Today’s “National Coming Out Day” seems particularly resonant because of a recent spat of high-profile acts of anti-queer violence. A wave of gay suicides and the torture of three men in New York have put many of us who don’t hate queers on the offensive, publicizing Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project and donating Facebook statuses to the Human Rights Campaign for the holiday. And yet, the response feels misguided. The brutal assaults in New York provide a counter-point to the assimilationist rhetoric of Savage and his cohort: Does it get better, really? Coming Out Day seems, rather than being a corrective to homophobic discourse, part of what’s wrong with the way we discuss queer sexuality. Here is an example of the HRC status, taken from one of my many dear Facebook friends who decided to give the HRC some free advertising:
“X is a straight ally and today is National Coming Out Day. I’m coming out for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality because it’s 2010 and you can still be fired from your job in 29 states for being lesbian, gay or bisexual and in 38 states for being transgender. Donate your status and join me by clicking here: http://bit.ly/a2jqLo“
There are different variations depending on how the poster identifies him or herself, but the declaration is especially anxious for “straight allies” who posit their own straightness before “coming out” for lgbt rights. There’s been much debate over the idea of coming out and a lot of good criticisms, including that such a phrase assumes a heterosexual “in” to which we all originally belong, but I want to focus my critique on lgbtetc. identifiers as ontological characteristics. Coming Out Day requires that someone – gay, straight, whatever – declare his/her sexuality as a static identity, as a component of being. In this logic, being gay is not a choice, but a characteristic like hair or skin color. Coming Out Day asks that people make visible those components that are hidden, putting gay, straight, and whatever other options the HRC gives you, on the same level. It positions a natural view of homosexuality against the conservative discourse in which queers choose an “alternative lifestyle.” The HRC and mainstream lgbt defenders quote Margaret Thatcher: “There is no alternative.” Sexuality is ontology, to be gay is not a choice but a natural state of being no less legitimate or alternative than being straight. Gays will be gays, heteros will be heteros, all equal.
I don’t buy it.
My first real moment of comprehension on this issue is when a dear queer activist friend of mine confessed that her sexuality – about which she is quite outspoken – was very much of her own design. For someone for whom any discussion of choice around sexuality meant far-right fundamentalist bigotry, this was a shocking turn. But as she described it, her choice started to make sense. Coming Out Day is a kind of counter to the (supposedly) universal ability to “pass” as straight; under this discourse, queer folks who live as heteros are “living a lie.” I think it’s not quite so simple. I have plenty of queer friends who have at least some attraction to members of the opposite sex and could choose not to live an alternative lifestyle without also choosing romantic, sexual, and desirous poverty. For them, to be queer is very much a choice and very much an alternative to mainstream heterosexuality, even if it does include ostensibly “straight” relationships. Queer is here a pattern of action, a vow and a practice. Rather than a pre-determined sexuality, this queer-as-identity-critique posits attraction and desire as permanently unstable. Here’s how Gilles Dauvé describes the basic insecurity of heterosexuality in “For a World Without Moral Order“:
“What is gay? A man who only goes out with men, convinced he will never feel the attraction of the opposite sex? How should he know? How can he exclude the possibility of being overwhelmed by the desire for and of a woman? Isn’t it part of the essence of desire to come without warning? (Faced with a declared definitive heterosexual male, the gay will always suspect, and not without reason, that this too-sure-of-himself person is shielding himself from the possibility of his being attracted to another man…)”
Honest desire is characterized by a fundamental unknowing, and doesn’t it sound more fun that way? To be always open to the unsuspected pounce of desire, regardless of the inspiration, is an alternative to the ontological model. This queer practice certainly requires a lot of effort, but I think it’s probably time and energy well spent, especially considering how many hours people spend reading bad sex advice tips in glossy magazines. Here’s how my college housemate Joe responded to the “coming out” status updates:
“I am coming out tomorrow because coming out is a perpetual act of self-invention, because my desires morph with the seasons, because every rendezvous, each serendipitous encounter I have with an unexpected cutie, fucks with my sexuality. I am coming out because I am queer, because I want everyone to be queer, and because I want to swallow the world in a bodily praxis of resistance.”
This is a brilliant articulation of most of what I think, but I want to put a little pressure on the concept of “out.” If we think of the closet not as a hiding place of deception, but a space where desire always gropes in the dark, where society crams together the queers and deviants, where all self-described abstract attractions are lies, then I want in. I want everyone in, until the closet is a bumping nightclub with lines stretching through the rest of the house. If we want something better than an anesthetized sexuality (whether hetero or homo), then we must resist the sexual “end of history” and proclaim an alternative. And then choose it.