Back in 1978, queer activists formed the Right to Privacy Committee to protect the rights of people arrested for having gay sex — whose names were often published in the media, leading to ruined lives and suicides.
In the intervening years, our movement’s focus has shifted away from protection of privacy and back toward the empowering nature of proclaiming our identities to the world. But there are a lot of different people, circumstances and experiences under the queer umbrella. And on the question of coming out, one size does not fit all.
Adam is a transman — but most people don’t know it. He lives “stealth,” in other words, not defining himself by his body and history each time he introduces himself to someone.
Some would argue that this is dishonest — or that Adam is “in the closet” about being trans. Such people “tend to understand gender and identity based on their own personal anxieties,” he says.
Adam is very careful who he tells about his prior experience as female — not surprising given the threat of violence and the ongoing history of people who have been murdered once they were exposed as trans. (The Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20; see rememberingourdead.org for more information.)
Guarding information about his past is not the same as a gay person concealing their present sexual identity, he says. And being outed by other people takes away his ability to engage others on equal terms. Once his personal history is revealed, relationships with others are usually compromised. “People treat you like a victim, and no longer consider you a peer,” he points out.
“People stop talking to you, but they stare at you right through your clothes. People don’t want to hire you, pray with you, eat with you or have sex with you — or enter the bathroom at the same time as you. People think it’s now open for discussion to strike up conversations about your genitals, what they look like, and how they work.”
“Disclosure is a gift,” he says. But sometimes that gift is unwanted — or misused. “People expect you to be a visual aid, the face of all their gender questions and anxieties.” They either gossip — or desire to appear “in the know” about trans people.
Having the choice of whether or not to disclose can itself be painful. Because he’s stealth, gay men don’t think twice about insulting women in front of him — and he’s exposed to other bigoted ideas when people assume he’s just one of the guys. “I’ve heard what people can sound like when they think no one is listening,” he says.
Still, presenting himself as any other man would has integrity and offers safety. “I can stick up for women and gays in social environments where this is not expected, and actually influence someone’s thinking.”
Rick’s a gay man with HIV. He says being gay is a basis for an identity — but, to him, having HIV isn’t. “I’d like to be known as a person first, not a virus.”
“People don’t come out about having diabetes,” he says. “And herpes is one of the most common STDs on the planet, but most people who have it don’t feel the need to tell everyone.”
Rick says other gay men have told him he has an obligation to tell others he’s positive — or that doing so would make him a better, more honest person. “The risk is not the same for everyone. How open you can be often depends on how much you can afford to lose,” he says
“I’ve told a few people who are close to me — but I’m not willing to do it to fulfil someone else’s agenda.” He’s particularly annoyed when he hears this from negative guys. “It’s not just an unsophisticated viewpoint — it’s cavalier. This is my life we’re talking about. We may have come a long way in terms of treatments, but a couple decades worth of social stigma sure hasn’t gone away.”
“People’s opinions of you as a human being can immediately change,” he explains. “They project their own fear about getting the virus — or their own guilt about unprotected sex — onto you. They judge you an irresponsible person, regardless of how you got infected.”
The impact of the virus in his life is far smaller than the importance that other people give it, he says. “You become the poet with HIV, or the architect with HIV — instead of just a poet or architect.”
Rick says disclosing his status involves giving up control. “Once people have that info about you, there is no telling who else will find out, or how.”
He admits he is legally protected from discrimination, but says he’d just rather not have to deal people knowing. “I’m just trying to live my life,” he says. “I protect my health and that of my partners. I don’t need to deal with everyone else’s crap on top of that.”
The accounts Rick and Adam gave me are not completely analogous — being trans is not a disease. Some trans people do consider their status a medical matter — but for many, it’s a basic question of self-determination and control over their own bodies and lives.
But what these stories have in common is examples of how some people’s bodies are regulated because of other people’s shame. There are also parallels with other issues of personal autonomy, such as women’s right to reproductive choice. Most important, these stories show how the standard-issue gay directive to come out doesn’t apply to all people in all situations.
You don’t have to be trans — or living with HIV — to care about or learn about those issues. Demanding disclosure puts other individuals at risk — and places the onus of social change squarely on their backs. But we’re far more likely to succeed in our quest for shared freedom if we all work together instead.