For the LGBTQ+ community, the coming out narrative is extremely important. It gives us hope, it can serve as catharsis, and it is often a time of great celebration. When I was a closeted teen, reading stories about coming out of the closet was extremely affirming. I needed to hear these stories.
As someone who has been out of the closet for my entire adult life, I am able to look back on these stories with fondness. They make me feel nostalgic. However, they don’t offer me anything especially new. I enjoy hearing about other peoples’ journeys, about what they have fought through and experienced, but in regards to my own life? It’s not quite as simple.
Beyond the Singular Coming Out Narrative
One of the problems of the typical “coming out narrative” is its linear finality. Many of the stories, especially ones aimed for teens, focus on coming out as though it was one event that happens, and then is over. The reality is, coming out is a continuous and never ending process. If you are queer, you will have to explain that to people…over and over and over again. The stories we read rarely reflect having to tell each new person in your life that yes, you are gay.
My own coming out was both anticlimactic and prolonged. I never had that moment that the books prepared me for, and I know many of my queer friends and family didn’t. Many came out over the phone. I came out in a letter…the first time, anyway.
How We See Ourselves
There is also another problem. This problem lies more in contemporary views of gender and sexuality. Not too long ago, the main cry of the LGBTQ+ community was “I was born this way!” While there is some truth to it, it boils identity down to something very essentialist. It posits that if you are born one way, there is no changing it. You are the way you are forever.
Contemporary views of queerness debate this philosophy. It has merit, but it is also flawed. Identity is not so fixed, and it is extremely context-based. Depending on where you are, who you are, and what time you are living in, your identity will fluctuate. Human beings are not static. We are dynamic.
What is the Harm?
The hyper focus on the coming out narrative is at a cost to other queer stories. Stories aimed at teens suffer the most from this problem. Teens are often repeatedly told to have certain expectations for when they come out, and it usually looks a bit like this: You will keep your gayness/transness a secret for a long time. You may tell one or two trusted friends. Your secret will inevitably get out, or you will be put in a position where you have to tell your parents/guardian/mentor etc. They will not react well, but in the end all will be forgiven.
Many queer people grow into adults and choose to only tell certain people about their identity. It is not always safe to confide in a parent or guardian. Coming out is not the pinnacle of the queer experience, it is not even a catalyst. Sometimes, coming out is not dramatic at all. Sometimes, it results in homelessness or horrible trauma.
I would also argue that being outed is another overdone element in queer storytelling. This is especially problematic when it is being written by a cis straight author as a plot point. Being outed can be incredibly traumatic with disastrous consequences. It can be very upsetting to read.
Although the market is saturated with novels about teens (usually white and cis and gay) coming out or coming to terms with their identity, I don’t want to get rid of these books. Not at all. The coming out narrative serves an important place in the world of queer stories. I would not recommend getting rid of it altogether.
What Else Is There?
There are so many aspects about queer life that I want to see explored. We have powerful stories of healing and growth, and we have tons of writers with the potential to write wild and masterful books. I want to see books about queer found families, being queer in the workplace, and travelling while being part of a visibly queer couple. I want to see more stories about queer wizards, queer vampires, queer pirates. Those stories are cropping up all the time, and it is a delight. There is a myriad of queer voices that are all stepping out to tell stories.
I have been blessed to read books that go far beyond the coming out narrative. That said, I’m still more than happy to read a book about coming out, too.