This morning, on National Coming Out Day ― the one day of the year dedicated to honoring queer people’s courageous, difficult decisions to reveal who they are to the world despite the dangers that await them outside the closet ― the first thing I saw in my Facebook feed was a Washington Post op-ed by Matthew H. Birkhold, a gay assistant professor at Ohio State University, entitled “It’s time to end National Coming Out Day.”
Rather than throw my laptop out of the nearest window, I thought I’d channel the white-hot rage currently coursing through my body into a brief summary of and response to Birkhold’s “argument.” Not only will this save me the time and expense of replacing my computer, but it will also spare you the agony of wading through all of the bullshit that I waded through:
Matthew: “In the 1980s... coming out was a form of activism...”
Noah: Actually, coming out was a form of activism before the ’80s and it continues to be one of the (if not the) most powerful tools that LGBTQ people have to change the fundamental (and often fundamentally flawed) way that non-queer people understand who we are and how we experience the world.
Matthew: “Since 1988 [National Coming Out 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.”
Noah: Damn right.
Matthew: “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.”
Noah: WTF? Are you kidding me? Yes, it’s incredible that same-sex marriage is legal in all states (for now) but marriage rights are hardly the most pressing issue for many queers. And, sure, I love encouraging polling as much as the next homo, but ultimately those data points mean very little in the day-to-day lived reality of most LGBTQ folks. So, let’s look at some hard facts instead, shall we? In the last month alone:
― Mississippi welcomed the most anti-LGBTQ law in the country;
― U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memorandum entitled “Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty” that is essentially a “license to discriminate” against queer people and which the National LGBTQ Task Force said would “cause immeasurable harm to millions of people.”
― Sessions also sent a directive to federal prosecutors that rolled back workplace protections for transgender people;
― Ally Steinfeld, a trans teen in Missouri had her eyes gouged out and was repeatedly stabbed in the genitals before being set on fire by four individuals. She is the 21st trans person to be killed this year ― and these are just the ones that we know about.
― The Department of Justice told the Supreme Court that someone who is opposed to marriage equality shouldn’t have to make wedding cakes for queer people.
― President Donald Trump continued to stack the courts with anti-LGBTQ judges.
And these are just the things that I could think of off the top of my head and just in the United States. If you want to look at all of the disgusting things that have happened to queer people in the last year (from Trump’s proposed ban on trans people serving in the military to countless brutal attacks on queer people across America and around the world, let me know and I’ll get you a longer list.)
Still feeling safe(r)? Yah ― me neither.
Matthew: “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.”
Noah: Um... heterosexuality is the norm. But the more queer people come out, the more obvious it is that we are everywhere, growing up in all kinds of families, going to all kinds of schools, working all kinds of jobs, eating at all kinds of restaurants, riding all kinds of public transport, seeing all kinds of movies and so on and so forth. And gay people are aberrant ― but that doesn’t need to be read as a bad thing. We should celebrate our differences and see them as assets, not problems. What’s more, the more queer people come out, the less our culture will assume that heterosexuality is the norm, partly because of the sheer number of folks who stand up and say “I’m not non-queer” and partly because when that happens, culture (and the way that we understand it) changes and will continue to change in brave, beautiful new ways.
Matthew: “Imagine we proclaim a National Coming Out Day for everyone. Whether straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, questioning or curious, Oct. 11 could be a chance to broadcast our sexuality.”
Noah: We don’t live in a post-orientation or post-gender identity world where all sexualities and gender identities ― and the need to proclaim them ― are equal. In fact, straight people and cis people already have a National Coming Out Day ― it’s every day. There they are pouting at us from billboards and the cover of magazines. There they are singing their love songs on the radio. There they are nonchalantly holding hands on a street corner without a worry in the world about who might see them and what might happen next.
Matthew: “Let’s dismantle the norm altogether and abandon the concept of ‘coming out.’ Straight people don’t come out. Why should gay people?”
Noah: This is maybe the stupidest thing you’ve said so far. Of course straight people don’t come out. They don’t have to come out. Their sexual orientation is the assumed default setting and everything in our society is tailored to them. As to why queer people should come out, see above.
Matthew: “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.”
Noah: We aren’t “marginalizing ourselves” by coming out. We’re raising our hands and saying “We’re here too! And we deserve the same rights as everyone else no matter what.” Not because we’re like non-queer people. Not because we fit into non-queer society. No matter what.
Matthew: “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.”
Noah: Let me propose something else instead. Maybe, in addition to National Coming Out Day, which we still desperately need for all of the reasons I’ve already laid out, we also need a “Let’s Address Internalized Queerphobia Day” and we can all stop and think about why we might be so insistent on wanting to “normalize our existence.”
The truth is, we already are “part of everyday life” and we’ll only become more enmeshed with ― and embraced by ― our non-queer compatriots when we stop wanting to be just like them ― and believing that if we aren’t just like them, we aren’t any good.
So, if you’re queer and you’re not out ― and you can safely come out ― I encourage you to do so. It’s how things change. Just ask Ellen. Just ask Rob Portman. Just ask me. And if you are out, keep coming out whenever you’re given the opportunity. Look at it as a gift that you’re not only giving yourself ― who doesn’t want to take every chance they’re given to be the most authentic version of themselves that they can be? ― but also everyone you encounter.
And that goes for everyone... even you, Matthew H. Birkhold.