The lump lodged in your throat. The tears fast and furiously flowing from your eyes. The uncomfortable crack in your voice.
Then you say it.
“I’m gay.” “I’m transgender.” “I’m nonbinary.”
Every out member of the LGBTQ community has said these words, or a variation of them, to the person or people they love, not knowing how they’ll react. But what if they lived in a world where they didn’t have to disclose anything?
Joshua Bassett – the actor/singer from “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”, and man who apparently broke co-star Olivia Rodrigo‘s heart – recently called Harry Styles hot during a fan Q&A video, and added “this is also my coming out video, I guess.”
He later followed up with a statement on Twitter that did not explicitly confirm nor deny his sexuality. “Love who you love shamelessly,” he wrote. “it’s ok to still be figuring out who you are. life’s too short to let ignorance and hatred win. i choose love.” He closed the note with six different-colored heart emojis invoking a rainbow.
This type of statement begs the question: Could the traditional “coming out” narrative someday be a thing of the past?
The answer – much like the coming out experience itself – is more nuanced than waving a rainbow Pride flag and riding off into the sunset on a unicorn parade float. A future in which LGBTQ members don’t feel obligated to explain or qualify their sexuality will require sweeping societal change. That day is coming and it’s inevitable, says SA Smythe, an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“There’s going to be a future where coming out is not relevant because I politically believe that there’s going to be a future where gender is irrelevant,” Smythe says. “That’s part of why we have to come out, it’s because there is an overwhelming norm, that is called the patriarchy that is called heterosexuality that is presumed. And I fundamentally believe that that’s going to be abolished in our lifetimes.”
For now though, a post-coming out world seems more attainable for some than others.
“It may be that for young people in well-educated progressive families, no one really cares who they love,” Tonia Poteat, an associate professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says. “However, the world is not yet there.” She points to recent Williams Institute data that suggests being rejected for their sexual orientation or gender identity is harder today for LGBTQ youth because they have some expectation of fairness that doesn’t always exist.
Gay men in the late 19th century and early 20th century borrowed the term “coming out” from high society debutantes, writes University of California, Los Angeles professor of sociology Abigail C. Saguy in “The Conversation.” Gay life became more hidden in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s following societal rejection to increased visibility.
Following the Stonewall riots in 1969 – a major catalyst for the LGBTQ rights movement where Black transgender women led a protest outside the Stonewall Inn in New York – “coming out” became more of a political statement and an antidote to shame. That has evidently led to increased rights.
“To be sure, homophobia and transphobia are still alive and well,” Saguy writes. “Still, LGBTQ people have made clear strides in the past half-century and coming out politics has been part of their success.”
Coming out inspires people to embrace their authentic selves, though not everyone’s coming out melody carries the same tune.
“Coming out is an incredibly personal decision and there’s no right or wrong way to do it,” Carrie Davis, chief community officer for The Trevor Project, says. “The key is to do it in your own time, whenever it feels right and safe for you. Coming out can be an ongoing or even lifelong process for many people, especially those who are fluid in their sexuality and gender identity.”
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“Young adults, in particular, feel empowered to publicly claim their identities – a compelling finding and validation for the past generations of LGBTQ advocates who have long fought for full equality,” according to Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign.
More than 80% of LGBTQ youth said celebrities who are LGBTQ positively impact how they feel about their queer identities, according to research from The Trevor Project.
“When young people can see their identities and experiences represented in media and public affairs, it can bring them hope, joy, and strength, and empower them to envision a brighter future,” Davis says.
Escalating visibility, however, begets escalated backlash. The LGBTQ community continually faces harassment on social media – particularly the transgender community.
“(Social media) platforms have all of the tools at their disposal to stop the abuse, and they choose not to do anything. Each time they choose not to, it harms our community,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis previously told USA TODAY. “Social media has moved into the space of being the great culture creator of today, and when you have a community that has been the No. 1 target for harassment, it’s time we hold them accountable.”
Online hate can ultimately lead to real-life violence.
At least 27 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been killed so far in 2021, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Most of these people in past years have been Black or Latino transgender women.
“As we’ve seen in the transgender and nonbinary community, our progress and increased visibility have been met with a backlash, particularly at the expense of trans young people and especially those who are BIPOC,” Davis says.
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A world with no assumptions about heterosexuality. Where boys can hold hands on the playground. Where women can kiss in public without a stranger’s stare.
“If LGBTQ people didn’t have to navigate the stressors around coming out, it would take away a lot of pressure, anxiety, stigma, shame, and fear of rejection surrounding it,” Davis says.
LGBTQ people could encounter a unique opportunity to reinvent how they see themselves and congregate with each other.
“What does it mean to be queer if we’re not just based in trauma?” Smythe asks. “Coming out comes with the risk of being murdered by a domestic partner, as trans women of color overwhelmingly face today. What does it mean if you come out, and you don’t have an increased risk of being kicked out of your home, as queer and trans people have to deal with, like houselessness at exponential rates compared to cis or heterosexual people?”
The Trevor Project data shows that more than half of LGBTQ youth said they experienced discrimination in the past year due to their identity.
In the meantime, “we must all come together to foster the creation of a safer, more affirming world for LGBTQ youth,” Davis says. “Hopefully, one day, coming out won’t be necessary or newsworthy at all because we will have reached a greater level of understanding and acceptance for all LGBTQ people.”