By now, you’ve probably heard that Ellen Page just came out as a lesbian. If you haven’t seen her speech at yesterday’s HRC event (note: HRC is a pretty awful and transphobic organization, although I won’t go into that here), do yourself a favor and watch.
It’s a truly moving speech, and there’s no denying that it takes an abundance of courage and strength to come out in the public eye – and to have your words broadcast to millions around the world. One quote from her speech is particularly touching:
“I feel a personal obligation and a social responsibility. I also do it selfishly, because I am tired of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission.”
The phrase “lying by omission” is both the most accurate and the most harmful way to describe being closeted. In a world where heterosexuality is seen as the “default” and homosexuality and bisexuality as the aberration, remaining in the closet is essentially being untruthful about one’s own orientation. Withholding is tantamount to hiding.
But this is a dangerous kind of language to use. It turns coming out into an obligation as a political act of queerness. Coming out is ultimately political in nature, but it should never be viewed as an essential part of the queer experience. No queer individual owes an explanation about their identity. There are dozens of reasons for people to stay in the closet, not the least of which being their own physical safety and well-being. It’s an individual’s choice whether or not they want to be out, and no one should ever out someone or force them to come out.
Why am even writing about this? Well, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m gay. I haven’t really done any kind of “proper” coming out, although most of my friends and some of my family members are well aware. And I have no interest in speechifying. My sexual orientation is a part of my identity, but only one part. It does not wholly define me, and I don’t want coming out in any “official” capacity to invite the world to do so.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t applaud Ellen Page and others who have come out publicly. The least we can do is respect them for making that choice. But we must be careful about the language we use and how far we go in praising those who come out. We can’t turn the act of coming out into an essential part of the queer experience, a rite of passage that every queer individual must go through. There are millions of people who are still in the closet for a variety of reasons, all perfectly valid. A heteronormative society should not dictate the queer experience.
If you are struggling with whether or not to come out, let Ellen Page’s example just be one of the many ways someone can choose to live their life. She chose to be open about her sexuality in a very public way. She also could have chosen not to, and no one could (or should) fault her for it. You make your own choice. You do you. Your identity belongs to you, not to anyone else.