Some people face a lot of hostility when they come out. They lose friends. Their parents disown them. They get beaten or killed.
I am not one of those people. All of my friends were super-cool; my parents were a bit weird at first (well, they still are sometimes), but they mostly got over it; I've been threatened, but never subject to physical violence. I've had the tremendous good fortune to live in queer-friendly communities.
I am very, very lucky. The biggest obstacle in my coming-out process was myself.
The hard part of coming out to myself was not actually figuring out my attractions. It was entirely clear to me quite early on that I did not want to have sex with boys and that I did want to have sex with girls. That, to be honest, was never in doubt.
That's why one older queer person's advice to me when I admitted my confusion about my sexuality – “Have sex with a guy and have sex with a girl, and see which one you like more” – was so profoundly unhelpful. Which one I would like more was definitely not the issue.
What was the issue – what I mean when I refer to “coming out to myself” – was deconstructing my internalized heterosexism.
By “internalized heterosexism,” I mean the deeply ingrained idea that straight is default and gay is Other. This idea pervades our culture like air, and is similarly taken for granted. I feel like a lot of straight people don't ever think about it.
Take my parents. They're good upstanding bleeding-heart liberals; they'd be horrified if anyone had ever suggested that they were homophobic. “We have gay friends!” they would say. “We'd never dream of saying there was anything wrong with being gay.” And of course they wouldn't; but they brought me and my brothers up with the assumption that we would be straight – that we would be like them. When we were small, they would talk about “one day when you get married,” “one day when you have kids.” My mother would give me unsolicited advice about dating men, which I would remember and be grateful for “one day.” And, sure, as we got older we were periodically told, “If any of you are gay that is totally okay,” but there was an almost dismissively hypothetically tone to it. If you were gay, we would be totally fine with that. But you're not, because being gay is something that happens to other people.
I honestly believed that. When I was a teenager, I would write shit in my diary like, “I'm not gay – I'm just homosexual,” because I couldn't be gay. Gay was Other; straight was default; to myself I am the ultimately default, and therefore I cannot be gay. The fact that I fit all the apparent criteria for being gay – 1. be gay; 2. oh wait that's it – was not sufficient for me to overcome the internalized heterosexism that told me I couldn't be gay. There must be some additional criterion, some test you had to take, some qualification you had to earn, some card you had to have… something that granted you gayness the way a power ring makes you a Green Lantern.
It took me a few years, but eventually I realized that there is no external criterion of gayness. There's no gay Guardians of the Universe, bestowing the quality of being gay on those who have proved themselves worthy. I had been unnecessarily problematizing my gayness by positing a false consciousness whereby the Otherness of “gay” required external validation before I could self-identify as such; but there is no difference between “I think I'm gay” and “I'm gay.” The only thing telling me there was a difference was my internalized heterosexism: the mechanism whereby gay was Other, and therefore Not Me. When I finally let myself participate in gayness – visiting websites for gay people, watching TV shows with gay characters, simply writing down “I am a lesbian” – I was able to dissolve that mechanism. Goodbye, internalized heterosexism. Hello, self-actualization.
It was tremendously freeing, letting all that deeply ingrained ugliness go like so much dust in the wind. Now I just have to figure out how to do the same thing with my internalized cissexism.