Benjamin Fisher (Greensboro, NC)
Everyone seems to have an opinion about what “Empire” actor Jussie Smollet’s appearance on Ellen’s show means or does not mean for the visibility of queer people. I just finished re-watching a segment on writer Janet Mock’s MSNBC show “So Popular,” and her discussion of Jussie Smollet’s interview initiated my own meditation on queer visibility.
The “coming out” paradigm has become rather mainstream (which I actually think is a good thing); and as a result, it has become sexy and trendy to critique the process of “coming out” for how it reinforces heterosexism. The critique has some validity; after all, why don’t heterosexual people have to “come out” of the closet? However, I resist asserting that the “coming out” paradigm is completely useless or unproductive. There have been alternatives proposed like an “inviting in” process, which I think also works well for SOME people.
But I think what is missing in this push and pull between the “mainstream” and “radical” is the fact that many of us existed in contexts in which we were given neither of these choices. For people like myself who have never “passed for heterosexual” (not that I believe “passing” is at all liberating), “coming out” and “inviting in” are not really options because people are perpetually speculating about us, discussing our business, and often “inviting themselves” into our spaces.
Indeed, many of us existed in spaces where our sexualities were so ruthlessly pathologized that “coming out” would have been an invitation for all kinds of violence and abuse; and concurrently, there were not many trustworthy or safe people to “invite in,”people with whom to discuss our fears, our despondencies. So you formulated your own pragmatic tactics for navigating a hostile environment. You throw yourself into school work. You keep quiet. You keep your head down and pray that people will just leave you alone because you are filled with such a profound sense of shame and fear.
After all of the language policing and intellectualizing, I wonder what makes sense for those of us who have existed and continue to exist in geographies of virulent queer antagonism and shame. Are either “coming out” or “inviting in” viable choices for us? How do we work against an LGBTQ assimilation politics while also respecting that some of our people are still lacking choices? Can we work towards having the most available choices for queer people and resist getting trapped in discussions around language? Let the people who want to “come out” come out. Let the people who want to “invite in” invite people in. But respect the rest of us who choose alternative methods of navigating a heterosexist world.