Out on a dike

Out on a dike phr. [mid 19-C] (US) going out in one's best clothes. [DIKED DOWN] I'm out as a dyke, occasionally out with a dyke. What I do when I'm out on a dike can become your business once I write about it here.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Keeping On Coming Out

My response to Julie R. Enszer's Washington Blade column.
Please read Julie's article and join the debate:

Julie R. Enszer won’t be celebrating National Coming Out Day this year. She says the focus on individual action, encouraging each person to come out and tell their story, has resulted in a whole generation of narcissistic queer people and doesn’t further the human rights cause. Julie believes that equality can only be achieved through an awareness of social responsibility and collective action.

I agree with this last part, and that an individual’s contribution to furthering LGBT rights needs to go beyond telling a friend, a family member or a total stranger. But I don’t believe you can ever promote communal responsibility by denying the impact that coming out has for individuals and for our LGBT communities.

Julie recognises how coming out continues to be significant for people newly coming out, but she thinks that “we have exhausted the potential and promise of coming out” beyond this. I can’t support this view. It is the act of coming out which gives the individual their initial access to community and access to the vital resources which are necessary to begin taking political steps forward.

Do we ever really exhaust coming out possibilities, as Julie suggests? Coming out is a process and something we have to do throughout our entire lives with each new person we meet. I’m aware that homophobia and heterosexism lead me to acts of self-censorship (however small) on a regular basis. Most of us don’t have the luxury of being always out. However out I feel in general, I don’t necessarily feel able to talk openly in conversation with everyone I meet. There will be brief encounters when it just doesn’t seem appropriate. There are other times I value self-protection.

Having to make the decision about whether to come out in each new situation reminds me that equality is far from being won. It has often been my individual vulnerability which has spurred me to communal action. Being reminded that coming out can still be a daily hurdle is why I give money to Stonewall, the UK organisation campaigning for equality and justice for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals; it’s why I have volunteered with LGBT organisations; it’s why I participate in high profile Pride marches (I can’t yet bring myself to call them parades); it’s why I write about my lesbian life at every opportunity.

I have highlighted the issue of coming out, and my own personal story, in much of my writing. Does this make me narcissistic, inward-looking? By making my story public I like to feel I’m engaged in building community and encouraging dialogue. When I was a teenager, scared and isolated, I searched for stories that spoke to me as a young lesbian and, unfortunately, I found too few of them. I may have begun my coming out twenty years ago, and my teenage experiences could now be considered historical by some, but I know that people continue to relate to and find value in this story.

There may be aspects of narcissism in queer culture, but I don’t think we should be blaming the cultural emphasis on coming out for this. Coming out isn’t enough to change the world, as those of us already doing it know; but it is a starting place for many who do wish to contribute to a larger vision. When our personal stories are gathered together they build queer culture. They are small parts of the rich queer culture that Julie herself has celebrated in another recent essay, Queer Culture: Our History and Our Legacy, where she states: “We need all forms of collecting, documenting and cataloguing our culture”.

Context is everything, and coming out continues to be powerful and significant in my life. However, I will choose the days I come out, and when it feels appropriate. I don’t need a National Coming Out Day to assist me. But I understand that other people do. So I’m not ready to get over coming out. And isn’t the point of this day that it is a day of collective action; a day we can confront our communal truth that homophobia and heterosexism are societal problems? A day that may encourage others to take their first step into community and begin a commitment to communal well-being?

I may not agree with Julie's whole stance, but I certainly agree we need opportunities to reconsider our actions and define our positions. For this reason I thank Julie for her commitment to encouraging debate, just as I admire her preparedness to be controversial.

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