Coming out still a rout

Co-chair for Education on Queer Issues Project (EQuIP) writes regarding difficulties in individuals coming out

Jodie Foster’s coming out at this year’s Golden Globes and is another example of raising queer issues’ profile in the media.
Jodie Foster’s coming out at this year’s Golden Globes and is another example of raising queer issues’ profile in the media.
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Emily Wong, ArtSci ’15

Coming out was recently brought into the spotlight by Jodie Foster’s speech at the Golden Globes. Her words sparked a lot of discussion, but there’s no question that she did come out as gay.

Foster didn’t outright say it, but speaking about the process, as well as her ex-partner, was definitely a confirmation of her sexuality. Sure, there had been speculation for a while, but nobody (outside of Foster’s personal circles) knew for sure until that moment.

Kathleen Wynne, the newly-elected Ontario premier, is openly gay. We know this because of headlines splashed across the top of national newspapers and the mentions of her orientation in the articles, dropped alongside the fact that she’s also the first female premier of Ontario. If sexuality wasn’t an issue, we wouldn’t be discussing it.

That’s the thing about coming out. No matter how “out” you are, no matter how open you are about your orientation, people still don’t know whether or not you’re queer until you confirm it. Everybody is assumed to be straight until proven otherwise.

When public figures are open about their orientation, it helps deconstruct stigma against people who are queer through increased visibility.

It’s the one common experience that exists in the queer community — the discovery, acknowledgement, and disclosure of your identity. It also never ends. After you come out for the first time, you realize you have to come out over and over again.

Sure, you’re out, but that only means that you’ve chosen to be open about your identity, which means that only those who already know you are certain without a doubt.

In terms of Foster and Wynne, this means that while they’re out in the public sphere, the strangers that they meet don’t know, and won’t know unless they say something affirming the fact.

This means dropping a pronoun when talking about your partner; saying “wife” instead of “husband” or vice versa. This is what coming out looks like, for the rest of your life, to everybody you haven’t met yet. People take particular notice when someone indicates they aren’t heterosexual.

The fact of the matter is that sexuality outside of the mainstream is still grounds for oppression. We don’t live in a post-homophobic world. Same-sex marriage may be legal in Canada, but equality under the law doesn’t translate into equity in the real world. People are still afraid to come out, because they worry that this will negatively impact their career, their friendships and their relationships with their families.

Speak to any number of queer persons and you will get just as many coming out stories. More often than not, these stories will include themes of familial disappointment, lost friendships and outright rejection.

So many cruel words drop from my friends’ mouths when they quote the things that have been said to them about their orientation — because of their orientation. That’s not to say that all experiences go badly, but the negative experiences far outnumber the positive ones.

However, there’s a definite shift taking place in the public perception of queer people, one that’s increasingly more positive.

Part of this can be attributed to the rising representation of queer characters in media. Visibility plays an incredibly important role in social change. While there are certainly problematic portrayals, the presence of queer characters and celebrities spark conversations which lead to a greater examination of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) issues.

Everyone is constantly bombarded by the media, which makes it such a powerful force in driving progress. My parents’ attitude towards gay people isn’t particularly accepting and they reacted in an unfavourable manner (to put it lightly) when I came out to them. But they know who Jodie Foster is, and they have just seen that an openly gay person can become the leader of a province. I wonder if they’ve seen the news and given the matter a little more thought.

There are so many reasons why queer persons still face discrimination. One of these is because often, queer identities are objectified and this makes it easy to demonize them. It’s easier to justify oppression against “queers” than “unique individuals with families, careers, and feelings, who just happen to be queer.” This is why coming out is still relevant. Every time a public figure comes out, every time a queer character is introduced, it brings us closer to seeing their sexuality as just another part of who they are. They become an actor, a musician, a writer and queer. Too often, when someone’s non-heterosexual/cisgender (when your gender identity doesn’t match the sex you were assigned at birth) status is disclosed to us, we see that as the be-all, end-all of that person. It’s not.

Sexuality and gender identity aren’t irrelevant, but they’re certainly not the only things that define someone. When society stops assuming everyone is heterosexual, and LGBTQ stigma is erased, there will be room to just be. Until then, visibility in the forms of coming out and media representation will continue to be significant in furthering the acceptance of queer identities.

Emily Wong is the co-chair for the Education on Queer Issues Project (EQuIP).

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