On Labeling and Coming Out
Today, because it resonated with me I decided to share a lengthy Facebook post from Ben Schilaty that he shared from someone else and then offer my own commentary and make it about me.
My friend Blake shared an analogy that is so good I wish I’d come up with it. The following are Blake’s words:
I always appreciate when people ask me sincere questions about LGBTQ+ & SSA (same-sex attraction) topics.
I’m often asked the following question by straight people who are trying understand better:
“Why do LGBTQ+ people feel like they have to label themselves, “come out”, or talk about their experience with sexuality? I mean I don’t go around talking about my sexuality all the time.”
There are many ways to respond to this question, but sometimes I use the following metaphor (let’s just say I’m sharing this metaphor with a straight man):
“Okay, imagine that you wanted to get away… just take a vacation by yourself. You decide to go on a 10-day cruise. You forget to read the fine print and you discover shortly after leaving port that you are, in fact, on a gay cruise. Wonderful married gay couples, dating couples, and single gay people are everywhere and they’re having a great time.
Many of these people see that you’re by yourself and come and talk with you, and yes, most of the time they assume you’re gay. They ask you if you’re interested in finding a nice guy on the cruise. They ask you about “type”, they even make assumptions about how you live your life, your interests, goals, political views, and religious beliefs. The group will make jokes about shared experiences, “we’ve all been there” they’ll say laughing (even though you’ve definitely not been there).
Single gay men keep approaching you and striking up innocent flirtatious conversations, some of them even ask you on dates. The married gay couples around you encourage you to go on these dates because they want you to be as happy as they are. You try to decline without hurting anyone’s feelings, or “outing yourself.” You join these wonderful people in all their activities and have a lot of fun with them, but in the back of your mind is the question, "Would my new friends still like me if 'they knew'" How would that fact change the relationships?
You realize how stressful it is when everyone’s assumptions about you, your life, your goals, and your perspective don’t match your actual experience. It would be so nice if they just actually had a full picture of your experience and who you are. You don’t define your whole life by your sexuality, but you begin to realize that it actually informs more of your choices and conversations than you previously thought. All the people around you talk about sexuality more than they probably realize, but being in the majority, they probably don't realize it.
What do you do?
Perhaps you could say you’re simply not interested in dating right now, but that doesn’t really address all the other assumptions made about your lifestyle, goals, perspective, religious views etc. Then you realize that the simplest thing to do would probably be to tell them you’re straight (you worry about which label to use).
"Wo, wo, wo… don’t throw your sexuality in our face!” they’ll say. “What you do in your bedroom is your business, the world doesn’t need to know your personal stuff.” You’re a little surprised and even offended when they assume you talking about your sexuality, goals, and experience is automatically connected to an agenda. "You're just wanting attention." What if the married gay couples even assumed that you being “out” as a straight man will actually lead their children to being straight (which would be THE WORST)? They say that they don’t go broadcasting their sexuality all the time and you think “well, yah… you don’t have to, everyone assumes you are gay, this whole cruise is designed with the assumption that you’re gay.” Some will even say, "You only THINK you're straight, you haven't event REALLY tried being gay... you'll see."
Some of the gay people would say, “Oh, we ‘still’ love you, this doesn’t change anything.” and then they proceed to talk about gay things, rarely taking time to ask you about your experience. The lesbians on board find out you’re a straight man, and they assume you’re attracted to ALL of them, you know, because they’re women.
And, of course, there would be many of the gay people who would be great about you coming out as straight (or opposite-sex attracted... your choice), they’d apologize about some of the assumptions they made, and they would be excited to learn more about your life, your perspective, and your goals. They would see if there is anything they could do to make your cruise more comfortable. You don’t talk exclusively about sexuality with them, but when it seems pertinent, you feel comfortable talking about it. Awesome.
Once and a while you get a little tired of navigating false assumptions or explaining your sexuality to people, so you think it could be nice to find some other straight people on the cruise to connect with. The “wo, wo, wo-ers” are pretty critical of this decision. They assume you are just looking for other straight people so that you can have sex and showcase your relationship. When you’re with your straight friends, the gay majority on the boat can’t help but notice, observe, and even comment. Part of you wonders if there are other straight people around you who are keeping quiet, feeling a little lonely. You talk about your sexuality a little more, just in case it could help a “closeted” straight person feel less alone and know where they could find some empathy.
You wonder if it would have been easier just to continue to pretend you’re gay. BUT you remember how frustrating it was to have so many false assumptions made about you, to be set up on dates, to be hit on, and to feel like the people around you didn’t see the whole picture of your life (including sexuality)… it can be really lonely. Thank heaven for the cool gay people on the cruise who are okay with you being straight (and talking about it).”
So why do LGBTQ+ and SSA individuals feel like they want to talk about their experience or “come out”?
There are MANY reasons (many not addressed in my analogy), but sometimes straight people can understand a little better when they try to imagine if everything was switched (and it could be argued that straight person on a gay cruise would still experience more advantages… and dare I say… privileges, than a gay person in a straight majority culture – a conversation for another time).
There are also many reasons someone may choose NOT to talk about their sexuality… and that’s fine too. I have generally noticed that people become a lot healthier when they can talk to people about their complete experience.
Being at BYU feels like being on a straight cruise all the time. Being in a singles ward feels like being on a straight cruise. Being a member of the Church… being in Utah… and honestly being an LGBTQ or SSA person in this world can feel like being on a straight cruise… all the time. (Do you feel yourself reacting with, “well only if you made it a big deal”?... just curious?) Is feeling like you’re always on a straight cruise a bad thing? Not necessarily, but it has its complications... and some empathy makes all the difference.
Anyway… this metaphor is clearly imperfect and has a lot of holes, but hopefully it was a little thought provoking… and maybe it gives a little insight about why some people “come out”. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Warning: the next part of this post mentions sex a few times. Leave now if that will upset you. Ben's part of the post that I plagiarized is far more important anyway, and from here on I'm just going to talk about my own similar but less significant experience.
Another reason I would add for LGBT people taking pride in their labels is as a backlash against thousands of years of abuse from straight people. LGBT people have a right to feel loved, worthwhile, and good enough the way they are. Being open about one's sexuality is a way of telling society As a young idiot, I didn't understand gay people and shared in the prejudice against them - ironically, I suppose, since I was also on the receiving end of said prejudice. I was called "faggot" four or five times a day throughout elementary school. I had to ask my parents what that word meant. They said, "A boy who has a boyfriend." Even at that young age, it occurred to me to wonder why a boy would choose to have a boyfriend when I personally never felt the slightest inclination to do so, but I suppressed that thought. My ignorance didn't really start to unravel until a close friend privately said that he was bisexual - and later on I guess he realized he was just gay, but even at that time the issue was that he liked boys and didn't want to. As he cried, I felt awkward. I thought, but fortunately didn't say, If it bothers you that much, why don't you just... not be gay?
I make no claim to know what it's like for gay men, let alone lesbians, but since realizing that I'm not heterosexual either I do feel a kinship and some similarity of experience. I can say without hesitation that in ways large and small like those mentioned in Ben's post, heterosexuality has been shoved in my face and down my throat 99.9% more than homosexuality. I try not to take offense from well-meaning people but I do roll my eyes sometimes. Like one time I invited this friend to watch Star Wars with some other friends because she likes Star Wars, and one of these other friends who was also female kept asking me questions about how well I knew her and what she was like or whatever, and she announced that "Christopher brought a girl" and it was obvious that she thought there was or should be something between us, because she wouldn't have said "Christopher brought a boy" if I had brought a boy. I just feel like there's this implicit assumption that I must be in desperate search for a girlfriend, and also that I must really want to have sex and think about it constantly because male.
Of course I realize there's nothing malicious here. Most people are heterosexual and that's why our species still exists and "heteronormativity" is just the natural default view, not a conscious choice to exclude people. And I don't want to overstate how pervasive the straight cruise stuff in Ben's post is for me personally. Because I'm not at BYU, almost nobody cares about my nonexistent love life, which is fine with me. Because women in our culture are taught to let men do all the work in dating instead of taking initiative to get what they want, any woman who for some unfathomable reason may be interested in me is not asking me out. Don't get me wrong, if she did I would totally say yes and give her a chance. I have been asked to two "ladies' choice" dances in my life, and each of those instances was
And it wasn't my fault neither of them went anywhere. I'd bet my life that I don't get flirted with very often, but it could be happening every day and I wouldn't notice. I only realized in hindsight that the one girl in the campus library in 2013 was either flirting with me or being an idiot because she started a conversation by asking me something she could have just looked up on the computer she was using. She was nice. I would have gone out with her if she had asked me out.
Like Ben, who also recently posted about his experience with relatively benign but nonetheless disturbing conversion therapy, I've had the very uncomfortable experience of people trying to explain that sex is beautiful or sacred or something. Only one tried to convince me personally that it isn't actually weird and gross, using logic, perhaps unaware that interest in sex is the literal opposite of logic. It literally comes from hormones that literally override the logical part of one's brain to convince one that sex isn't weird and gross even though it is. Years ago in my poetry class I had a classmate, now a good friend, who wrote a poem describing sex in explicit, thorough detail with the purpose of making normal people realize for the first time that it's weird and gross. But I was just like, "Yeah, I didn't know all these details, nor did I want to, but this is how I've always thought about sex because this is literally what sex is, so thanks for making me not feel like the only person on the planet who isn't blind." This clued me in to the possibility that others like me existed. Soon I discovered their community and felt understood and supported for a change and it was nice.
It turns out these people also used the label "asexual". I had picked that label for myself just because the prefix a- means "not", so it seemed straightforward. "Hetero"sexual people want to have sex with the opposite sex, "homo"sexual people want to have sex with the same sex, so an "a"sexual person would want to have sex with nobody. The only time I heard the word used in this context growing up was at Youth Conference when my friend Mike didn't dance with any girls and he said "I'll probably hate myself tomorrow, but I'm just feeling pretty asexual tonight." And I don't remember if I remembered that when I chose the label but thanks either way, Mike. This orientation was of course no more a choice than being straight or gay, and would persist whether I chose to label it and make myself more comfortable or not. The simple fact of the matter is that I never once at any point in my development from birth to this moment have felt the slightest hint of an inclination toward thinking that sex could be something I might possibly consider ever wanting to try. And I'm very cognizant that this makes me highly abnormal.
I "came out" in a blog post on the previous incarnation of my blog, and I've come out more personally with various friends either because it was relevant to something or I was just feeling frustrated with the world, and I've mentioned it around Facebook whenever it was relevant to something or I was just feeling frustrated with the world. I've gotten a positive response from everyone except my parents that I've talked to about it. Even when they had never heard of asexuality, which was often, I just explained that I don't have raging hormones in my brain telling me to want to have sex with literally anybody, and they grasped and accepted that simple concept very quickly. So there isn't a lot of stigma against asexuals. Others have reported getting comments like "You just haven't found the right person yet" but those comments, while insensitive and usually wrong, are not born of prejudice. But a lot of people don't know that we even exist. For me that's the most frustrating thing. As the world around me flaunts its obsession with sex and assumes I'm a part of that, I kind of just want to flip it off with both hands.
I guess proclaiming my sexuality or lack thereof - I honestly don't know or care which way to classify it - is a way of doing that. It's like saying to the world, "Your assumptions about me are wrong. You don't get to tell me what I'm supposed to like. I don't appreciate you constantly shoving sex in my face. Bite me." Of course I can't literally say "Bite me" to people because I want to be a good Christian. But freely acknowledging this one quirk as a significant part of my identity is very cathartic and I want to do it more often.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.