In the queer community we like to talk about the maze of awkwardness, politics, safety, and inspiration that is coming out. In a world where everyone is taught to make assumptions about how “normal people” ought to live and love, those of us who don’t fit those norms are going to have to correct the assumptions of at least one person: ourselves. Coming out to yourself is what matters most, yet this journey is too often skimmed over in narratives of coming out.
I’ve come out to myself three times: as queer, kinky, and poly. The funny thing is that I’ve gotten better at it over time. My first coming out to myself was a torturous and slow process. My third self-outing was an exciting discovery. There are skills you use as you come out to yourself, and they’re skills that can be useful in every part of life. So for everyone who has a coming out journey yet to come, I present to you what I’ve learned about how to come out to yourself, as whatever you are.
1. Don’t dismiss your own thoughts just because they frighten you.
This is good advice in general. For example, one important part of examining your own privilege is to confront the thoughts that pop up in your head, like, Oh! Wow! My uncle’s heart surgeon is a black woman! It’s not very pleasant to realize how surprised you were to see a black woman surgeon, but ultimately you have to face up to your own prejudice.
Metacognition – thinking about the way you think – is essential to the coming out process. It starts when you find yourself having certain thoughts that you’re not “supposed” to have. When that happens, you have a choice: try to pretend you never had the thought in the first place, or figure out what it means. Trust me, the second way is better.
Here are some thoughts I’ve had at the beginning of my three coming out journeys that I tried to ignore.
Tara’s breasts are mesmerizing when she takes deep breaths during choir practice.
The whimpers of pain Hana makes when I pull her hair just so are the loveliest sounds.
I wouldn’t mind if Susie slept with other people while she’s away this summer, if she’d tell me every detail.
The sad part is that none of these thoughts are actually unpleasant. I’ve had thoughts much like these since I came out, and relished them. But at the time, I found these thoughts terrifying and tried to push them away. I spent four years brutally suppressing any attraction to other girls, because that wasn’t how I was supposed to feel. Queer feelings were for swishy stereotypes on TV, not for me. The second time around, I suppressed my kinky thoughts for three years, and my poly thoughts for two. I managed to cut my self-repression by one year every time! See how you learn?
2. Write down or talk out loud about what’s on your mind.
It doesn’t matter if you’re just talking to your cat. Language has power. Hearing words out loud, or seeing them on a page, not only helps you makes sense of the thoughts you’re grappling with – it also makes them real.
The first time I said “I’m gay” out loud, my voice broke on the words. I flinched. There was no one there to hear, but I felt like the whole world was listening. It resonated off my walls, echoed back a little. The words were present in the world, speaking back to me. I said it again. It didn’t feel quite so world-shattering that time. It sounded like something I could keep on saying, even if something more than the walls was listening.
Say your thoughts out loud. Some of them will feel like lies, and some will feel true. Write them, and see the white spaces that form around the letters. Some of those white spaces will fit like puzzle pieces, and you’ll know.
3. Try on a new identity for a day and see how it feels.
You don’t have to tell anyone what you’re doing. This is for you. Whatever non-normative identity you’re exploring, give yourself at least a day to try it on. Spend the day with the mindset, “Yes, I am genderqueer. What is it like spending a day as a genderqueer person?” It may not be as frightening as you think. It may be incredibly liberating.
When I gave myself a day to try being gay, everything in the world started to make sense. When I thought to myself, “I am gay, this is what I am, at least for today,” I suddenly understood why I spent half of French class listening to Allison murmur French words to herself. When I let myself be poly for a day, I thought, “I could date you, and you, or you, and it would be fine, as long as you all said yes,” and it didn’t have to be shameful.
You may find that the identity you try on doesn’t fit. That’s all right. It was just for a day. You can try on a different identity tomorrow. Just let yourself live in this new skin. Allow yourself to become.
I’d love to hear your stories about how you came out to yourself. I will never judge you for not coming out to other people. All I care about is that you understand yourself as fully as you can.