The complexities of coming out

The complexities of coming out

By Fikri Alkhatib

AWARE Op-ed for Coming Out Day

Since 1988, October 11 has been celebrated around the world as Coming Out Day. A day to celebrate the individuals who publicly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ).

Marking the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in the US, October 11 is now commemorated internationally.

In Singapore, queer rights group Sayoni in August launched Come Out, Come Home (COuCH), a campaign encouraging LGBTQ persons in Singapore to be more open about their identities, and urging allies to make their support public. The campaign culminates in a community gathering on Coming Out Day.

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AWARE supports Coming Out Day and COuCH because we respect the right of individuals to live freely and happily as LGBTQ persons. Sexual orientation is just one facet of an individual, and it should not be the basis of any form of discrimination. While social norms are slowly changing, it continues to be difficult for many people to be open about their sexuality.

Numerous studies have shown that self-acceptance and disclosure greatly improve a person’s emotional and mental well-being. Acknowledging, naming and coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation and gender identity can be empowering and affirming. For the LGBTQ person, there is often relief and strength in shedding the burden of hiding a significant part of themselves.

As more LGBTQ people are open about their identities and experiences, it awakens people to the reality that LGBTQ people are people they interact with every day, possibly members of their families or work communities.

However, there is only so much that coming out can do. We must be mindful that some homophobia and transphobia stems not from ignorance but from ideology – believing the existence or behaviour of LGBTQ people to be morally wrong. Increased public visibility is likely to aggravate factions that subscribe to this view.

More importantly, coming out is not without personal consequences, which can be devastating. LGBTQ people, especially those who are financially or otherwise dependent on others, face the risk of rejection, neglect, and even physical and emotional violence upon disclosing their identities.

For far too many people, coming out is the opposite of coming home. We still lack the resources to support those for whom stepping out of the closet means compromising safety and security. A movement centred on “coming out” requires more than political rhetoric: we need to actively build safe, supportive environments in which coming out becomes a realistic, desirable and autonomous choice.

At the same time, we must respect the choices of those who can come out but do not wish to. Concepts of gender and sexuality, and how they influence our interactions and relationships with others, vary across persons and cultures – one might not specifically identify with commonly used labels like “lesbian” or “transgender,” for example, or believe this to be a strictly private affair. We should recognise that coming out is not a necessary part of the queer narrative, just a popular one. It is important to a lot of people, but not to everyone.

COuCH is a commendable milestone campaign putting real faces to one of the most polarising issues of the day, bearing in mind the caveats outlined here. Coming out is personal and political.

This is just a start: coming out, for those who are able and willing to do so, is not a one-off action but rather part of a lifelong process navigating private and public identities, relationships, and politics. Coming Out Day, and COuCH, will hopefully inspire a move towards realising a society in which LGBTQ people can proactively and visibly claim their identities without fear of harm or discrimination.

Note – a line in the article was deleted at the request of the writer.

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