By Zach McCallum, photo ©Zach McCallum
October 11 is National Coming Out Day, and that’s an awesome thing. I’ve done a little research and found that the term “coming out” as it refers to non-heterosexual orientation dates to around the 1950s academically, and bears some kinship to the the concept of a debutante “coming out” into society, a coming of age ritual with cultural peers all over the world. Americans will be most familiar with Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Quinceañeras, and getting that oh-so-coveted learner’s permit from the DMV, but there is hardly a civilization in the world that doesn’t in some way formally observe the transition to adulthood.
It’s not surprising that coming out as queer might share that meaning, since adolescence is when most of us began to put a name to our sexualities. But there’s a darker side to coming out, too, that comes from the continuation of the phrase: “coming out of the closet.” The closet where, presumably, we’ve been hiding our sexual orientations with all the other skeletons we fear could damage us or our families’ reputations.
While the Bar Mitzvah boy in his brand new suit or the debutante in her first ball gown might approach their moments in the spotlight with butterflies in their stomachs, their nerves can’t compare to the terror gripping the LGBTQI person on the verge of coming out.
But I’d forgotten that. By the time I was thirty, I was as out as I thought I was ever going to be. My friends, family, and coworkers—everyone who knew me at all well—knew I was bisexual, and I didn’t hesitate when meeting someone new, if the subject came up, to answer honestly about my sexuality.
In fact, I was so comfortable being out that when I was in a relationship with a woman who was still closeted to her family, it bugged me. I hated having to lie when I met her parents, pretending I was just a friend from San Francisco, not her lover. I hated that I couldn’t send her flowers (she was living with her parents) or spend the night with her at her place. Having met her parents, albeit under false pretenses, I was pretty sure they would be fine with her being a lesbian (when she finally did come out, they were). I didn’t see what the big deal was.
I’d come out and thrived, and was a big advocate of throwing open those closet doors and letting the chips fall where they may. I’d forgotten how scary it was to come out, the same way my friends who had given birth assured me they’d forgotten how painful delivery really was. And then, like those friends who had a second child, I remembered when I had to do it again.
It was far scarier the second time around. Coming out as queer didn’t have an effect on the way most people interacted with me, but when I came out as transgender I was asking not just my intimates, but everyone, to make a change in how they treated me. When I came out as queer, I knew I was risking disapproval and moral condemnation from narrow-minded people, but it didn’t matter to me in the same way coming out as trans* did. If someone rejected me for being queer, they were saying, “Your sexual and romantic activities are unacceptable to me.” Rejection of my trans* identity, on the other hand, meant something much more like, “I don’t believe or accept that you are who you say you are.”
I had to come out to all the people I’d already come out to once—siblings, parents, aunts and uncles and cousins, friends, and co-workers—and to a whole new set of people to whom I’d never had to come out before—doctors, neighbors, the checker at Safeway who is always there on late shift when I shop, the woman at 7-11, the mail carrier, my realtor. I wasn’t just asking them to accept a part of me that had no real bearing on their lives; I was asking them to change how they interacted with me—to call me “he” and “Zach” and to think of me in an entirely new way.
When I told my friend Wayne, I was so anxious beforehand I felt sick. I was shaking, and my hands were ice cold. In fact, Wayne’s one of the most open-minded people I know, and he was completely fine with it. He was surprised that I’d even been nervous, and I felt like I’d let him down by underestimating him. But the fear was real because the risk was real, and it didn’t diminish with repetition.
When I came out to my doctor, a woman who has treated me for close to two decades, I was just as rattled. Her response was magnificent: a combination of “Who did you think you were fooling? I have known you for eighteen years, you know,” and “Of course I’ll supervise your medical transition, I’m happy for you.”
My sister was the first family member I came out to. She lives a few thousand miles away from me, so I had to do it by phone, and— actually it’s a funny story. I got myself all worked up and stomach-knotted in preparation for my conversation with her, and it turned out Facebook had already outed me. See, Facebook forces you to select a gender, and it only gives you two options (a grievous oversight in my opinion), but it includes a ticky box that lets you say “don’t reveal my gender”. So as I was preparing myself to come out to the world, before I had changed my name, I switched my Facebook profile to male, clicked the “don’t reveal” ticky box, and thought nothing else of it. It was like wearing boxers under my jeans: male, but secretly so. Then Facebook put this new feature in whereby you could designate family members, so I marked my sister as such and again, thought nothing of it. Facebook sent her a notification: [Zach’s birth name] would like you to list him as your brother. Way to not reveal my gender, Facebook.
Anyway, she was wonderful. She asked a few questions, then declared that if it made me happy, that was all that mattered. She now greets me with “Brother!” in the same joyful tone of voice she formerly used to say, “Sister!”
I wrote letters to some people, came out in person to others, and in general, the reactions I got were overwhelmingly positive. Coming out for a second time, as scary as it was, was liberating and joyous and affirming. My mother said, “This makes everything about you make so much more sense. If only we’d known when you were little.” And my father wrote, “[W]hat you say comes as no great surprise, and I do understand, sympathize with, and certainly accept your decision. I love you the same as Zach as I did when you were [Female Name]. It is neither the name, nor the sexual identity, that I love; it is the person.”
But besides liberty and affirmation, one thing this fresh set of coming out gave me was empathy. I understood a little better why my former girlfriend had been so reluctant to come out. I’d forgotten how risky it was to reveal a tender, delicate aspect of my core self, and hope that my friends and family and the people I care about most would accept and nurture it, and not call me crazy or sick or wrong.
For everyone I ever encouraged to just go ahead and get your coming out as queer over with, well… I don’t take it back. I still think it’s incredibly empowering and relieving, and a powerful political act to boot. Go for it, if it’s safe for you, if you can. It’s not easy. It might even be the hardest, scariest thing you’ve ever done, but I’m pretty sure you’ll find it’s worth it.
Resources for Coming Out
Coming out as Trans* to Family
Transsexual Roadmap: Coming Out
Coming Out as Transgender: Resource Guide
HRC’s Coming Out Center
UC Berkeley Gender Equity Center Resources on Coming Out
How to Come Out on Facebook