During New York City’s Pride March in June, as many as 2 million revelers celebrated a milestone in LGBTQ rights history—same-sex marriage is now legal in all fifty states. But as I lurched past the screaming crowd on a parade float, looking into the faces of the out-and-proud, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of sadness for the people who were missing. For every Proud Mary waving a rainbow flag with his clique of queer friends, there’s still a kid lingering alone in the closet somewhere, unsure how to get out. So, in the inclusive spirit that makes Pride so powerful, I’m reaching out to that kid. At the beginning of a new era, I’m writing a letter to a young homo.
Dear Young Homo,
Walking down the street feels better than it did a week ago. People still suck their teeth at me when I wear heels, carry a man-purse, or hold my partner’s hand. But when they do, I can laugh, “My way of life is the law now, honey.” The highest court in the land has acknowledged us—not approved of us, per se, but at least accepted that we’re people and that we’re here to stay. Young Homo, the world you’re coming out into is much better than the world I faced at your age, and it improves every day. So what’s holding you back?
Maybe you’re stuck because you’re not sure how to start being queer. Don’t worry, that’s completely normal. A teacher friend of mine recently called with a half-heartbreaking, half-hilarious story about one of her students who forced himself to wear bright yellow spandex booty shorts because he thought that gays are required to dress loudly. The experiment ended with this poor kid literally hiding in the closet at school, feeling utterly lost because he knew he didn’t like women, but he didn’t seem to like “gay” clothes either. This is when my teacher friend explained something very important: There are no secret requirements for gayness, there is no dress code. You can wear exactly what you’re wearing now, use the same voice you’re using now, watch the same television shows, and still be gay as a Norwegian summer day is long. You define your queerness, not the other way around.
Or maybe you’re afraid of what people will say as you struggle to figure out who you are. Well, yes, I can promise that you will be mocked for fumbling around as you search for yourself. Even the glamorous and groundbreaking Caitlyn Jenner has been subject to this kind of criticism from commentators, columnists, and gays on the street alike. Just last weekend I overheard a group of gay brunchers condemning Jenner for changing her mind too often, for being unclear about how she wants to complete and present her transition. “She keeps contradicting herself,” one gay said, “So you can tell she’s just doing it for publicity.” Young Homo, I know you want to look confident, decisive, and adult as you come out, so that people will take you seriously. But it’s not your job to impress onlookers. It’s not your job to become yourself neatly, to vault clear of hetero life and stick a perfect landing in queerdom. Allow yourself to be a confused mess, as we all are—and forget the howls from the sidelines.
But maybe more frightening obstacles are preventing you from coming out. Perhaps you know that you will face hatred or even violence at home, at school, or on the streets of your town if you reveal yourself—and that becoming yourself will mean losing loved ones, or leaving behind the only home you’ve known. I am afraid that these kinds of challenges are still common for LGBTQ people, and that when you find a network of queer friends, you’ll meet many people who understand what you’ve been through. If these are the kind of troubles that lay before you, I can only say one thing: Coming out is about something larger than you.
Because the bottom line is that you are needed in the LGBTQ community. During the New York City’s Pride March, I was struck by the diversity among us. Under our rainbow banner, there are not only lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning groups, but individuals drifting back and forth between them—individuals defying category, individuals awaiting definition. And many of these people are struggling with injustices that the Supreme Court decision has left untouched. Young Homo, now that the LGBTQ world has its foot through the door, we’re going to need every ally we can get. If you’re in the closet at home, you’re not only missing out on a pivotal moment in gay rights, you’re missing out on your chance to contribute to the next steps. Gays can still be fired for being gay in many states, and the housing rights of transgender people are widely violated, and other problems too numerous to mention still plague us.
I know this is a terrifying time. As I think about what you must be going through, memories from my own coming-out process are surfacing. Once, in ninth grade, a truck load of college boys heckled at me as I walked to my bus stop. “Faggot!” they roared, and launched an empty beer bottle at my head. All that morning, I wondered if I really could be what those boys had called me. I remember telling myself, over and over, “I don’t think I have any desire to put on women’s clothing, so how could I be gay?” Oh, if I could tear a hole through time and appear in drag before my young self, all that boy’s bargaining, hedging, and hoping would come apart, Gordian Knot style, and he would be able to launch his life!*
But since I can’t write to my young self, I’m writing to you. Young Homo, come out.
*Correction, July 10, 2015: This post originally misspelled Gordian Knot.