When it comes to talking about queerness, gender and sexuality, conversations - especially with straight and non-trans people - can hinge on a question that most LGBTQ+ people have become well acquainted with: “When did you come out?”
For some, ‘coming out’ is liberating and provides a lens through which people can look at how far they’ve come with understanding their identity. However, it's almost become something LGBTQ+ people are expected to adhere to. If you’re out, you’re seen as proud, authentic, and walking in your truth. If you haven’t spoken about your sexuality or gender to anyone/everyone, you’re living in shame and must hate yourself and your community.
A reductive approach to queerness can position coming out as the end goal and what all queer people should be working to. It overlooks the fact that you don’t come out just once; you come out across your life over and over again, to different people within different environments. And, placing so much importance on coming out being part of a queer person’s story can ignore the reality people face when they are visibly queer.
According to Stonewall’s 2017 ‘LGBT In Britain: Hate Crime and Discrimination’ report, the number of lesbian, gay and bisexual people who have experienced a hate crime because of their sexual orientation has risen by 78% since 2013, while two in five trans people have experienced a hate crime because of their gender identity in the last 12 months. With such hostile conditions where it is possible for you to be attacked for being openly affectionate with your partner, the possibility of being ostracised by family and friends, repercussions on that person’s job or healthcare, coming out isn’t possible for everyone.
For those who know opening up about their sexuality or gender identity would mean they'd be made homeless, coming out just isn't an option. “I’m a uni student living with my parents who are religious and, by extension, homophobic. The majority of people I know are homophobic. When you’re mostly surrounded by disgust with who are you and barely know any queer people, it feels horrible to be in the closet but I know it would be even worse if I came out," says Sarah*, a bisexual black woman.
So if you're trying to navigate coming out, remember this: “UK Black Pride founder Lady Phyll once told me the goal isn’t to come out. It's for queer people to live happy, healthy, free lives. If coming out pushes you towards that goal, then of course, come out! But if it does not, you have to do what is right for you," Sabrina adds.
"If and when I come out, I trust it will not be because I feel guilty, or pressured, or outed. Instead, it will be because I freely choose to share this beautiful, complex, and misunderstood part of myself with the world, even the ones who don’t deserve to experience it.”
*Names of interviewees have been changed