The question to the room was, “Can coming out be a good thing?” in reference to one’s HIV status or identity. I cleared my throat and readied my answer, but then the moderator stated, “We are out of time!” The delay created an opportunity for me to gather my thoughts about this topic, which is increasingly on people’s lips.
I believe that the ideology encouraging people to “come out” is positive because it teaches people to live as they are rather than how society dictates they should be. Coming out has been the best thing I’ve ever done. It has allowed me to explore spaces of queerness and Blackness publicly without fear of anyone questioning my identity. It has allowed me to see people for what they are, whether for their value or their toxicity. The out life allows me to access people with like interests and lived experiences, which is important to my growth and development. Living one’s truth goes hand in hand with being out, although every individual should determine for him- or herself what these terms mean.
Coming out can be a good thing, but it should not be a required thing. Coming out as queer has made me a target of hate, which at times has put my body in harm’s way. When I also disclosed that I was HIV positive, my disclosure was met with much praise, yet it hinders some people from being willing to date me, and my status is occasionally used as a slur against me. Gay-bashing continues to be a thing because LGBTQ people are becoming more visible in hetero-centered spaces. Violence against transgender men and women is increasing as their protections decrease because of an inaccurate psychological projection that the community is sexually deviant. The environments in which many of us live as out LGBTQ people force many of us to live under the radar for safety.
I have a real problem with the cisgender-heterosexual-centered community making demands of those in the LGBTQ community to live publicly while not protecting us. The same people asking LGBTQ people to be out should put protections in place and help us survive when we do so. Violence against trans people is more likely to happen when they are visible and living an out life. As more people identify as trans, the violence against them is increasing. As protections for trans people, such as bathroom bills, come under attack, trans people’s existence is endangered. The decision to live the out life often comes down to a decision about whether the happiness of living in your truth is worth the potential threat to your physical and mental well-being.
To counteract the stress I experience from being out, I engage in a practice I call “coming in.” Coming in requires working on yourself within your own identity but outside society’s gaze. When I come in, I check in mentally, physically and spiritually with myself to get centered and in tune with the person I am that day.
I say “that day” because I am always changing. Coming in has meant finally assessing for myself things I was taught were wrong during my childhood and deciding that they may, in fact, be right based on my identity. Coming in helps me determine what out life should look like for me in comparison with how others believe it should look for our community.
One of my college professors once taught me that we all need to live in a state of “becoming.” Since change is the only thing certain in life, we are always in a state of becoming something new. For cis-hets, it’s about becoming more aware that people live outside the hetero paradigm, and creating an environment where those with marginalized gender identities can exist safely and flourish. For the LGBTQ community, it’s about becoming more resilient and unafraid. The answer isn’t to live in the shadows but to force the cis-het community to put the protections in place that we seek. Now is not the time to cower but to show up and show out—no pun intended.
George M. Johnson is a New York-based journalist and activist who has written for Entertainment Tonight, Ebony, The Grio, Teen Vogue, NBC News and several other major publications and organizations. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.