As a polyamorous grayromantic pansexual genderqueer gentleman with a large social circle, I’ve come out of more closets than most. As a public speaker and trans educator, many of those coming-out experiences have been on a stage. Whether I’m coming out to a crowd of strangers or one-on-one with a person I’ve known my whole life, though, every “coming out” has taught me something.
Here are eight of the most important things I’ve learned from coming out:
Lesson #1: Only keep people in your life who are good for you.
This lesson is one of the first, and most important, ones I learned. I learned it the hard way, by allowing my life to unravel at the hands of people who weren’t so much bad people as bad people for me. I justified the friendships or relationships continuing with the good qualities I noticed in the individuals, whether there were few or many. I wasn’t willing to give weight to the fact that while they weren’t necessarily bad people, our interactions were bad for my mental health, well-being, self confidence, or ambition.
When their doubts started impacting my own confidence in my identities, though, making the confusing and often terrifying experience of coming out even more difficult, I realized I needed to be just as quick to disconnect from people who interacted in damaging ways with me as I was to reframe my own thoughts of self-doubt and recrimination.
Lesson #2: You are not alone.
Seeking community was one of the best, and most transformative, decisions of my life, and when I couldn’t find that community locally, I sought it online. When I felt lost and afraid, or unsure of what to do, talking with others who had walked the rocky path I was traveling was a blessing, and so many were eager to help.
Their advice wasn’t always perfect, but knowing that others had been where I was and survived was invaluable. Taking that step to reach out to those I admired was usually rewarded, too, and gradually I became a person others reached out to as well. My own wanderings were now a vehicle to help others, and that has been the most rewarding part of building community.
Lesson #3: Educating others is important.
While it can often seem like the world is teaming with people who hate me simply because of a community or communities I fall in, especially when looking at the news, I’ve learned that there are at least as many who just genuinely don’t understand. Even some people who were staunchly against identities I hold have learned to be more accepting when I approached them in a non-confrontational manner.
Knowing me as a person outside of the identity they struggled to accept allowed a personal and positive connection to be made, and often helped to open doors to discussion. Approaching people with patience resulted in being more likely to be heard, and that lead to many of the people later coming up to me to tell me of ways they have begun to advocate for the community I spoke to them about, whether it was to propose a gender-neutral bathroom or to be more supportive of their child.
Lesson #4: Self-care is essential.
While speaking up and coming out are important and transformative experiences, they can also be exhausting and emotionally taxing. Scheduling time to care for myself, whether it is watching my favorite movie or listening to a song that makes me happy or staying away from the internet, is just as essential to making a difference as anything else I do. I cannot help others as effectively if I am burned out or bitter.
Also, while risks are a necessary part of living, don’t feel guilty if you don’t speak or come out. Your safety matters.
Lesson #5: Celebrate firsts.
Whether it’s the first time I used the men’s restroom or my first date with someone of the same gender or the day I changed my name, I’ve learned the importance of celebrating firsts. Being queer can be hard, and celebrating the steps I take toward authenic self-expression helps me deal with that.
In a world that is so resistant to who I am, every first takes courage and deserves celebration.
Lesson #6: Use your anger as a propellant for change.
I’ve learned that anger is not always a negative emotion. It’s how I choose to use it that determines where it falls. If I let it burn me it can do damage, but if I use it to fuel the fire of my passions, I can achieve great things.
Many things that are happening to me and others I love or relate to make me angry, and they should. I just use the anger I feel to try to change the things that make me angry. And whether it’s one life or a million, I know that I have made a difference.
Lesson #7: Discrimination is real…
I have been threatened or confronted in both male and female bathrooms ranging from a library to a bar. I have almost been fired from my job for wanting to use the bathroom I identified with. I have been shunned and cut out of friends’ lives for my sexuality. I have cowered in bathroom stalls until my would-be attackers gave up and went away.
Discrimination is real. There is danger in being out, and some of the greatest backlash is when progress is being made.
Lesson #8: …but taking action makes a difference.
Despite the discrimination and how easy it is to be afraid, both my own experiences and research have shown that speaking up and speaking out about my identities, especially when done in an approachable way, makes a difference. In a humanist community I’ve become involved in over the past year or so, there were a number of people who didn’t understand and often couldn’t empathize with the things trans individuals went through. As I began speaking up and being vocal about my own experiences and those of others I know, however, their perspectives changed, their empathy deepened, and they themselves often began to be not only allies, but activists as well for trans issues.
Eventually I gave a Sunday lecture there, and over 100 people showed up, wanting to learn more. There was standing room only, and while there was half an hour of questions, none of them were attacks or threats. Just by being there, being open, and not being too afraid to speak up, I created a more understanding community who actively seeks to make life better for trans individuals, both in and out of that community.
Speaking up and standing up for issues has also allowed others a safe space to come out themselves. I have known many people, some young, some older, who didn’t feel they had the community support to step out of the closet, and my presence and refusal to be pushed aside has often created avenues for others to live their truth.
Each person has the ability and responsibility to change the world. Don’t leave it to someone else.