Sunday, February 10, 2008

On Class and Being Out

The who, what, where, when and why’s of the coming-out process is incredibly intense. It is different for each and every person. For some it may happen at a young age; other people may not utter a word until they are elderly, and still others may never really come out at all. No matter how it happens, a recent slew of articles for my Working With LGBT Clients class point out the sort of ever-going process that happens – each life stage seems to spark another need to muster up the courage to self-identify and take part in disclosure.

As a white gay woman I found these ethnic and cultural articles to be very interesting and thought provoking. The years leading up to my own coming-out discussions were not marked with the same fear that the articles’ authors allude to. I have to question why this is, and moreover, I need to recognize the privilege that I hold. My mom always taught me to be independent, and it always seemed as though economic stability meant more than maintaining familial or cultural traditions. Thinking back, it seems that my siblings and I didn’t have much pressure at all to relegate our motives or actions towards the satisfaction of our family. Often the leader of my friends, the one to question my role in society, a feminist, and a lover of all, I was able to process my connection to my sexual identification in a very independent way. One article author, Althea Smith, points out how the established coming-out process is a white, middle-class ideal, that picks on people who do “not make public pronouncements about their sexual orientation, [and who are then] presumed to be negative and less then healthy psychologically and [are] characterized by negative terms such as hiding, being in the closet and being closeted [if they don’t come out].” I realize that I don’t feel I have to “hide” because I have the color of my skin to protect me (although having a vagina takes away some of the protections that a white gay man may have), and this privilege gives me more freedom to unveil my identification to the world.

Even my role models are a privilege, because while there is not enough LGBT representation in the media via TV shows, general news articles, film, etc, the ones that are have been white. And this is important because Smith notes that “some of the common themes and feelings [those who are struggling with identification] may bring up in therapy include guilt about sexual attraction to members of the same sex; self-hatred; depressive affect or suicidal ideation; rejection from the family; alienation, and difficulty in interpersonal relationships because of mistrust and suspicion, and the realistic need to be careful about what is disclosed to whom.” If my middle-class, non-religious, non-cultural, capitalistic family focuses more on being successful and paying the bills, then I have to realize that as a child I could watch a show such as “Ellen” and see myself, and therefore not focus on a fear about what everyone would say if/when I finally piped up about my identification.

Contrasting this to a black male who may or may not come out to the world as identification other than heterosexual, my privilege is once again highlighted. Benoit Denizet-Lewis’s article about the Down Low points out the ways race identification trumps sexual identification because in a world where racism is still very much in the forefront of marginalization and oppression, black men have a cultural obligation to be straight. He writes, “Most DL men identify themselves not as gay or bisexual but first and foremost as black. To them, as to many blacks, that equates to being inherently masculine.” Moreover, the societal pressure to conform to the “norm” is heightened because not being white means a constant struggle to overcome stereotypes. “If you’re white, you can come out as an openly gay skier or actor or whatever. It might hurt you some, but it’s not like if you’re black and gay because then it’s like you’ve let down the whole black community, black women, black history, black pride.”

My individual culture and history does not mirror this. That is not to say that my family’s legacy is not important to perpetuate, and being a lesbian may make it a bit more difficult to carry on our name, and that it wasn’t damn hard to find the strength to come out to my family and friends, but still I feel like my coming-out was made easier because I felt sure that I could be alleviated of the society’s normalcy to be straight. That being said, I cannot believe how sad I felt after reading the article on the Down Low. Not only are folks unable to fully identify with who they are – some may not even realize they are gay because they simply won’t allow their minds wonder to this place because it is unsafe and unacceptable – it appears that being uber masculine also means being misogynistic, and this effects me.

To people on the Down Low, being gay means acting female; “I’m masculine, there’s no way I’m gay; gays are the faggots who dress, talk and act like girls.” Again, the way that gay men and women are labeled and created in this country have profound effects on the ways people identify or not; the way they come out, or not. It appears that not only do people not want to slap a label on themselves, because that may mean living up to a pre-determined physical and emotional standard, there seems to be an all-out dislike for people who live outside of their “normal” gender role. Men on the Down Low want to be “tops,” meaning the one in control during sex, because being a bottom is being a “bitch,” which according to the Denizet-Lewis article means being second-class, i.e. a woman. Same goes with kissing: “Gay people kiss; DL thugs don’t kiss.”

The interpretation of who one is in a same-sex relationship is fascinating because it means that coming-out is a process that not only declares an orientation other than straight, it also means having to choose if one is male or female, and how does that decision determine who they would like to date, who they are attracted to, how they will dress, who will pay for dinner, who can be sexy, etc. All of these stereotypical barriers are set up through mainstream media culture that perpetuates the role of culture, race and gender roles. At the end of the day these articles remind me that coming out is not a black and white issue, it is indeed very complex and individual, and something that we all should take a closer look at.