The Disclosure Imperative: Reframing Discourses around Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity DisclosureDate Released: Wed, 31 August 2016 11:19 +0200
By Sarah-Ann Moore
By offering a critique of discourses surrounding ‘coming out of the closet’[i], my hope is that the following piece will serve to persuade queer[ii] persons that a renewed process of interrogation around our self-representations and politics of disclosure is both timely and necessary. By and large this piece has been motivated by my own reservations regarding the possible limitations of the ‘coming out’ rhetoric. These reservations have been renewed in the wake of the Orlando shootings where, in an act of solidarity with the victims of the shootings, many queer folks took to Twitter to publically disclose their sexual orientation using the hashtag #GaysBreakTheInternet. Given the collective grief surrounding such a heinous hate crime, one might ask how such acts of solidarity could possibly be questioned. My intention here is not to criticise or undermine these or similar acts. Nor do I wish to discourage those who are able and eager to ‘come out’. Rather I feel that it is time to begin to consider, if not alternative, then additional practices to ‘coming out’ in order to include those who are either disinclined, unwilling, or unable to ‘come out’. It is my belief that we need to consider more nuanced and innovative interventions for disclosure that speak more succinctly to an intersectional queer politic.
The disclosure of sexual and/or gender identity is often heralded as an emancipatory process that facilitates a sense of self-awareness and acceptance (Moore, 2012a; Moore, 2012b). For the past three decades, the gay liberation movement has sought to encourage public declarations of sexual orientation as a means to disrupt the shame and secrecy often associated with same-sex intimacies (Stein, 2006) and increase public visibility of queer people as part of the larger political project of securing gay rights[iii] (Armstrong, 2002). As such, coming out serves as an act of political resistance that seeks to unsettle heterosexist understandings and practices, and reify queer identities (Moore, 2012a; Moore, 2012b). Jacqui Alexander (2005) argues that coming out has served as a necessary oppositional politic, but also cautions that it may lack sustainability and serve only to grant temporary gains. While I agree that practices of resistance are needed to open up space for queer persons, the seeming imperative (rather than choice) for queer persons to name our identities has become (in my estimation) increasingly problematic. In the words of Judith Butler (1993) “the discourse of ‘coming out’ has clearly served its purpose, but what are the risks?” (p. 308).
No doubt there are queer individuals that consider coming out to be an essential process for embracing their identity. Indeed, coming out may be empowering in certain contexts. However, the all-or-nothing logic of the closet means that it creates false hierarchies of queer authenticity (Tatum, 2014). This can generate tremendous self-doubt and internalised guilt for a person for whom coming out isn’t feasible. The disclosure imperative creates a kind of stigma around ‘staying in the closet’, positioning disclosure as good and non-disclosure as bad (McClean, 2007; Rasmussen, 2004). Much of the rhetoric surrounding coming out seems to suggest that those ‘in the closet’ are undertaking some kind of deception, often due to confusion or self-loathing (Tatum, 2014). Dismantling the closet is conceived as the beginning of a process of self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-love (Moore, 2012a). Within this kind of rhetoric there is a damage associated with ‘staying in the closet’, connected to the emotional labour involved in ‘lying’ and constant self-monitoring (Orne, 2011).
Many early theories conceptualised coming out as one stage in a larger process of identity development (e.g. Cass, 1979; Cass, 1984). As such, coming out was understood as a singular developmental event (Orne, 2011). Popular understandings also seem to suggest that coming out involves a one-time disclosure that allows one to leaves the confines of ‘the closet’ and enter a place of queer authenticity and freedom (Ross, 2007; St. James, 2015; Tatum, 2014). However, ‘being out’ can also be viewed as a continual process that is undertaken in some form or another for an entire lifetime (St. James, 2015; Tatum, 2014). Defying the notion of an end point to the coming out process, Orne (2011) proposes that queer individuals are both in and out of the closet, necessitating continual and contextual management of their sexual and gender identity. In this light, the disclosure imperative may become an untenable (not to mention exhausting) undertaking for many queer persons.
Moreover, the process of coming out as a path of self-discovery is conceived as a universal experience (Ross, 2007). However, as a concept coming out is highly Westernised and deeply entrenched within white queer theory and history (Ross, 2007). Consequently it may not reflect the lived realities of many queer persons. Further, coming out is often a limited act that does not serve to subvert heteronormative ideologies and heterosexist practices. The process of coming out, when conceptualised as the disclosure of ‘alternative’ (or rather non-normative) sexual and gender identities, merely serves to reinforce heteronormative discourses. Coming out is often informed by hetero- and homonormative assumptions that an individual is straight and cisgender until and unless they disclose an alternative sexual and/or gender identity (St. James, 2015). In this sense it requires some form assimilation in terms of sexual orientation and gender conformity. It requires the recognition of yourself as ‘other’ and through disclosure seeks to allow for acceptance within ‘mainstream’ society which overwhelmingly represents the interests of white, middle-class, Western, heterosexual, cisgender men (St. James, 2015).
For certain individuals, coming out may be harmful (Moore, 2012a). Not only is coming out highly contextual, it is also embedded within social relationships (Orne, 2011). Often the desire to ‘stay in’ is linked to an understanding that coming out is or may be risky. As such, disclosure must be controlled in order to avoid negative consequences (Orne, 2011). For some, concern for personal safety may be compounded by considerations concerning the safety of others (for example, family members) (Orne, 2011). For many queer individuals, socio-cultural, legal, occupational, religious, or familial considerations negate the possibility of coming out within certain contexts. Some contend that we have entered a ‘post-gay’ society wherein coming out is viewed as normal, routine, and unremarkable (Savin-Williams, 2006; Seidman, 2002). While research demonstrates that in certain circumstances, sexual and/or gender identity is not considered important, there is evidence to suggest that within certain contexts and with certain individuals same-sex desire and gender non-conformity does matter. To content that a ‘post gay’ society is universal is to gloss over nuances in social contexts and further marginalise those already marginalised (and sometimes even stigmatised) within ‘mainstream’ society (Orne, 2011).
Given these concerns it is vital that additional ‘disclosure’ practices are given legitimacy for those queer persons unable or unwilling to ‘come out’. In this regard practices such as ‘coming in’ (Hammoud-Beckett, 2007) or ‘inviting in’ (Moore, 2012a; Moore, 2012b) might be considered. In essence, these concepts refer to the same practice – the conscious and selective invitation of certain people into a space where sexual and/or gender identity is disclosed. Such practices allow for the creation of personal and political space where queer persons are not required to come out from, but nevertheless remain available to invite others into (Moore, 2012a).
It seems more than likely that such ‘disclosure’ practices are already ‘unofficially’ undertaken by many queer persons. What is lacking is the same admiration and praise that seems exclusively reserved for those that disclose their sexual and/or gender identity publically. A space is needed to celebrate the ‘small’, quiet everyday acts of resistance. Inviting in serves as a means of hospitable sharing, accenting a sense of agency through the choice of when and to whom disclosure will be made (Moore, 2012b). Inviting in also allows for the creation of spaces where queer persons can exist outside of the imperative of compulsory heterosexuality and may even allow for the exploration or refusal of categorisation (Moore, 2012b). As such, inviting in may serve as a more effective means to subvert hetero- and homonormative hierarchies and practices. Importantly, inviting in practices allow for the consideration of context in the negotiation of daily potentialities pertaining to sexual and/or gender identity. These practices are able to contest the stigma surrounding ‘staying in the closet’ by recognising the continual and contextual management surrounding sexual and/or gender identity (Moore, 2012b). It is my belief that it is vital that such practices are both accepted and celebrated as a strategy of resistance that recognises the need for transformation while acknowledging the imperative to engage in an intersectional queer politic.
[i] ‘Coming out of the closet’ is commonly understood as the disclosure of sexual orientation and/or gender identity
[ii] In the context of this piece, the term ‘queer’ is used to describe both orientation queer persons (individuals attracted to people of the same gender) and gender queer persons (individuals - irrespective of sexual orientation - who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) (Stryker, 2008).
[iii] The meaning of ‘coming out’ has changed several times over the course of the twentieth century (Chauncey, 1994). In its current use the phrase ‘coming out’ is strongly connected to the gay liberation movement (Armstrong, 2002; Jay & Young 1992; Shepard 2009). However, the origin of the phrase has been dated back to pre-World War II – more specifically within Western societies. In the 1920s it referred to initiation into the gay world, most commonly undertaken by presenting oneself to a large collection of ‘gay society’. By the 1950s, gay men usually used the term to refer exclusively to their first sexual experience with another man. During the 1970s it more commonly referred to announcing one’s same-sex desire to straight friends and family. During this period the phrase became linked with the notion of ‘the closet’, which was conceptualised as a repressive space that censures and constrains queer people (Chauncey, 1994). Thus, not only has the critical audience to which one came out shifted, but coming out is now almost inextricably linked with the notion of the ‘the closet’.
Armstrong, E. (2002). Forging gay identities: Organizing sexuality in San Francisco, 1950–1994. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Butler, J. (1993). Imitation and gender insubordination. In H. Abelove, M. A. Barale, and D. M. Halperin (Eds.), Lesbian and gay studies reader (pp. 307-320). New York: Routledge.
Cass, V. C. (1979). Homosexuality identity formation. Journal of Homosexuality, 4(3), 219–235.
Cass, V. C. (1984). Homosexual identity formation: Testing a theoretical model. The Journal of Sex Research 20(2), 143–167.
Chauncey, G. (1994). Gay New York: Gender, urban culture, and the making of the gay world 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books.
Hammoud-Beckett, S. (2007). Azima ila Hayati-an invitation in to my life: Narrative conversations about sexual identity. International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work, 2007(1), 29-39.
Jacqui Alexander, M. (2005). Pedagogies of crossing: Meditations on feminism, sexual politics, memory, and the sacred. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Jay, K., & Young, A. (1992). Out of the closets: Voices of gay liberation. New York: New York University Press
McClean, K. (2007). Hiding in the closet? Bisexuals, coming out and the disclosure imperative. Journal of Sociology, 43(2), 151-166. doi: 10.1177/1440783307076893
Moore, D. L. (2012a, July 12). Coming out or inviting in?: Part I [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.thefeministwire.com/2012/07/coming-out-or-inviting-in-reframing-disclosure-paradigms-part-i/
Moore, D. L. (2012b, July 13). Coming out or inviting in?: Part II [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.thefeministwire.com/2012/07/coming-out-or-inviting-in-part-ii/
Orne, J. (2011). ‘You will always have to “out” yourself’: Reconsidering coming out through strategic outness. Sexualities, 14(6), 681-703. doi: 10.1177/1363460711420462
Rasmussen, M. L. (2004). The problem of coming out. Theory into Practice, 43(2), 144–150.
Ross, M. B. (2007). Beyond the closet as a raceless paradigm. In P. Johnson and M. G. Henderson (Eds.) Black queer studies: A critical anthology (pp. 161-189). Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Savin-Williams, R. C. (2006). Who’s gay? Does it matter? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(1), 40–44.
Seidman, S. (2002). Beyond the closet: The transformation of gay and lesbian life. New York: Routledge.
Shepard, B. (2009). Queer political performance and protest. New York: Routledge.
St. James, J. (2015, June 24). 4 reasons why expecting LGBTQIA+ people to come out is problematic (and how inviting in is better) [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/coming-out-vs-inviting-in/
Stein, A. (2006) Shameless: Sexual dissidence in American culture. New York: New York University Press.
Stryker, S. (2008). Transgender history, homonormativity, and disciplinarity. Radical History Review, 100, 145-157.
Tatum, E. (2014, March 19). Why coming out isn’t for everyone [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/03/coming-out-not-for-everyone/