Volume 92, Issue 24

Friday, October 16, 1998

arresting developments


Understanding all the differences

Re:Coming out

To the Editor:

Coming out. Inside and out. It is not just a happy-go-lucky, Hollywood flick. I was thinking about writing this letter for a few days, since it is "Coming Out Week" on campus. While I usually have a more formal, academic-sounding approach, that does not always reach everyone – not even us academics, ironically.

Today I am sad. My tone is unavoidably different. I am very angry and frustrated. People are noticing that I am not myself. I am quiet for a change – demure, even.

Matthew Shepard was 21. He was an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming. Last week two men – in conjunction with two women – took his life. It looks like another anti-gay hate crime, "authorities" said. Matthew was tied to a fence and the criminals beat him until they crushed his skull. He lived on life support – for a few days – then he died this past Monday. Imagine being Matthew. Imagine being killed, like that.

This is what I fear. This is what makes it different. Literary critic, poet and pioneering queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick put it best – "gay oppression is unique." But I am not trying to elicit sympathy. I am trying to induce understanding, through an explication of what makes it different.

Gay oppression differs in that, firstly, gay identity is problematic. Definitions of "being gay" are many, while the authority and control over those definitions are unclear. Gay people have little control over their own self-knowledge.

Secondly, "coming out" may be injurious to the self-identified gay person, but also to the people closest to her or him – family members, for instance. That is, the potential for injury goes in "both directions" – it is not just the "ordinary axe," but a "double-edged weapon," as Sedgewick terms it. Disclosure of a gay identity implicates the erotic identity of the person receiving the disclosure. It is a relational identity, like no other. It is therefore mutually destabilizing.

Finally, gay-identified individuals tend to emerge (or come out) in a vacuum of incoherence and uncertainty. They have to seek out "their people." Their journey usually begins as a lone one. Confidence in one's "people" or community is seldom a support on which to stand before coming out. There is no one to consult, no one to answer to. Gay people do not typically grow up in a gay family that passes down a politics or culture of survival and resistance. On the contrary, they are usually confronted with homophobia early on, in their most personal spheres.

Compare all of this to "coming out" under other forms of oppression. You see, being in the closet is both liberating and oppressive. And so is coming out – which is never-ending, to top it all off. However, that does not negate the importance of coming out. Coming out is the voice that escapes silent, arbitrary categorization. The voice is the key unit of the chorus. Understand that voice, but also take it a step further.

Recognize that "gender" is inextricable from "sexuality" and that the consequences of this interrelationship are profound. Realize that all forms and systems of oppression are interlocking and mutually reinforcing. Trace the language of inside/out, homo/hetero, black/white, good/bad. Look for the roots of incoherence and contradiction therein and tackle them head-on.

In the meantime, remember the consequences of rejection and hate. Remember Matthew Shepard, the openly gay 21-year-old who died as yet another victim of hate.

Richard Telfer

MA Sociology I

To Contact The Opinions Department: gazette.opinions@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1998