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.