated incidences: even at Mac, which has been voted as one of the most queer-friendly campuses in the nation, these microaggressions come up.
Actually, while I am on this point, let me clarify what it means for Mac to be queer-friendly because it is vitally important to coming out experiences on campus. Queer-friendly does not mean safe; it means safer. For many, being at Mac means to get away from home where coming out may not be an option out of necessity or preference. There are a plenitude of spaces for thorough examination of a queer body—reflectively, academically, spiritually, sexually—but even if we like to pretend Mac is an insular bubble, we are a part of communities, oppressions, marginalizations and dangers that transcend our campus borders.
I am reminded of a particular experience last year when a staff person invited my father to a PFLAG event during Family Fest. While certainly an amiable exchange for the staff person, I marked that exchange as an extremely dangerous situation. What if I was queer and had not come out to him yet? What if he was homophobic? What if he was homophobic and physically violent? Even if I am an advocate of sexuality issues on campus, assuming that is somehow connected to how I represent myself in all contexts disrespects my privacy, autonomy, identity and agency over choosing if I want to be out if that applies to me. While everyone should be critically aware of how we “out” others, it is faculty, org leaders, collective members, and people in other positions of power that are arbitrators and facilitators of trust as we build an increasingly queer-friendly campus.
As promised, I have talked around my decision not to name my identities as they relate to gender, sexuality, and experience, and at least for the foreseeable future, it’s going to stay that way. It may seem counter to the theme of Bringing Sexy Mac to exclude my stake and position in this conversation, but you know what? Positionality politics has its flaws, if only because it forces those who might be marginalized identities to come out at their own expense even if they don’t want to. I would not be talking about sexual identities, however, if I thought that not identifying these aspects of myself would harm my ability to educate and share with my audience. I bring my whole self into everything I do, whether or not I choose to identify every fractal of the multiplicity that makes me who I am. Besides, I have only just started talking about race and class in sex positivity; there is still a lot of work to be done outside of what I may or may not personally be doing in the bedroom.