Smoke under the closet door

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Oct. 18, 2015, 11:59 p.m.

Sunday, October 11th was National Coming Out Day in the United States.

On Facebook and other social media sites, I saw picture after picture of smiling faces and rainbow flags fill my feed, of multicolored closet doors and exuberant facial expressions. It was an orgy of outness, an orgy which for once I didn’t participate in. I don’t like Coming Out Day.

Maybe I’m bitter because the coming out stories I’ve heard of don’t look like the ones that are always told. Because when I came out as a trans woman in my junior year of high school, my school administration refused to let me use the bathrooms I needed. A year later, my teachers and classmates were still misgendering me in class, and by that point, I had already quit the varsity sports team I had played on for three years, deciding that not playing was better than playing as a “man.” The prejudice I received at school and at home led to a profound sense of hopelessness. I sank into a deep depression. I considered suicide for months before the first day of frosh year at Stanford.

For many queer, trans and gender-expansive people in the U.S., this story is the status quo. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 41 percent of trans and gender-expansive people report attempting suicide at least once, compared to 1.6 percent of the general population. Fifteen percent choose to drop out of school as a result of bullying, harassment and discrimination, 47 percent are fired or not hired due to their identities and in general, trans and gender-expansive people are more than four times as likely to have an annual income of less than $10,000.

For non-trans or gender-expansive people (often poorly categorized in surveys as “LGB” in recognition of only lesbian, gay and bisexual identities), 27 percent experience discrimination at work; seven percent have been fired as a result of their identities. Gay and lesbian couples are significantly more likely to live in poverty compared to straight couples; the disparity is even more apparent if the couple is Black.

The stats go on and on. Discrimination on the basis of sexual identity is legal in 28 states; on the basis of gender identity, 31. California is the only state that has explicitly banned usage of the trans panic defense, a legal defense against charges of assault or murder where defendants claim that transgender victims incited in them a state of violent temporary insanity.

All these statistics point to the same truth: Queer, trans and gender-expansive people in the United States face persistent and enduring discrimination, violence and prejudice as a result of their identities on institutional, cultural and interpersonal levels. Coming out is, accordingly, an act of extreme vulnerability.

But somehow coming out is almost always riddled with the language of feel-good neoliberal calls for “authenticity” and “being yourself.” I remember when Dan Savage, a well-off white gay man, argued even further, claiming that it is a moral responsibility for queer people to come out. I remember when Rachel Maddow, a similarly well-off white gay woman, said the same thing. Like the “pro-life” arguments that fight for the birth of a fetus at all costs, then ironically go silent on everything that comes after, these advocates often fall short of addressing welfare, social support, health, mass incarceration or well-being in general; just as the former are often described as “pro-birth,” not “pro-life,” would the latter be described as “pro-coming out,” not “pro-queer?”

The reality of our society is that only a small number of queer, trans or gender-expansive youth are able to come out without putting their lives in danger. The only reason I came out was because I was sure my family would not disown me, and that my economic privilege would keep me off the streets. For many others, this is a fantasy. Many queer, trans and gender-expansive employees hide their identities at work and at school because being out is dangerous. Being out is traumatic. For those individuals whose sexual and gender identities intersect with race, class, ability, religion or other marginalized identities, the danger is only magnified. There is a reason why most of the trans women murdered this year are trans women of color. There is a reason why queer women of color must fight so hard to survive.   

When we speak about coming out, whether colloquially or in arguments for inclusion, we must understand the multiplicity of societal factors that make outness and visibility privileges in the first place. There is no such thing as a dark, stuffy closet of repression that opens up into a flowery pasture with rainbows and unicorns. If there is a closet, it’s in an old, dangerous house where everything is on fire — because that’s the state of our society. When we pull others out of the closet and do nothing as they burn, that is violence.

So forget about the closet. It is our responsibility to make a world where queer and gender-expansive people can live without fear, to feel safe enough to come out in the first place. When we judge those who choose not to come out, we shame those who are trying their best to survive.


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ 

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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