I’ve been thinking a lot about the process that people call “coming out.” Basically, coming out means letting people know that you are who and what you are. It means a lot of things besides that. It can mean telling friends and family, going out in public as the gender you are or with the significant other you Love, speaking out against homophobia and transphobia and a lot of other things.
And in some cases, it can save your life.
I want to talk about coming out because I’m coming up on my one year anniversary of the first, tentative steps I took towards asserting my male gender identity. I touched on my own story a little bit in a speech I did last week about suicide prevention; I wanted to express how surprised and relieved I was to discover there were others who Loved me and understood and/or accepted me as Jack. Then I got to thinking about all the people who are afraid to come out and how many different ways there are to come out and I wanted to point out that there isn’t one big event called Coming Out. There’s a lifelong process of finding out who we are and letting the world see it, and it isn’t restricted to people who are non-heterosexual or transgender.
That being said, I’m pretty much focusing on coming out as transgender because that particular coming out process has affected my life more than any other and because part of my purpose in life is to help transgender young people and the people who care about them connect better so that transpeople can feel less isolated and more understood and supported.
So, for starters, I’ve gone through many, many stages in this process of letting the world see the real me and I’m sure as my life continues I’m going to continue experiencing many more epiphanies and many more ideas about how to share who I am. Here’s what the process has been like for me.
First, I had to come out to myself–and that was the hardest part of the process. I thought I came out to myself last year when I began exploring my male side. But one day when I was in a self-doubting phase and I needed to look more closely at who I have always been, I realised I have been exploring my maleness since 1998, if not before. I can think of things that happened in childhood that indicated I was male and things that happened as a college student and things that happened afterwards. It took me over ten years to put all the pieces together of the ways I’d behaved in my adult life and begin to understand my identity.
Back in 1998, I did things like put a male pseudonym on poetry I was writing. I even opened a second email account with a male name on it and contributed to an e-mail list I was on from it. (This was before Facebook.) Eventually, I felt guilty about “lying” about who I was and told people that my male account and my female account belonged to the same person. I was promptly accused of being a liar and a mentally ill person. No doubt this unintentionally contributed to my feeling that nobody would accept me. If only I had known who I was I wouldn’t have handled things this way I’m sure. But I was not far enough along in my self-discovery process to understand this.
But still, my male self was struggling to emerge. I began to feel that the words “woman” and “feminine” were not labels that fit me. I didn’t know what that meant and I believed the boyfriend who told me I thought I couldn’t be a woman because I was a different type of person than my mother and that I needed to accept my femininity sooner or later.
I did this kind of flirting with a male identity on and off over the next ten years, along with trying to find myself in lots of other ways. I graduated from school and took odd jobs, not knowing what kind of career I wanted. I tried dating and invariably dated men who helped me to feel invisible and misunderstood. I didn’t know then that I was perpetuating the accidental gaping wound of my childhood, where I had no way to express what I felt inside and thought something was wrong with me and hid it from myself while secretly seething at being treated like what I was not.
Anyway, after thirteen years my maleness finally came all the way to the surface. There are so many things that happened and so many people that helped me along this path–some people who really cared about me and wanted to evoke my growing awareness of myself and some who would prefer I be other than what I was and tested my new identity by constantly trying to oppose it. I slowly came to terms with who I was. I slowly realised that even though I was somewhat genderqueer (neither male nor female) I was identifying more and more strongly with the part of me that was male. When I at last embraced myself, at first all I felt was pain, anger and depression… feelings I’d struggled with for years without knowing why and which I thought had finally left me. But even though I hurt and even though some of my behavior felt out of control and unhealthy to me, these feelings were a good thing, because I was finally in a position where I could work through them. I came to terms with who I was in July 2011 and by August I was ready to reach out for help; when I contacted my life coach, it was one of the first times I spoke to anyone as Jack.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that I’m a totally different guy than I was a year ago. I’m a lot happier and at peace. I Love telling bits and pieces of my story whenever the situation requires it, and I Love the fact that the pain I moved through allows me to reach out to others and inspire them and help them create better lives for themselves.
The reason I shared all this today is because I wanted to point out that coming out is not only a process, but that it is a complicated, interesting and sometimes painful process. I think that a lot of people see other people’s reactions to them when they come out as fixed points. Either someone totally embraces them or totally rejects them and that’s it.
First of all, coming out isn’t about other people as much as it is about ourselves. It’s about evaluating where we are in our lives and our understanding of ourselves and figuring out healthy and safe ways to assert our real selves. Coming out for a high school student isn’t the same as coming out for a middle-aged person who is set in his or her career. The high school student might be risking homelessness or parental violence (both of which unfortunately happen far too often to LGBT kids if they do come out) and might not have the inner resources or the finances to deal with the potential consequences. However, that doesn’t mean the high school student has to live miserably and in silence. There are so many ways to come out. For some young people, telling their parents they don’t want to discuss why they don’t have a girlfriend/boyfriend or why they like the things they like can be an empowering first step.
The other thing is that coming out is as much a process for our families as for us. There are some families that seem beyond hope, but I’d rather not focus on them because I think there are many more people who would be willing to accept us if they just knew how. So if important people in your life don’t accept you right away, don’t give up. Keep doing what you’re doing and keep learning more about who you are and how to express yourself and be willing to let the people who Love you learn about you at their own pace.
There’s so much to say about the coming out process. I truly believe it saves lives. I know that for me, finding a way to express myself as a man was vital. I felt silenced and I felt like violence was being done to my spirit even though nobody in my life was trying to hurt me. I was miserable, hurt and angry. It got to the point where it was either express myself somehow or die. And I knew I didn’t want to die so I let myself explode for a while and then I got ready to pick up the pieces and figure out a better way to live.
And that’s the bottom line. Life itself is a coming out process. I strongly believe that life is partially about learning more and more every day who we are and making choices about how to express ourselves. And I believe that we don’t always know the best way to go about things and that sometimes part of the process is fumbling around in the dark and accidentally hurting ourselves or others. I think that we need to forgive ourselves and learn from these mistakes. I think that we have to expect anger and pain are part of the process because so often our self-imposed limitations hurt us deeply.
In some way or another, we are always coming out. If you are struggling to figure out which step to take next, I invite you to comment below or contact me privately at thesjadvocate at gmail dot com.