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Final Web Event: The Closet

Amoylan's picture

Coming out. What people don’t understand is that coming out of any closet is hardest for the person actually having to do it. People receiving news like that selfishly feel blind-sighted and they blame themselves while not giving that person’s feelings a second thought. The sad part is, people struggle so much with coming out because of the fear of other people’s reactions and they only get proved right in many situations. I think the hardest person to come to terms with coming out with is yourself. With yourself you’ve always known who you are or maybe it hasn’t been that easy, but telling yourself who you are first, and really believing it is the first and hardest part of coming out. Even if people are receptive and accepting right off the bat, that doesn’t eliminate the fact that you had preliminary doubts and fears of their reactions. There is no easy way to come out of any closet, but it needs to be done in order to free yourself. It’s easy for me to sit here and tell you about my opinion on the coming out situation, and how it affected me personally, but that is hardly relevant, so I will back it up statistically. The Pew Research group  did a survey of LGB americans (398 gay men, 277 lesbians and 479 people who are bisexual) the questions were, when did you first think, when did you first know and when did you tell someone. The results are as follows: 

The results are presented in median ages of all of the participant’s responses. So there is seemingly a 7 or 8-year gap between someone first thinking they are gay, lesbian or bi and when they first tell someone. Even though that is just the time from when they first thought, across the board there is a three-year gap from when they knew for sure until they told someone. The same article reports that 92% of the LGBT population that they surveyed said that society has become more “accepting” of them in the past decade. I put accepting in quotations because word choice sometimes exudes a privilege that shouldn’t be present in these issues. I’ll discuss that more later. This is not to say that people have not experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in the past decade as well. The same research group did another survey on perceptions of discrimination:

Looking at the graph, although the slivers of people who answered yes it has happened in the past year are small, they are still there when they shouldn’t be at all. The other larger slivers aren’t saying no either. They are saying it hasn’t happened in the past year but it has still happened. Although discrimination is deteriorating it has not been eliminated, which is what is necessary.

When people use the phrase coming out, most everyone associates it with being gay. People don’t usually associate it with being queer, bi, trans, etc. and hardly anyone ever associates it with being disabled. There are certain closets that are more secretive than others and those are the closets that you cannot see people hiding in but telling someone you have depression is just as much a difficult process as telling someone you are attracted to the same sex. There is a hunger for acceptance and empathy but there is a fine line between feeling accepted and loved as much as you were before and feeling like you are being put up with or looked at like some sort of exhibit.

Language is important in these situations, what you say and how you say it, and how people respond to you. Word choice can make-or-break it. When I came out to my mom I said “right now, I really want a girlfriend and I hope that’s something you can be okay with.” Her response “I just want you to be with someone who will make you happy and I hope you’ll still wear pretty shoes.” The intentions were there, of course, I know she loves me and really does want me to be happy, but the implication that queer people don’t wear pretty shoes was what struck me. Of course anyone can wear whatever they want and present their gender and sexual orientation in whatever way makes them comfortable, for the record I do love pretty shoes and will continue to wear them. I’ll continue with two short anecdotes on the perceptions of queerness and disability in the school and the use of language in those situations. 

A fifteen year-old boy is beginning high school today, the school he is attending was just renovated under a very large budget, it is now very aesthetically pleasing. His mom will drop him off and most likely embarrass him just as any parent of a freshman in high school would. There is a twist in this seemingly “typical” day, his mother will have to lift his wheelchair out of the back of the car and then lift him into it in order for him to get around for the day. She’ll wheel him into the building and he’ll get sympathetic or attempted sympathetic stares the whole way, but it’s okay right? Because he must be used to it. The entrance to the school is accessible in a very literal sense so she brings him to his first class and leaves him to his day.

A fourteen year-old girl is beginning high school today, she will attend the same school as the boy and her day will start off similarly. She will walk in nervously with her parent, most likely get embarrassed by them, then her day will begin. Her disability is not as visible as the first student but rather a constant internal battle of when she is going to tell her parents she is queer, should she have to? Will people at school know? Will she have to tell them? Her mind is a constant whirlpool of questions and doubts about herself and who she really is. Disability is not always visible or physical.

I won’t tell you what either of these students looks like physically because that shouldn’t matter to the story, even though sadly in the eyes of the accommodators, it does. I really hate that word accommodation. Accommodation (definition): a convenient arrangement; a settlement or compromise. Who is so superior that they think their life is compromised by issues of accessibility? There should be no hierarchy in this. People build a wheelchair ramp and think they deserve an award for the most basic level of human nature. What about the girl who’s queer? Where’s her ramp? She can walk in to the building just fine but navigating her life and her internal battle everyday is much like being in a wheelchair in a 12-story building without an elevator. Accommodation is not a privilege, it is necessary. There shouldn’t have to be a compromise, people should not feel like they are settling when they accept that there are people of all different kinds in this world and they need to get around just the same as anyone else. It doesn’t matter if the “arrangement” is convenient, because it is crucial to the lives of so many people. People shouldn’t act like they are doing favors by installing elevators and “accepting” the queer people in their lives; those are the baseline for accessibility, very rarely is that surpassed and that is a problem.

Hopefully we are taught acceptance, another word that I am hesitant to use because it also seems as though there is a favor in there somewhere. Acceptance (definition): the action or process of being received as adequate or suitable, typically to be admitted into a group. There are a lot of things wrong with this definition if we are using it terms of accepting disabilities and queerness. Adequacy should not be measured by physical appearance or sexuality, sexual orientation or sexual object choice. To be admitted into the group of human beings, you just need to be a human being, there is no initiation other than birth, no one is superior enough to pass judgment on that admissions process.

In a column in Blunderbuss magazine entitled “I’m Queer And So Are You” Zach Howe writes, “This is what America thinks being queer looks like—a bunch of sympathetic white kids just trying to fit in. Because these people already “fit in” in every other way, it is easy to see the injustice of their oppression.” There is no way to tell if someone is queer the way that people can tell if someone has a physical disability, however many would argue that queerness is a physical disability. Imagine the same generic, ignorant questions that one would ask a queer person, being asked to a person with a physical disability: When did you decide to be in a wheelchair? Why don’t you sound disabled? Is this going to change our relationship? When did you come out as disabled? It could be just a phase right? They sound very ridiculous when they are worded as if someone was asking a person with a physical disability right? Well guess what, they sound just as absurd to queer people and people think they are being “accepting” and “accommodating” by asking them, but in reality they are degrading and insulting.          

No matter what language is used when talking about queer people and disabled people, at least to me it will sound like there is an implied hierarchy and superiority. Being a cis queer girl with a brother who uses a wheelchair, our family’s had our fair share of stares and questions. I’ve never resented the questions and he’s never resented the stares but I know that mutually we resent them for each other. He accepts the stares and returns them with a huge smile. He’s smart, he’s sharper than people give him credit for, he knows that he is different; he just doesn’t let it change the fact that he is the kindest, least bitter person I have ever met. He has no chip on his shoulder. There have always been issues of accommodation, is there an elevator, does this person’s house have stairs leading up to the front door, can he come and see my dorm room, of course he can, after we carry his chair down 6 steps. Can I get married to the person I love in the united states? Of course I can, but only in 14 of them.

Legalizing gay marriage is the same as building a wheelchair ramp or installing an elevator; these things are happening as an afterthought in any given establishment, whether it be a high school or a country. People are acting as if they are doing people favors when these things should be procedure, “the norm.”

Normative, norm, normal are words that hold such a stigma of a standard that has supposedly been established. Who gets to set these standards? There should be no hierarchy in the human race. Everyone has their disabilities, “accommodation” does not stop at wheelchair ramps. Disabilities do not have to be visible, most of them are not. That does not mean that we stop searching for them or acknowledging them at the sight of working legs.

Ash Beckham gave a Tedx Talk on coming out of the closet and as she states, she talks about it “not in the traditional sense, not just the gay closet” she says “all a closet is, is a hard conversation.” She speaks about the word hard and how it is so often used as a relative term “who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your five year-old you’re getting a divorce, there is no harder, there is just hard.” This is such an important message when looking at the topic of disability. People initially judge the appearance of a person so automatically that you would never assume that an able-bodied person is being eaten alive by their learning disabilities, we don’t realize that most people don’t wear their hard on their sleeve, they hide it in their closet, as Ash would say. “ We need to stop ranking our hard against everyone else’s hard to make us feel better or worse about our closets and just commiserate on the fact that we all have hard” People spend a lot of time measuring their feats against others and there is no inadequate feat. That is where the misconception lies. No one can tell you that your disability is harder or easier than anyone else’s.

            The idea that coming out of a closet is easier for someone with a visible disability than someone with a mental illness is a misconception that needs to be destroyed. They are all hard conversations because we internally struggle with ourselves prior and we struggle with the reactions of the people we trust to tell. Ash Beckham goes on to say “although our topics may vary tremendously, the experience of being in, and coming out of the closet is universal; it is scary, and we hate it, and it is something that needs to be done.” There is no easy way to tell someone anything in this world because we fear the response, there is no way to know what someone is going to think of you or say to you, but we need to come out. We all need to come out of our closets despite this fear. If we all stayed in our closets with the doors shut, the minds of the world will remain closed and no change will come.