An essential part of the queer experience in the second decade of the first century of the third millennium of the Common Era is that of sudden, unasked-for moments of social awkwardness. I’m talking about the many tiny, uncomfortable moments when I’m not marching in a pride parade, not making a political statement or writing for Outward, nor even attempting to share something deeply personal about myself with a loved one. Rather, I am simply attempting to answer someone’s seemingly innocent question as honestly as possible and can’t do so without outing myself.
“So, what are you doing here in Knoxville,” asks every single person in Tennessee immediately after meeting me. (Apparently my presence here is in need of some sort of explanation.) And, since it’s the truth, there’s really nothing for it but for me to tell them, honestly, that my w-w-w-wife is here for grad school. My, uh, uh, my w-w-wife. My—ulp—w-wife, Cassie. Because, try as I might, I can’t quite say it without stuttering.
I’m not usually given to bouts of unprovoked social anxiety. I can answer questions about where I grew up or how many siblings I have with ease, and I’ve even been known to offer an opinion about the weather or how awesome The Simpsons marathon is with nary a stammer. Since I believe that my marriage ought not to be more controversial or upsetting than these other topics, I’ve attempted to rid myself of these telltale signs of nervousness. I’ve tried giving myself little pep talks about how no one cares these days, and I’ve even tried practicing the line in front of a mirror. But when those moments come, I just can’t seem to lose the stutter.
That’s not to say it hasn’t gotten easier, compared with the ball of nerves I was when I first started coming out in high school, when “coming out” meant a long, awkward conversation preceded by agonizing hours of deciding whom I could trust and how to broach the subject. I was lucky never to have been met with any outright rejection in those early days, but I did face my share of uncomfortable questions about how much sexual experience I’d had and whether I was certain.
I’ve grown more comfortable since then, and everybody else has, too. These days, I’d never agonize about whether I should be open about my sexuality in the workplace, the way I did at my first jobs in high school and college. My sexuality is basic information—even more so now that I’m married. I expect my wife to come up in conversation, and I assume that most of the time it won’t be a big deal to whomever I’m telling. Although it’s not unheard of for people to be startled or obviously uncomfortable, the most common reaction is no reaction. I’m here, I’m queer, and everybody’s used to it.
And yet, despite the gains we’ve made, my queer friends and acquaintances also report attacks of nerves whenever they’re faced with a coming-out-type situation. “While I do come out to virtually everyone when possible, there’s still almost always a split second of nervousness before doing so,” said Alaina Bolton, a friend from home who also recently married a woman. Coming-out jitters seem to affect older queers and those who are partially closeted more than the younger/outer cohort, but so far I haven’t turned up anyone who claims not to feel any nerves whatsoever. Perhaps it’s our fear of running into a disapproving look or an uncomfortable throat clearing—these definitely do still happen, even if they’re getting rarer. Or perhaps we’re holding onto the idea that being gay is something shameful or worry that by inserting our sexuality into an innocent conversation we’re violating the rules of polite behavior. Whatever it is, it seems not to be going anywhere.
And so, I wonder, is this as good as it gets? Am I doomed to stutter every time I mention my own wife to anyone who doesn’t already know that I’m a lesbian? Will the next generation of young people feel as awkward and afraid when it’s their turn? Are uncomfortable comings out destined to be a feature of the LGBTQ experience until the end of days, or will there ever come a time when sharing one’s orientation feels no more fraught than sharing the name of the town where one grew up or whether one enjoys the taste of Brussels sprouts?
My (straight) friend Megan Self, who teaches science to 14-to-16-year-olds in an urban Massachusetts high school, believes there’s reason to be optimistic. She painted a picture of the casual acceptance of openly gay students by their peers that’s truly amazing to contemplate in a time when the It Gets Better Project is still needed to boost the spirits of kids growing up in less-tolerant areas. “[My students] have grown up with people who are publicly, openly gay,” she said, adding, “This idea that ‘you can’t help who you love’ really resonates with them.”
Although she does hear the occasional homophobic taunt or slur, these young people are likely to grow up less hung up on homosexuality than I am, in the same way that I’m less hung up on homosexuality than the generation that came before me. I like to think that if the cultural climate continues to improve over their lives the same way it’s improved over my life thus far, maybe some of these youths will even manage, some fine day, to make simple declarative statements about themselves without any hemming, hawing, or stuttering.