In and out of the closet: Rejecting the heteronormative binary of “coming out”
The term “coming out” never quite felt right to me because it seemed to imply a clear before and after in one’s gender journey
As grating as “Old Town Road” and its endless stream of remixes has become, there was always something about Lil Nas X that I just couldn’t help rooting for. That thing was substantiated when he posted a series of tweets confirming his queerness, although he didn’t use the term. He did, however, claim to be both gay and straight in a subsequent Instagram comment, to the confusion of many. Did it mean he was bisexual? Was he just trolling?
Or, do we have to know what it means at all?
His got me thinking about the importance of my own ambiguity in the way I came to talk about my queerness. I say, “I told my parents that I was queer” instead of “I came out to my parents” because the term “coming out” has never really felt accurate to me—but “I told my parents that I was queer” is a lie too. I told my parents that I was gay when I was 19. Before that, I told my friends that I was bisexual. Before that, I told myself that the sexual things I did with other boys was just the normal experimentation of every straight kid, which might well be supported by the fact that many of those boys still identify as straight today.
The term “coming out” never quite felt right because it seemed to imply a clear before and after in one’s gender journey. One is closeted, then they come out of the closet, then they are never in the closet again. The lines have never been so clear to me, if they have even existed outside of my head at all.
I was born queerer than I am now, if queerness is the freedom to exist and love across gender in rejection of heteronormative structures. I have “come out” in so many different ways to so many different people, and sometimes to the same person over and over again. “Queer” usually feels more like me than “gay” does today, though not always enough. I’m still figuring out what my gender is or isn’t, but I have settled on calling it “Black” because within the expanse that is Blackness I know that one doesn’t have to be settled in the first place.
I’ve heard at least three different gay folks make jokes at events this past Pride about how they openly identified as bisexual at first, before claiming their gay sexuality fully. Within these jokes, “bisexual” is a stepping stone, a way to admit and deny at the same time. A move towards legitimacy, but it is not legitimate itself. A way to still give hope that one might form a heteronormative life to the people (usually parents and family, but sometimes the self) still heavily invested in heteronormativity; a way to make the revelation a little easier on them. Here, “bisexual” is cover as they move from the line between the closet and “out,” and could never be more than that.
But if claiming bisexuality was really a way for me to keep the rage of heteronormativity at bay, it was as ineffective a way as I could find. Within the heteronormative world, bisexuality is no more than secretly gay. Bisexuality is trickster, is DL, depraved and diseased. If it is legitimized at all in that world, it’s only so that it can legitimately be demonized. If that younger version of me was using it as cover, it would have to be—at least in some part—out of my own ignorance of its inability to be so adequately.
My therapist has been guiding me to be kinder to my younger self, and in doing so I am learning to trust them more. Trust that they weren’t ignorant enough not to perceive realities like this when they acknowledged who they were. Trust that maybe, sometimes, who I am today is the one who doesn’t know what’s real. Who still invalidates queerness that I don’t completely understand. And in learning to trust that self I am finding more room for the ambiguity I always so desperately needed.
Some people are shocked when I tell them that I have had serious girlfriends and fulfilling sexual relationships with them. I am sometimes shocked when I still have romantic or sexual attractions to women, as if I expected them to all disappear into thin air as soon as I “came out.” I wonder how I might have developed healthier relationships with these feelings if I had more freedom to explore them without sacrificing my freedom to be queer with men. How much better I might know myself. Trust myself. How much I wouldn’t have felt the need to draw a line between my younger self who knew these feelings and me today, a line that sometimes feels unfathomable to cross now. If having no words for my sexuality, then calling it “straight” then “bisexual” then “gay” then “queer” had never been met with skepticism at every step of the way, but with curiosity.
Maybe there was a part of me that claimed bisexuality for the same purpose expressed in those jokes. In fact, I am certain of it. But I think also that I have heard these jokes so often and have been so subsumed by a culture that erases ambiguity that I give my younger self too little credit. That the ignorant part of me that would use my own existence as a cover became the whole me in hindsight. What if there was also another part of me that saw the limitations of coming out as what they were, just wanted more options, and bisexuality gave me at least a few more? And for this other part of me, there did not have to be just a choice of in a closet or out of it, just men or women. There could be other possibilities, which meant that there could be room for me to just be.
When New York City high school valedictorian Mason Bleu told the assembly at his graduation speech that he was bisexual as graduation, I teared up watching. This might have partially been because I have been exhausted and stressed and emotionally raw this whole month. I don’t cry often at things like this. But it also might have been something else. I hope it was something else. A little bit of the gentleness I’ve been searching for to give to my younger self, and seeing my younger self in him. And then almost immediately after that I sucked my teeth and told myself he was just saying bi because we all did at one point, and he isn’t really because I’m not.
I know that there are others who have honestly only felt attracted to people who were assigned the same gender as they were at birth, and I am not saying that their stories don’t matter. In fact, I am saying our stories are part of the same tale, one in which queer people, bi and pan people included, aren’t allowed to exist as who we are because the world draws lines around us and tells us we can’t cross them. Or tells us we can only be on one side of them. Tells us our lives must be lived along a binary, in relation to a line in the first place. I’m saying that even in our claim to queerness we sometimes enforce those lines for others and for ourselves, often without even knowing it. I hope I stop doing that one day.
I want to unlearn these lines that have been drawn for us. I want to be kinder to my younger self. To be kinder to Black kids in general. Kids like Mason Bleu or Lil Nas X (who is still a kid at 20, to those who insist on sexualizing him). To listen to them. Let them tell their own stories, and give them the space to tell it. The space I didn’t have. I want them to have more than closets to come out of or go back into over and over again. I want them to just be able to live.