Reflections on Outness
October 10, 2010
By my count, I’ve been out for 17 years, since late winter of 1993, when I began telling my family that I had a girlfriend, and that they would be meeting her at my college graduation. I suppose I’d been out to varying degrees before that (out to friends, out in class) but for me opening out my family was my first sense of “coming out.” My family was very encouraging, and I felt very lucky to have come out in such supportive circumstances.
What I’ve learned over and over since then is that coming out is never over. This is true for a couple of different reasons. One is that we change and as we change we need to keep coming out. Another is that we continually meet new people who were not part of our lives during our initial coming out process and so we are always coming out to the new people in our lives.
I came out first as lesbian. I thought that I had left romantic and sexual relationships with men behind when I discovered my desire and love for women. Later I met a man who made me rethink that. I found myself deeply attracted to him despite his gender and realized that I’d created an artificial wall for myself between my ideas about gender and my ideas about sexual orientation. In terms of gender I was willing to accept a range of expression and a lack of anything more that socially constructed reality behind the discreet categories of “man” and “woman.” Indeed in thinking about my own gender I much more often felt like someone who existed in the borderlands between gender categories than like someone who was entirely “woman”. Yet, during my process of opening up sexually, I had kept a tight boundary around my sexual orientation, linking it only to women for a couple of years until this man caused me to reexamine my desires.
At about the same time I started questioning another aspect of my sexuality, the part I’d previously assumed needed monogamy in order to feel safe. It made little sense to me that given the wide range of attractions and the diversity of human needs, that one other person could be expected to fulfill whatever emotional and intimate needs I might have and that are conventionally expected to be met by one life partner. The man I mentioned earlier, and a woman I loved at the same time, both seemed to understand all this and we formed a short lived triad until a variety of things caused it to fall apart. For reasons I still have a hard time explaining this man and I decided to formally but unconventionally marry. While I am still grateful for my relationship with this man, I regret our decision to marry, not only because that marriage didn’t last when it turned out that his commitment to defying convention was not as strong once the inertia fueled by the need to just get by day to day began set in, but also because it forever changed the nature of my relationship with a woman that I loved.
Upon leaving that relationship I had a series of mostly wonderful sexual relationships that reinforced my sense that sexuality was a difficult thing around which to form a complete identity. If I said to people that I was bisexual, that didn’t seem to make a lasting impression if my partner was a man. If I said I was polyamorous that didn’t seem to make a lasting impression unless I was currently involved in multiple relationships. I could claim whatever identity I wanted but it didn’t register as long as I “looked straight,” which meant that being out was complicated.
When I started the job I currently have, eleven years ago, I was involved in a relationship with the man who is still my life partner today. The relationship was philosophically polyamorous but that remained de facto monogamous until about five years ago. In those years I have had crushes on women, have had sexual relationships with other women and men, and have been in love with people in addition to the man with whom I am married. In that same bunch of years I feel like I have become less out than I’ve ever been since 1993.
The pressure I feel as a career-oriented professor at a conservative community college to be monogamous in marriage is much stronger than the pressure I felt at as a college student at a small New England liberal arts school to be straight. Indeed for me college was a time when it was cool to experiment and to try on unconventional identities.
Though I use the word “partner” instead of “husband” many of my colleagues know that Will and I are married. They expect that means we are monogamous. I have explained to a few of them that we are not monogamous and that we have other loves, but not to very many of them. It feels both threatening and somehow inappropriate to raise the conversation.
And this brings me to a reflection on another difficulty of being out. Outness is partly a matter of context. In what circumstances at work does it become appropriate for me to make reference to other lovers? Relatively infrequently. But just recently a colleage to whom I’m not especially out asked me about weekend plans. As it happens I had a date with a woman I care deeply about. I said “I have a date.” She asked no further questions, and so the conversation died there. I was ready to explain further, but she did not inquire and quite probably assumed that I either was making reference to going out with a friend or that I was referring to a date with Will.
While coming out is a continual process, ceremonial days like National Coming Out Day are useful because they provide a context for self disclosure. They also provide a ritual moment for reminding others that our lives may not be as clear and simple as they appear on the surface.
For all those who are not at all out, it is important that the rest of us show ourselves openly to help dispel stereotypes and to strengthen the system of mutual support that outness can provide.
Being out is not only about making a declaration of sexual identity. Being out is also about discussing the kinds of sex we’ve had and enjoyed (or had and not enjoyed). It is about being honest about our experience regardless of our identity categories. And it is about making our status as allies clear to those whose lives defy convention. In fact, making one’s status as an ally clear is an incredibly important act to accomplish every day and to reinforce on National Coming Out Day.
Today, National Coming Out Day 2010, I want to affirm my outness around the following aspects of my sexuality.
I am attracted to people across a range of gender expression and sexual identification.
I fall in love with people who don’t like gender and sexuality binaries any more than I do.
I have the capacity to be in love with more than one person at a a time.
I enjoy sex that some people say is wrong to like.
I prize trust and openness above conformity and convention.
In coming out I declare my uniqueness but also underscore the fact that we are not so different from one another. The more we know about each other the more we see the wide range of variations that comprise human sexuality. And the more we see variations, the less easily we put people into categories. And the more we move from categories to variation, the harder it to distinguish an “us” from a “them” and the the easier it is for to understand that sexual freedom is a birthright to be celebrated, and not a threat to be feared.
Note: Being out is not always easy especially for young people. If you are being harassed because of your gender expression or your sexuality, or because of what others perceive to be your gender expression or sexuality, please reach out to others for support. If there is nobody near you that you can talk to openly, please contact the Trevor Project.
National Coming Out Day image designed by Columbia, SC artist Marius Valdes with color work by Spartanburg, SC designer Derek Wetter.
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