I find it interesting how much emphasis is put on coming out the first time, because really, as members of the LGBTQ community, we spend our entire lives coming out. We do it over and over again to each person we meet. We come out at every new school (and in every class); at each new job (and to every coworker); to old friends; immediate family members; distant family members; strangers; acquaintances…you get the idea. So, why do we put so much stress on our coming out story, when really, it’s just “Coming Out, Chapter One”?
No matter how successful we are, how happy we are, or how old we are, coming out has the tendency to make us feel fifteen years old again. Our stomachs flutter; our hearts race; we are afraid. No matter how many times we come out, we still worry about the reaction we are going to receive, wondering if we are going to make an enemy, offend someone, or make things awkward or uncomfortable for ourselves. We worry that our careers may suffer, or we may lose a friendship before it even begins, but most of the time it’s our fifteen-year-old selves we are still battling. As the adage goes, the worst foe lies within.
If you know of Joseph Campbell, then you’ve probably heard of The Hero’s Journey. You know, the one about the guy (or girl, or trans individual, or intersex teen, or queer adolescent, or two-spirited warrior—please, choose your champion) who starts out naïve or unaware, then goes out into the world and faces a monster, slays it, comes home a hero, and lives happily ever after. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that, but as members of the LGBTQ community, we all go through our own hero’s journey, and most of the time, the landscape is inside ourselves.
Our monster is a many-faceted one, a gorgon, who we must slay many times. As the legend goes, every time we slice off a snake from the gorgon’s head (by coming out to a family member, let’s say), two more grow in its place (a friend, a stranger). No matter how many times we come out, there are always more snakes to battle. If we are to conquer our own Medusas, then we must be our own heroes, we must be champions of our own cause, and we must grow our strength as quickly as our opponents multiply.
The first time we come out, usually as teenagers, we don our armour for the first time. It’s weak, unreliable at best, an apprentice’s or novice’s armour. It’s thin (inexperience), has holes (shame), weak spots (insecurities) and instils little confidence in us, yet we know that in order to survive, we must wear it and face our first foe. Making that choice the first time is what changes us forever. If we survive the initial battle, our first coming out, something amazing happens; the armour strengthens. It goes from cloth to leather. The next time we come out, it happens again. It goes from leather to chainmail, and eventually it becomes plate armour. The weak spots become fewer as the hero toughens, until we are ready to go for the kill—the gorgon’s head.
You might remember that in the legend, the stare of the gorgon can turn anyone to stone, even in the mirror. Here comes our hardest challenge; facing ourselves in the mirror. For some, it’s simple, for others, the most dangerous adversary. The four toughest enemies we will face inside ourselves are self-hatred, fear of rejection, fear of bodily harm, and fear of humiliation. If we are to return home true victors, these foes must be conquered as well. We might never be impenetrable, but no armour is. Every suit has a weak spot, a chink—even Achilles had his heel—but we can still be brave and strong, no matter how big the obstacle may seem. True bravery is not about knowing that you are invincible, it is knowing that you can be hurt, and going into battle anyway. We fight and live and grow until we can return home, the head of the slain beast in our fists.
To survive, we must be the heroes of our own stories. We must choose to survive, because many of us, sadly, still don’t. Some will say that it is harder for some people to come out than others, but when it comes to who we are and facing our own monsters, the human mind does not grade on a curve. It is often the hardest thing we will have to do in our lives, and unfortunately, we have to do it over and over again. Each hero’s journey is different. We have our own battles, both internal and external, be they bullies, fear, family, friends, feelings of marginality, shame, religion, society, or self. You may feel that you cannot choose how you are, but every one of us does get to choose who we are, and how we are going to live our lives, whether that be in fear and in the shadows, or as heroes, out loud. I believe that life is not a summation of our nature, but of our choices, and we choose to come out over and over again, instead of giving up, and that’s what makes every one of us our own hero.
— Michelle L. Teichman, author of “The Space Between“
What a great blog – and it totally sums up the coming out experience. I’ve been out for 26 years now, and you’d think my armour was rock solid by now, but it still, even now, can give me a little twinge each time I tell a new colleague about my life choice. My experiences of coming out at work have changed radically with the times. I remember vividly being told by a male manager at the first place I came out that I would be a great candidate for progression in the firm compared to other women because at least I wouldn’t ever have children! And being looked at as if I was a specimen in a petri dish for about a year after that, by nearly all the people I worked with. I would never have made a gay-themed joke in that place, and yet now, in my current work place, those kinds of references are a common part of our daily life, and my colleagues (male and female) even scope out potential girlfriends for me! I’ve been fortunate in that although I may have lost so-called friends through coming out, mostly back in the early days, I’ve never experienced outright homophobia from anyone at work or in the family. Societal progress in acceptance of us has definitely made a difference – I’ve witnessed that over the last quarter of a century, and it’s a big part of the reason why I rarely hesitate these days to be very open, very quickly, about my life choice.
Thanks for sharing, Angela! It’s so great to hear someone say that she rarely hesitates to be very open; that’s the way the world should be, no matter where you live. The progress over the last 25 years has been huge, and let’s hope the momentum keeps going!
Thank you for reminding me of the bravery and heroism involved in coming out again and again and again. I made the decision a long time ago to be an out and proud lesbian, promising myself to never avoid talking about who I spent my weekend with or to play the pronoun game. And so I come out many times a day, and each time there is at least a moment of fear that I plow through. After the interaction (which ends up being benign more often than not) I feel shame and anger that I had any fear in the first place, perceiving that hesitation as shame for who I am; not truly being proud.
Your blog reminds me that that sense of fear is based in reality. It is not a rejection of who I am. It is not internalized homophobia. And overcoming that fear, time and time again, is part of my hero’s journey.
Thanks, Nicole! I’m glad the post resonated with you, and I very much agree with your last paragraph 🙂