It’s National Coming Out Day: What Does That Mean, and Is It Problematic?

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

BY JESS CLAWSON

Are you out amongst your friends at the barn or in your pony club or at home? Do you wish you were? How do you tell your story?

When we think of queer stories, it’s easy to think of movies like Brokeback Mountain or Boys Don’t Cry, where being queer is hard and being out is terrifying, perhaps even deadly. Even in the cupcake of a film Love, Simon, coming out was a horrifying prospect to an upperclass boy with a supportive family. But what does it mean to be “out,” and how can we talk about it in a way that makes sense?

The binary between being closeted or out is one that is often over relied on in queer narratives that propose that being out is preferable, even if it means facing brutality, because out is “honest.” But often, things are far more complicated.

People are not either closeted or out, and the horse world is no exception. They can be out to some people, and not others. I think this is, in fact, the norm for most queer people I know. What does it mean to be out, anyway? That you know you’re queer; that everyone who knows you knows it? When a new boarder comes to the barn, do you tell them? If you don’t, are you still “out”?

National Coming Out Day (NCOD), observed each year on October 11, was founded in 1988 by psychologist Robert Eichberg and lesbian activist and political leader Jean O’Leary. The country was in the throes of the AIDS crisis. A lot of people saw being queer as the equivalent of being diseased, and AIDS was often called “the gay cancer.” In these tragic times, Eichberg and O’Leary wanted to reframe being queer as positive and make coming out an empowering experience. “Most people think they don’t know anyone gay or lesbian, and in fact everybody does. It is imperative that we come out and let people know who we are and disabuse them of their fears and stereotypes,” he was quoted in The New York Times.

It’s easy to see the appeal of this reasoning. For many people, coming out is an important piece of ownership of our identities and experiences, and ideally the news is greeted with warmth and cheer. It’s also true that the more queer people are visible, the more we can collectively work to strengthen our communities. But that doesn’t mean we should consider NCOD uncritically.

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

My overarching objection to NCOD is that it perpetuates the very thing I want to eradicate: heteronormativity. Meaning that straightness is default, and all other sexual orientations and ideas are an abberation. Which can be a damaging dialogue. As Dorothy Parker said, “Heterosexuality isn’t normal, it’s just common.”

The danger of heteronormativity is that it gives people who would discriminate against or do violence to queer people the justification they seek. Queer people are weird or gross or deficient or evil or sinners or whatever else, as opposed to straight people, who are “normal.” This mentality finds its way to the horse world too. I fired a farrier once for saying he thought lesbians were hot, and gay men are gross. That is unacceptable.

Having a day dedicated to queer people coming out emphasizes coming out as a queer-only experience. Straight people don’t have to come out, because everyone is assumed to be straight until they indicate otherwise. Think about all the things we say about babies, about how “she’s going to be breaking all the boys’ hearts” or “he loves the ladies.” I haven’t heard a non-queer person say to a baby girl that she’s going to be breaking all the girls’ hearts. It’s just the assumption that comes with heteronormativity.

Along those lines, English equestrian sports are coded as feminine, and men who ride dressage or hunter/jumpers or event horses are often assumed to be gay. And some of them are, but not all of them, as is true in all sports. Out queer people are good for our sport, because our presence asks others to check their assumptions about us. But one of the brilliant things about what we do is that we compete against everyone, with no gendered divisions, and so horse sports are a great place for those who defy gender conventions to find a home.

Furthermore, NCOD tends to over-emphasize coming out as the most important element of queer identity, but doesn’t recognize small steps within that process. Unless a queer person has never told a soul that they’re queer, they’re out somewhere, to someone. How “out” does a person have to be to fulfill the NCOD requirements? Coming out is not safe for everyone in all contexts, and it is not the most important part of being queer. The most important part of being queer is knowing yourself. Your first responsibility to yourself is to be safe, just as it is in your riding. If your barn community isn’t a safe place to be out, then don’t be out–and I hope you can find a place that is genuinely welcoming to you.

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

I don’t like that the “closet” is framed as a dark, unhappy, false place, and that being “out” implies stepping into the light and being honest and free (from what?). This is especially untrue given that a 20-30% of homeless youth identify as queer, and that according to a 2015 UCLA study, fully 55 to 65% of queer youth say they were forced from their homes or had to run away because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. Over half of youth who come out subsequently become homeless? Yikes.

Many factors increase a person’s vulnerability, including race, class, ability, financial security, and mental health. Queer people cross all intersections of identity, and some are more privileged than others. Having access to a safe living situation and not being the target of racism, ableism, or discrimination based on mental health diagnoses makes it much easier to be out safely, even in the face of potential family rejection. How many of us would be able to participate in the sport we love without or family’s support? I’m a fully grown adult and I know that if my family didn’t support me, I would struggle even more to make being an event rider work. It would have been completely impossible as a teenager. So for many equestrians, coming out puts their ability to ride at risk, and we all know that riding is one of the best things for our mental health, or it should be.

There is no right or wrong way to be queer. You don’t have to tell anyone any details about your life if you don’t want to or feel you can. Your story is yours alone. You need to do what is best for you to fulfill your goals as an equestrian and as a human being. I definitely want to see more queer visibility in the horse world, but not at any individual person’s expense.

To the extent that you want to and can be out, I support you. If you choose to announce on NCOD that you are not a straight person, I support that too. But I think we should move away from the idea that queer people need to be out to be valid or to put the community ahead of themselves, or that speaking your identity aloud is the apotheosis of queer identities. Wherever you are on your journey, I love and you and I’m here for you, and I hope your life is magical.