For National Coming Out Day, we are celebrating the stories of perpetual and continuous coming out — how our identities keep shifting and changing as we grow and get to know ourselves even better.
For many of us, the beauty of entering a queer identity is that it opens the door to a Vegas-style buffet of ways to learn how we can be even more ourselves — whether it’s about our genders and sexualities or how to move most comfortably in the world. For National Coming Out Day, our writers and editors discuss how we approach coming out and what it means to us, the kinds of coming outs we’ve had since the first time, and the ways our identities have shifted into the people we are today. You know we want your thoughts on this too!
Ro White, Sex & Dating Editor
My “coming out” has been a journey of claiming and casting off different identities. I initially came out as a lesbian to myself and to a handful of friends when I was 13. At various points in my life since then, I’ve identified with the following words: tomboy, girl, queer, dyke, trans, boy, femme, genderqueer, masc, butch, androgynous, non-binary and probably a few others that I’ve forgotten. Now 30, I still use “queer” to describe my politics and orientation (or “dyke” when I’m feeling feisty), but I’ve left most of the other words behind in favor of a looser approach to gender. Sometimes I use “non-binary” to help others understand my lived experience as an assigned female, masc-presenting, gender-noncomforming person, but I don’t feel particularly connected to the term. Most people use “they/them” pronouns to refer to me, but I don’t mind other pronouns as long as they’re used with good intentions. I relate to this statement by queer theorist Jack Halberstam in a blog post about Jack’s own gender experience: “…the refusal to resolve my gender ambiguity… has become a kind of identity for me.”
Now that my gender identity is moreso a smirk and shrug, I feel more at home with myself, but evidence of my former gender identities is everywhere. In addition to my work as a writer, I’m also an actor and a performance artist. I’ve been a relatively public person during various points in my career, and the Internet is an archive of old articles and bios that use “she/ her” pronouns, “he/ him pronouns” or the word “trans” to refer to me. I’m proud of all of my gender adventures, and I’ve never felt that embracing any of my former identities was a “mistake.” I was never “confused” — I was living a full, exhilarating gender experience until I found my way to where I am now. Still, my most recent experience of coming out — telling people that certain identity words aren’t me anymore — has been challenging. I fear that some might look at my shifting identity as a betrayal to communities I’m no longer part of. I’m grateful that my friends view “coming out” as an ongoing experience instead of a one-time announcement.
Abeni Jones, Contributor
I came out as queer at about 23. Then as non-binary at about 24. Then as trans at about 25! I was definitely not a “I knew I was a girl since I was a kid” type trans person. I was a devout Christian cis straight boy from ages 12-23! So I’ve had a lot of figuring out to do over the last 10 years.
As I’ve gotten older, though, labels and stuff have felt so much less useful or meaningful to me. I don’t really care too much about coming out any more – I’m not interested in making new friends or building affinity-based community, so whether people know who I “really” am or how I identify no longer makes a big practical difference in my life. The real ones know and the rest don’t really matter. Of course being misgendered sucks, but I’ve mostly made my peace with that, and I’m not going to come out to every service worker I encounter or bother telling people my pronouns over the phone.
I’ve definitely been souring lately on the idea that “It’s important for people I don’t have intimate relationships with to know exactly who I am and how I identify.” I know there are issues around visibility and such, but I’m not a public figure. Maybe the issue would pan out differently if I were? I know that I tend to drop my identities, my history as a sex worker, my invisible disabilities, etc. when I’m doing public presentations and workshops, but that seems like the only time it’s like, politically useful to do so. Otherwise, I don’t think I really care anymore!
It’s felt like being too invested in nailing down my identities has kept me from doing things that feel right. Like, in the first few years after coming out as a trans woman, I felt like I had to be femme! Especially because it reduced misgendering somewhat. But I’m not comfortable as a femme. I’m very like, androgynous. I feel so much more comfy now than I was at the beginning. And now, I don’t feel like going skateboarding or not wearing makeup are issues! Because who cares if who I am doesn’t immediately make sense to small-minded people? I’m just doing me!
Rachel , Interm Literature Editor
As I’ve continued coming out over the years in many ways and in many different spaces, I think what I’m noticing at this point is a shifting relationship to ‘coming out’ itself, and what I want that to mean. I’ve always had a complex relationship to coming out, even to people close to me; I’m a very private person, and having come from a lot of childhood experiences where I wasn’t able to have privacy or my space or experiences respected it’s important to me to be able to make my own choices about how or when to disclose information about myself.
I never even ‘came out’ to my own family, at least not in the ABC Family-style conversation where I sit everyone down on a sofa and tearfully explain that I have something important to tell them; I just let them figure it out based on my life and my choices and my chosen family (I mean, I work here, after all). I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why that is; I wasn’t worried (for the most part) that my family would reject me or react badly, and I was always pretty confident in and proud of being queer (as I am now!). I felt vaguely guilty about not coming out more explicitly and proudly for a long time; who was I to be ambivalent about it when other people faced much more risk? Was I harming the cause of visibility somehow? Am I sneakily accessing straight privilege by being a feminine-presenting white woman with long hair who doesn’t work overtime to actively communicate to the general public that I’m queer?
Currently, I vibe much more with what Abeni said earlier about whether “it’s important for people I don’t have intimate relationships with to know exactly who I am and how I identify.” I think the conversation about visibility has developed more nuance since I was first navigating coming out in the early 2000s; I’m not downplaying its importance (I think a lot about Harvey Milk’s use of it as a vital action), but I think we have a lot of clear evidence now of the way that hypervisibility can also be harmful and commodifying. We can’t give people the language they need to articulate themselves and their experiences, even to themselves, without sharing that language publicly; at the same time, it opens a door for us to be commodified and reappropriated into narratives that don’t help us — I do not particularly want Biden campaign Pride apparel.
I like thinking of coming out as a conversation, and one that I can choose who I allow to enter it; I am proud of being queer, and because I’m proud of it I experience it as something special and personal, something I don’t feel a need to make easy to understand, especially not to straight people. I love the indescribable sense of belonging and ease that I feel in groups of queer people, and knowing that I read and am read by others in ways that are approximate but authentic without the use of specific labels or language; I also love that those things aren’t always something straight people can parse. Sometimes it does feel like erasure or invisibilization; sometimes it feels like getting to exist free of a certain type of gaze. I’m proud of this community and always will be; part of that is the joy of knowing that I’m not more worthwhile or valuable as a function of being more legible.
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Writer
How to even count/document the number of times I’ve come out since the “first time,” which if I’m being honest was not a single time at all, but rather several times spread across the span of about two years during which time I 1. Came out to a few best friends one-on-one while very drunk 2. Came out to the rest of my friends on stage as part of a standup comedy act and 3. Passive aggressively came out to my parents by creating/writing/producing/releasing a semi-autobiographical queer webseries on YouTube and letting them watch it.
That’s what I consider round one of coming out, but there have been so many rounds since then. And still, rounds to come. The people I still haven’t technically come out to. Like a set of grandparents.
I think my sexuality has remained fairly the same for a very long time now. I’m someone who likes to label myself, and for a while, that label has been lesbian. Or my personal favorite, dyke. Even before I called myself a lesbian, that’s what I was/how I view my pre-coming out self.
My sexuality hasn’t changed so much as my relationship to sex. I understand infinitely more about my desires, needs, and wants than I did during round one of coming out. Some of that has come from experiences with other people, and some of that has come from just paying more attention to myself.
Heather Hogan, Senior Writer + Editor
When I first came out, all I wanted was to personally stop being tied up in knots because of the big huge secret I was keeping and also to not lose my family and friends because of it. And so I came out in the softest way: “I’m gay. I was born this way.” And, for me, that’s true. I can look back now and know that I was gay as earlier as kindergarten. It was 1984, so it’s not like I had language for it, but I just knew. For as long as I could, I clung to the idea that I was just like all my straight family and friends, expect I just wanted a wife and not a husband. That’s all. That was the only difference. I soothed them with that idea, and I soothed me with it too. But that was never really true, and the great irony of ironies is that I spent half my life worrying that the people closest to me would abandon me when I came out, but my coming out coincided with the Fox News takeover of white evangelical Christianity, and therefore everyone in my life — and I ended up being the one to walk away in disgust.
I didn’t even use the word “lesbian” to describe myself the first year or so that I was out because where I grew up, the rural south, you might as well call yourself a witch if you’re going to call yourself a lesbian, and I didn’t know then what I know now about witches.
It’s funny that I spent so much time in my mid-20s agonizing about coming out, and now I hardly think about it at all — because I am just so very visibly, markedly, stereotypically gay. I look like and dress like a middle school PE teacher; when I’m not with my wife, I say “my wife this” and “my wife that” constantly; when strangers ask me what I do for a living, I say I’m a writer and editor for a gay magazine; and for people who meet me online, which is most people these days, well, you see me. it’s just endless cues that don’t require a lot of filling in the blanks. However, what has changed is that when I do come out, or when I am reminding people that I’m gay, I do it with the most aggressive language. Lesbian, yes. But also: queer and dyke. I say dyke to whoever I can, as much as I can. And, as I’ve written before, nothing delights me quite like hearing other queers refer to themselves as dykes too.
I just love us. I really do.
Drew Gregory, Writer
When I first was coming out I had a Word document where I had two lists: 1) people I’d come out to and 2) people who others had come out to for me. Supposedly this is “weird” and “very Capricorn” but I very much approached my coming out as like tasks to accomplish with the goal of eventually having it behind me so I could just live my life. But, of course, the journey of self-discovery never ends. I’m constantly experimenting with new words to capture my gender and sexuality and while I don’t necessarily think of these new words as coming outs per say, I guess they count. Does trans woman encompass nonbinary trans woman? Does lesbian encompass pansexual lesbian? Do I need these qualifiers? I don’t know! Some days they feel more necessary than others.
The main thing I’ve been toying with coming out as lately is polyamorous. Yes, I know, what great timing six months into a pandemic where my best case scenario is probably to find one person I want to U-haul with. But that’s just not really who I am! I think I’ve been stuck on this label for over a year now, because it doesn’t necessarily feel like a dealbreaker to me. I think if I met someone who was monogamous and I really wanted to be with them I could make it work. It’s just that my preferred relationship would be open. Does this make me poly? I don’t know! There are words that are important to me — lesbian, trans, woman, queer, gay, dyke — and then there are all the rest. I think when it comes to top vs. bottom vs. switch, adding nonbinary or pansexual, or identifying as poly those are words I’m claiming to clarify myself to others. They aren’t really words that matter much to me. And I feel like coming out will always mean something more personal than all that. Even now when I tell someone I’m trans or gay or whatever it feels like a disclosure, not a coming out. A disclosure is for other people, coming outs are for me. So in that sense maybe I am done coming out. You know what? I like that. I’m done coming out.
Christina Tucker, Writer
You know, now that I think about it, I don’t know that I have had to come out all that many times? Well, that’s not true, I certainly have — I moved to a new city and got a new job within the last year — but I think what it really means is that I don’t worry about coming out as much as I used to. Some of that is just luck, I’ve been in community with mostly queer people for a while, and I was working at job where I felt safe enough to come out.
I also passive aggressively came out to my parents by posting a Facebook status on National Coming Out Day sixish years ago? They both liked it….and then we didn’t really talk about it? I introduced them to my then girlfriend about eight months later? I guess I technically passive aggressively came out to a lot of people in that Facebook post — people I went to high school with, coworkers old and new, teachers I had in high school, my parents friends….but you know, it worked! I’m sticking by it!
My queerness is just so baked into who I am at this point, and I feel so comfortable with it that I am always a little surprised when I have to come out — like, how many forearm tattoos does a woman need??? I’ve also let go of my need to label myself with very specific labels; femme, hard femme, bottom, queer, lesbian, bisexual sometimes? It’s all true, some more than others, some work on one day and then don’t the next, that’s fine too.
Vanessa Friedman, Community Editor
When I was 20 I discovered I was queer after spending the first two decades of my life perceiving myself as straight, and while other people in my life had a variety of (honestly, mostly positive) reactions, the person who was hardest to come out to was absolutely myself. I remember feeling so frustrated, so irritated and confused that I had not known myself at all, or so it seemed at the time. I remember writing in my journal: If I didn’t know this very basic thing about myself, then what else don’t I know? How could I have missed this? How can I expect anyone to take me seriously if I don’t even know the very basics of who I am?
It’s been 11 years since that girl wrote that journal entry, and of course I am both the same and I am different, because actually that is what it means to be a person. Twenty year old me was so horrified that there might be parts of myself I didn’t inherently know to be true, that I couldn’t possibly know all of me at all times, but 31 year old me relishes that fact. Is it confusing and painful sometimes, to be shocked by my own self again and again and again and again? Sure. Is it also the best part of being alive? It is.
At twenty I thought hopelessly, what else don’t I know about myself? At thirty one I think with glee, wonder, excitement, and yeah, hope — what else don’t I know about myself?
Valerie Anne, Writer
The most recent “coming out” experience I had that did feel similar to when I came out as gay was when I decided to go full vegetarian. With my friends I had to wait for my opening, “Oh are you getting the turkey burger?” “Actually I’m a vegetarian now!” but I had to actually “come out” to my family because I was going to visit them in Boston and wanted them to know so my mom could let me know what she was planning for dinner so I could plan to make my own if necessary. I was actually pretty nervous, and actually did receive some judgement, but overall I felt supported for the most part. My dad even had fake breakfast sausages waiting for me when I got to Boston. But honestly I think a lot of people just assumed this was the next step in my queerness. (I like to joke that I’m the hippie feminist lesbian your mother warned you about.)
As for my queerness, I definitely had to come out a bunch of times over the first few years of me being out, so now I try to just work it into conversation somehow within the first few meetings so I don’t have to like announce it anymore. (Actually working for Autostraddle helps that a lot; “I write for an LGBTQ+ website usually does the trick.) So I haven’t had to actually come out as explicitly to anyone for a few years, though the casual coming out happens every time we hire someone new at my day job, so pretty regularly. I’m lucky enough that the social circles I run in are largely queer so I’ve actually had the unique experience of having to witness a straight friend come out as straight because she was the only one in a gaggle of queers, that was quite delightful.
And sometimes I consider dropping the word ‘lesbian’ for me altogether, to stick with ‘queer’ always, because while I don’t know that ‘bisexual’ is right (even though I’ve seen the argument that it could theoretically work for me if I’m attracted to women and non-binary people but not men), ‘lesbian’ feels more limiting than it did when I was first coming out, even though I still like it. Also too many people are weaponizing the word ‘lesbian’ against trans and non-binary people and that is the opposite of what I want; so do I lean into it so it can’t be taken over, or do I just call it a loss and move on from it? Sometimes I wonder if I’ll have to come out again if I do change my mind about that…will I have to do a tweet thread about it? Will it matter at all? Will the people in my life just follow my lead on what I call myself without me needing to explain it? Do I care what other people call me as long as I know what I call myself? I don’t know the answer. But it took me 10 years from the moment I realized I for sure liked girls until I came out the first time, so I’m not really in a rush to figure the rest out just yet.
Kamala Puligandla, Former Editor-in-Chief
I took my time coming out, even though I’d been girl-crazy since I was a kid. In true myself fashion, I was like “Lemme try on some labels in my profile on this brand new concept called a ‘dating site’ that someone built just for our college (it was the year 2004, please give me a break) and see who is interested in me when I call myself what.” And after I called myself “fluid”, I remember this really annoying guy from my poetry class, who played in a terrible band and had long hair and a performative shoulder bag, tackled me outside of the library because we had matched. And I thought, “Well, that is not at all what I’m looking for.” But I had been into my best friend the whole time, and when I did finally admit my attraction — on their bed, while I circled their belly button with my finger, because I’m always really subtle — I was like, “Okay, yeah, more of this.”
Anyway, my sexuality has naturally expanded, but still mostly rotates around the same themes. I have come out as someone who has a polyamorous heart. At one point, I had to come out to myself and my friends as wanting to be in a relationship, even though I could not, for the life of me, get myself to be interested in someone who could possibly be in a relationship. But I feel like a lot of my coming outs have been as NOT something. When I did things like have layers in my long hair and match my earrings to my boots and carry purses, I had to come out as not typically attracted to masculinity, and then when I decided I’d lean into my Northern California camping-ready, short-haired dykeness I had to come out as “not a hippie,” and I continually have to come out at as not Filipina, not Pacific Islander and occasionally as not Mexican, as well as not butch, and not into sports, dogs or babies.
And I think, for me, this is about the ways that a lot of people assume we have things in common until I tell them otherwise, and sometimes I don’t mind that, I don’t always — as Rachel and Abeni said — need to come out to them. But one of my favorite parts of being queer is that I look forward to more opportunities to get to say yes to things I’ve previously said no to before, because I just didn’t know how to enjoy them at the time, or because the entry points to them have changed, or because I want to learn something new about myself. So I’m interested — like Vanessa — in what I have yet to find out about myself, including more expressions of masculinity that compel me, both in myself and others, and perhaps a future in which I become a hippie, whether I like it or not.