I woke up this morning and heard the news that Ellen Page came out as gay, which was great because it left me wondering, “hmm, not a lesbian? ok. cool” and there was that question in my mind about her choice of label. Maybe it was intentional, maybe not. I also noticed the way her right hand shook and moved about, keeping time and meter with her speech, as if its motion provided her comfort that as long as it moved, she could keep talking. I’ve felt that same feeling, rather like facing a firing squad. It is exhilarating and horrible, in equal amounts.
And then all the People of the Land rejoiced that yet another person stood up on a stage and shared something extremely intimate and personal to “help others”. All the People of the Land celebrated another person facing and overcoming the decision to face a lifetime of being stigmatized based on one identity of many that made that person a whole person. And they applauded her courage and bravery and welcomed her into The Club--the association of people who lead the pack of being open, honest and vulnerable while others live their lives off the radar of dissection, opinion and criticism.
Ellen Page came out. Michael Sam came out. We see these headlines and then we see the backlash and the flag-waving supporters and it’s a media frenzy. I sit and wonder why we are still dealing with this issue of stigma. What are we being taught? What have we not yet learned about stigma and difference?
"Overcome the notion that you must be regular. It robs you of the chance to be extraordinary."
Something that occurred to me while reading the post on Autostraddle about Ellen and the video of her coming out at the HRC event was the bittersweet quality of coming out. It prompted me to write this piece about what it means to sign up for a lifetime of being stigmatized, why it’s hard to take it on and why we celebrate when someone does.
First, I gotta say this. LGBTQ people aren’t the only ones living outside the lines and they aren’t the only ones being brave and outspoken. The big elephant in the room here is that there are no lines. We celebrate people coming out of the closet, specifically about sexual identity, because we think it signifies someone defying norms and not being afraid to be different. It’s a hoax, folks. There actually is no such thing as normal. There is nothing but difference all around us. We fool ourselves into thinking this isn’t the case and the truth is staring us in the face. Coming out moments are mere reminders that we aren’t honoring the reality, the pure, naked, obvious reality that this country (and world) is still a place that sees differences as differences instead of the truth about us humans. Uniqueness is the only true norm we share in common.
Coming out represents what it means to be stigmatized, to be separated from “the pack” based on something that makes you different in some way. It’s hard to do that, to expose this thing (or things) that make you different because often that becomes the only thing that people see. They miss the kaleidoscope of your complex identity because “the thing” blinds them.
It’s also hard when others get to play it safe and not be so brave because their identities make it easier to cheer from the sidelines. People, like Ellen Page who are "lying by omission", get to choose the level to which they open the closet and expose their skeletons, or whatever the heck else is hanging out in there.
It’s hard to come out when you know the things people hide, things that aren’t socially acceptable, and yet everyone does a great job of faking it. They hide it. They play the part so well that everyone else is convinced they are the broken, weird one and then no one feels comfortable to be authentic. And because no one feels comfortable, many people hurt the ones who DO step outside the lines (those lines that aren’t real, remember) to make an example out of those who dare to live out their difference. Sometimes, the brave ones get tired of being brave and take out their pain, called internalized oppression, on each other. The “community” can sometimes become anything but a safe place to be different.
That’s why we celebrate so much when someone does come out--about something, anything that is stigmatized. Divorce, abortion, rape, religion, weight, height, adoption, stay-at-home dads, mompreneurs, learning disabilities, to name just a few. When someone speaks up or comes forward we celebrate, individually and collectively, because it shifts the culture one notch closer to the reality we all seek and crave: a culture that accepts human uniqueness and complexity as a given and the only true norm. It reminds us of something we understand but is deeply nestled in our brains: stigma only exists because we’ve failed to make it obselete.
I look forward to the day that coming out becomes boring and commonplace and people don’t feel like they are facing a firing squad of their peers, who, ironically, would probably be facing a squad of a different sort.
But for now, every time someone comes out, we will celebrate. We will celebrate the surmounting of silence over the persistence of stigma. We will celebrate the liberation of a hidden truth and we will feel inspired to be a bit more authentic, ourselves.
In other news, how did I NOT KNOW about this HRC "Time to Thrive" conference? #signmeupfornextyear