Coming Out: Re-engaging the Radical

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Elise Chenier, Simon Fraser University
Guest Contributor This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.

Today (October 11th) is National Coming Out Day. First celebrated in 1988 to mark the one-year anniversary of the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, National Coming Out Day has grown into a major human rights campaign for lesbian, gay, and lately, transgender equality. The nation referred to is the United States of America, but like so much of Canadian culture and politics, National Coming Out Day has been taken up by LGBTIQ2 (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer and Two-Spirited) activists in Canada as well.

Do we really need a National Coming Out Day? Isn’t gay “so over,” as a young adult character in Toronto queer playwright Brad Fraser’s 2011 True Love Lies declares? For many of us who came out ten or more years ago, the present seems like a pretty friendly place to live, particularly here in Canada where citizens and residents are protected from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and where similar protection against discrimination based on gender identity may be brought into law in the imaginable future. Gay may be “so over,” but the radical anti-shame vision advanced by early gay liberationists still has much to offer us, especially in these political times.

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people living in the 1950s and 1960s knew that to live shamelessly (read: openly) as a queer was a matter of pride and an act of profound courage. Those who refused to be cowed into staying home hiding “in the closet,” and who risked arrest, public exposure as a “pervert,” and economic ruin, lay the groundwork for three subsequent decades of activism.

The call to come out of the closet was twice deployed to great effect by lesbian and gay activists. Inspired by the militancy of the Black Power movement and Vietnam War protests, as well as the June 1969 uprising against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, gay liberationists declared “Gay is Good” and encouraged others to join them. Some were so utterly terrified of the consequences of coming out yet so determined to do so that they wore paper bags over their heads during marches, illustrating just how powerful and dangerous coming out was. This one simple act proved to be one of the gay liberation movement’s most powerful and important tactics precisely because the oppression of homosexuals was enabled by the sexual shame attached to same-sex sex.

In the mid-1980s ACT UP redeployed this strategy with equal success. Founding members of this organized grass-roots response to the AIDS crisis coined the slogan Silence=Death to indicate the consequences of choosing to remain closeted. The slogan was intended to encourage those still too timid to come out to do so, but also to shame closeted gays, especially those in positions of power, to come out and use their power and influence to help change homophobic public attitudes and policies which were manifest in the thousands of bodies of the dead and dying. Artist Keith Haring’s bold and colourful images forever seared the Silence=Death and National Coming Out Day campaigns onto the American and Canadian cultural landscape.

Today we like to think that, as compared to the United States at least, Canada is a refuge for LGBTIQ2 people. As previous contributors to this blog have eloquently shown, however, gay is not yet “over.” There exists a profound gap between the anti-homophobic message sent by the Charter and the reality of day-to-day life for LGBTIQ2 people. That school is a dangerous place for queer youth is now well known. Less known is that elderly lesbian and gay people are not seeking out the care they need for fear of being forced back into the closet by homophobic health care workers. New research out of Concordia University in Montreal reveals that refugee boards are using dated gender stereotypes to assess the authenticity of claims based on sexual orientation. Charter protection may send a positive social signal, but its impact does not always penetrate the places where we are born, grow up, go to school, live, work, play, and die.

Canadian scholars play an important role by generating research that can lead to increased social awareness and meaningful policy and legal change. Compared to our colleagues to the south, we enjoy a much better relationship with research granting agencies. Still, LGBTIQ2 research does not proceed unfettered. Departments often regard this type of research as too narrow, too political, or simply unscholarly, thus making permanent positions that much more difficult to secure, yet institutional encouragement and support plays a critical role in facilitating research advancement. We in the academy still have much work to do when in comes to enabling young and emerging as well as established scholars whose research interests and social location situates them outside of what anthropologist Gayle Rubin calls the “charmed circle.”

In her path-breaking 1984 article “Thinking Sex,” Rubin captured the radical liberationist vision when she charted (literally) those in the global west who, because of their sexual activities, are socially, politically, and economically charmed, and those who are disempowered and marginalized. In showing how sex is one vector of oppression within a larger system of oppression that “cuts across other modes of social inequality (such as race, class, gender and ability),” Rubin exposed how hierarchies of sexual value have more in common with ideologies of racism than with true ethics. “A democratic morality should judge sexual acts by the way partners treat one another, the level of mutual consideration, the presence or absence of coercion, and quantity and quality of the pleasures they provide,” she continued. “Whether sex acts are gay or straight, coupled, or in groups, naked or in underwear, commercial or free, with or without video, should not be ethical concerns.”

Groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in the United States, the organizer and promoter of National Coming Out Day, and Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (EGALE) in Canada have been highly effective in advancing lesbian and gay equality, but in so doing they have discouraged linking the oppression of lesbians and gays with other vectors of oppression. Moreover, activists groups like as EGALE and HRC are winning homosexual equality by stripping gay people of their sexuality and presenting them (us) as the same as heterosexuals. In short, rather than struggle to unpack the charmed circle, their strategy is to fight to be let in.

As we prepare ourselves to teach, research, and organize in the context of a steadily advancing tide of American-style politics, politics that began with attacks on the Charter, same-sex marriage equality, and Insite, and which are now enjoying expression in an omnibus crime bill, we would do well to return to the more expansive vision that inspired gay liberation politics and scholarship. When we think about enabling people to resist the rhetoric of shame and the felt experience of oppression, we need to include in our field of vision sex workers and SlutWalkers, drug users and the murdered and missing women of the downtown east side, the majority of whom are and were indigenous. And we need to take on board (by which I mean transform our theories and methods) our indigenous colleagues’ argument that to address the issue of the murdered and missing women, one cannot divorce it from the broader issue of legacies of colonialism from, for example, the male counter-experience of the star-light tour.

To come out is not just to declare oneself as the “other”; it is to simultaneously expose the inherent injustice of modes of thinking and acting that built the various closets we find ourselves living in. Coming out is for more than just gays, and we need movements and scholarship that recognizes and supports this critical insight.

If this seems like asking us to bite off more than any one person can chew, remember that if social movement politics has taught us anything, it is that we are never just one person, and that there is strength and wisdom in numbers. Widening our vision so that we can keep the many vectors of oppression that continue to generate shame – for example, the shame of sexual difference, the shame of racialization and colonialization, the shame of poverty – and that continue to make coming out so painful and so powerful, is one way we can help contribute to creating and facilitating meaningful change.

  Elise Chenier is the author of Strangers in Our Midst: Sexual Deviancy in Postwar Ontario, an associate professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University, and Director of the Archives of Lesbian Oral History.




Lesbian/ Gay/ Bisexual/ Transgendered/ Queer/ Intersex/ Two-Spirited