Nobody has a responsibility to come out.

Posted: April 28, 2011 in Asexual Visibility, GLBT/Queer issues
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

When I heard that the topic of the blog carnival hosted at Writing From Factor X would be about coming out, I was a little dismayed. I’ve likened National Coming Out Day to Valentine’s Day before, and I think with good reason. I’ve become so tired of hearing people harping on the importance of coming out, especially qualified, as it so often is in the asexual community, with some kind of statement like, “Of course, coming out for asexuals is easy, all we really have to deal with is people saying annoying things.” So, I don’t much like to talk about it.

That is demonstrably untrue, by the way. And if the only responses you’ve received when you came out were just a little bit annoying? You’re a lucky one. Not everyone has it so easy, and it’s a privilege to be surprised that they don’t.

Really though, I think that many of the responses that people categorize as “annoying” are actually instances of emotionally abusive statements that go unrecognized for what they are due to a “sticks and stones” tough attitude that many people have. Since abuse is often thought of as only physical, it’s often hard to recognize it when it happens, especially when society agrees with the sentiment. One single instance is relatively easy to brush off, but the cumulative effect of the majority of people claiming that “there must be something wrong with you” is not.

The other day, Rachel Maddow said this:

I’ve long held three basic beliefs about the ethics of coming out:

  1. Gay people — generally speaking — have a responsibility to our own community and to future generations of gay people to come out, if and when we feel that we can.
  2. We should all get to decide for ourselves the “if and when we feel that we can” part of that.
  3. Closeted people should reasonably expect to be outed by other gay people if (and only if) they prey on the gay community in public, but are secretly gay themselves.

I also believe that coming out makes for a happier life, but that’s not a matter of ethics, that’s just corny advice.

Now, I’d agree on numbers two and three, but that’s it. Frankly, I think it’s very naive to assume that coming out would make everyone’s lives happier. Some people (and I wouldn’t say it’s impossible that any asexuals are among them, even if I’ve never heard of such a case to date) actually lose their lives after coming out, and I think it’s good to keep that in mind. I found Lena Chen’s response to Maddow’s statement particularly on-point. Much as I usually admire and appreciate the work that Maddow does, in this case I think she’s got too much privilege to see this clearly. I find it inconsistent to claim that queer people (of any stripe, including asexuals) “should all get to decide for ourselves” if/when to come out, while also claiming that we have a responsibility to do so. Saying it’s a responsibility heaps a whole lot of pressure on people to come out, thus making number two ineffectual. If it’s really meant to be our own decision, shouldn’t it be as un-coerced as possible?

In practice, though, I do see a lot of coerced unclosetings happening throughout the queer community. Sometimes this is accomplished through persistent nagging and guilt-tripping. Sometimes people just tell others without their permission. Sometimes it’s a case of a significant other going, “I won’t let you tell your family I’m your friend.” That last case is the only time that I think this kind of behavior is marginally acceptable, because it does affect the significant other’s life too, but even then, it has to be handled delicately.

And you know what? I don’t see all that much of a difference between people saying that queer people have a responsibility to their community to come out, and people saying that married people have a responsibility to their spouses to have sex. Education of the privileged about the lives of the marginalized, like sex, should be a freely given gift. Turning it into a duty makes that gift meaningless.

The asexual community, being invisible and obscure, does need people who are willing to educate others, spread awareness of our existence. But you know what? There are enough people who freely volunteer to do that. We don’t need to make it a responsibility. So let’s try to avoid that mindset.

Comments
  1. Charles says:

    I agree.

    This is actually something I “struggle” with a lot, knowing that coming out would probably help the communities to which I belong but would cause me an immense amount of stress – not just as asexual, but as trans. By no means am I ashamed of or particularly invested in hiding my identity, but coming out to people is such a taxing thing for me (primarily due to social anxiety) but I have immense difficulty telling even the people I know won’t care.

  2. Ace says:

    Thanks for this article. I’m an active member of AVEN and it was brought up not long ago that asexuals should come out- there was some comments made that it was about visibility, and that nothing would go wrong, except that maybe people wouldn’t believe you. But, I don’t think anyone should be shoving someone else out of the closet. Asexuals don’t have to deal with all the problems befalling gays, but that’s mainly because we are stuck in the ‘deny your orientation is valid’ stage- one day, we will have haters attacking us too- and unfortunately, what could be our biggest ally( the gay community) thinks we’re just as messed up as the straight community does(I should note this is a very broad statement and does not hold true for all people). And I don’t want to be in on that unless I have decided to jump in.

  3. Sciatrix says:

    Hey, I’m sorry that my choice of topics upset you. When I chose to run my round of the carnival on the topic of coming out, I confess that my main thought was trying to pick something very broad that most people could think of something to talk about. I worried that if I chose a topic that was more narrow, not many people might participate, and I assumed that people would have a variety of viewpoints on that one.

    I confess, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about why I think coming out is important, and I do think that it is–but I also worry about the same thing you’ve articulated here, that pressure to come out hurting people who are really not in a position to safely do so (either emotionally or physically). I try to frame that conversation in terms of explaining why I think coming out is a form of activism and the reasons that I do it.

    At some point, though, trying to encourage people to come out and talking about the ways in which coming out helps the community becomes a form of pressure on its own. If you’re spending a lot of your time encouraging people to come out and stop being invisible, that does tend to send a message that they “should” be taking part in that.

    Where do you draw the line? Is it on the side of the individual and choice, or on the side of community welfare? Obviously no one should be told that coming out is a responsibility and that anyone who doesn’t is a traitor to all asexuality. On the other hand, should we stop encouraging people to volunteer to take part in activism because this creates pressure to, well, be activists? Both of those are extreme ends on a spectrum–how do you avoid hitting either extreme?

    I’m deeply conflicted here, because I believe that everyone has some responsibility to community. And part of me is reading this post as saying that no, not everyone does. I agree that the gift of the emotional energy and fortitude that it takes to come out or do any form of activism should be acknowledged and respected. But I also think that saying that “we already have enough people freely volunteering to spend their time educating others and spreading awareness, and we don’t need you to do it” erases the effort that it takes to do that volunteering. And I think that people have a responsibility to do what they can. “What they can” might involve coming out, or it might not–that depends absolutely on the situation of the individual person.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Meh, part of it is just being around here for so long that I’m talked out about all of my own coming-out experiences (not that they were fun to talk about in the first place—and for several years I avoided talking about the worst one because it’s too depressing, but lately I see that it’s necessary). The ones I haven’t talked about are my experiences with coming out as an atheist, or something else like that, which are only relevant by comparison. I like to make my posts about coming out as infrequent as possible due to that. This, though, is a side of the discussion I don’t see very often, so I thought it was a useful counterpoint.

      I think talking about your own personal experience and reasons why you decided to come out is a fine way to frame a discussion of it, as long as it doesn’t veer into the territory of “it went fine for me, so it’ll be fine for you too!” Discussions about what is the most effective way to come out, what range of reactions to expect when coming out, what the potential risks/benefits are of coming out, these are all fine to have. If someone asks for advice about coming out, it’s okay to encourage them, as long as you make sure to stress that they assess their own personal risk factors carefully. I think any kind of encouragement to be activist should be made with an up-front acknowledgment that it’s not something you owe the community, you’re not a “bad asexual” if you just choose to live your life without pursuing activism (there’s a parallel here to trans people who prefer to go stealth).

      It should be noted that coming out is certainly not the ONLY way to do activism, and if somebody wants to help the community but isn’t comfortable being out, they can do things like write anonymously, and help to gather resources (mainly online, but could be in-print too when there is an occasion for it). Or, they can provide support to others as a way of giving back to the community.

      Do people owe anything to the community? Personally, I’d say the only responsibility they have is not to do harm to it. At the most basic level, I think people have the choice as to whether or not they will participate, nevermind doing any activism. If for any reason they’re uncomfortable participating, they don’t owe it to us to do so. They owe us nothing, except not to spread lies and hatred.

      Honestly, I don’t see how it erases the effort that it takes to spread awareness by saying that we only want voluntary activists. I think saying, “Yeah, this is a LOT of work with some very tough emotional and possibly physical consequences, so I completely understand if you’re not in a place where you feel you’re able to do it,” is… well, the exact opposite of erasing how much effort it takes. Of course we could certainly use more volunteers, so anyone who is up for it is welcome to join in. But people who’ve been pressured into it probably aren’t going to be very good at doing activist work anyway. If you’re extremely uncomfortable divulging information like that about yourself, I think people will pick up on that, and it may backfire (and I speak from personal experience, here). The work is much better done by people who freely choose it, so I’d say no, we don’t need anyone who is just doing it because they feel it’s an obligation, even if the number of activists is relatively small. I think it serves the community better to support the individuals in it, rather than pushing them to do things they’re not completely okay with. That can lead to some really bad emotional turmoil, and since we’ve seen some troubling numbers with regard to suicide lately, I think it behooves us to be especially careful not to be too pushy. Losing some activism (right now) is a lot better than losing people, who may eventually get to a point where they can come out or do any other form of activism later.

  4. I like this post a lot. Although I’m not “out” in the sense that everyone I know knows about me, I don’t feel like I’m closeted. I don’t think it’s an either-or situation, which I’ve seen it often presented as. Everyone has a right to privacy.

    I think that it’s often presented as an obligation to the community, but I think the only obligation people have is not to go out actively harming the community. Though don’t think I could out that person either. I’d try, at least, to find another way to counter their harmful acts. (That goes back to the privacy thing; unless they were breaking the law in some way connected to their ‘closeted’ identity, I don’t know that I could ever out someone.)

    But, I think your post would even fit with the carnival. Because “coming out” discussions are often only discussions about how to come out, or personal experiences in coming out, or why people should come out. I think that people making points about why it’s not an obligation, like you have here, are also important to include in the conversation.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I think it’s a good point to note that it really isn’t an either-or thing… if somebody asks me “Are you out?” I’d have to ask, “To whom? And about what, exactly?” I mean, I run around holding hands with my girlfriend in public and yet, most of my family still has no idea. And even a lot of people who know I’m asexual don’t know that I’m a sexually active asexual, so that’s another layer of being out. It’s kind of funny to me, how people who know C assume we have sex, and people who know me assume we don’t.

      About the possibility of outing someone as asexual because they’re spreading lies about the community… you know, I can’t imagine a scenario where there actually would be an opportunity to do that. Because how do you know someone is asexual, if they’re not out? In cases like republican jerks who push for homophobic laws, but who secretly visit bath houses and use glory holes… well, then I think it’s understandable to out them (although even then, making the assumption that they’re gay from that is a bit of a leap, but it’s still them engaging in behavior that they explicitly claim is wrong). Even assuming we ever did have people legislating for discrimination against asexuals on whatever basis… how could we prove that they’re asexual? Not having sex is not exactly “asexual behavior,” because I think it’s more often from lack of opportunity, and even celibacy by choice has nothing to do with asexuality, so… yeah, I don’t think we will ever have anything really analogous to the so-common-it’s-expected Republican Gay Sex Scandal.

      [edited slightly for clarity]

  5. [...] talks about pressuring people to come out and why that’s a bad [...]

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