Coming out can feel totally unimaginable. Until, one day, it doesn’t anymore.
Sometime last summer, I was chatting with my aunt about my grandmother’s abusive marriage. My aunt once asked her mother why, when her husband was bullying the family, she didn’t just pack up and leave. My grandmother explained that she considered it, that she tried to imagine it, but “it just didn’t feel like an option.”
While this wasn’t the first time we’d had this conversation, it was the first time I had ever heard that exact answer. It resonated with me. “There are a lot of things that should be options,” I said, “that just don’t feel like they are.”
I started to give a lot of thought to personal responsibility, to the part we play in building our own cages. I was watching a deeply closeted friend of mine going about his business and it completely broke my heart to think of the time and attention and energy he was expending just so he could be more isolated, more alone in the world. Why would someone live like that, I couldn’t help but think, when there was an alternative?
And yet I was living like that too, every hour of every day, and I had been for just about as long as I remember. Why? Because anything else — put simply, it just didn’t feel like an option.
And yes, of course, part of it was because of what society was throwing back at me. Yes, the heteronormativity was oppressive. Yes, homophobic microagressions gnawed at my psyche. But the truth was, while there are real, practical barriers that bar many people around the world from living out, while many people around the world might have fears for their physical safety or their job security or fears that their family might reject them, not many of those dangers actually applied to me.
I live in California. I am white and middle-class and my family is neither religious nor closed-minded. I could say with a fair amount of certainty that I wouldn’t lose any friends or family or job security by coming out. As for physical safety…I looked straight, and I had never walked down the street holding hands with a woman, so I just didn’t know what that’s like. But I suspected, or at least hoped, that most of the time, it would be okay.
So maybe, I thought, maybe it’s time to stop looking to the world around me for excuses not to be who I want to be. Maybe it’s time to take some responsibility for where I am. What are the barriers I have put up myself? Which ones have I allowed other people to put up for me? Why are they there? And what am I going to do about them?
They all ended with a simple fact: after at least 20 years of living a certain way, I couldn’t imagine doing things any differently. When I thought about coming out or living openly, I never got very far, because those were conversations I just couldn’t imagine having, things I just couldn’t imagine doing.
But no wonder. I couldn’t imagine, let’s say, ski-jumping in the Olympics either. I didn’t know the first thing about ski jumping. If I tried to pull it off, there’s no way I would medal, and I would probably end up killing myself. Ski jumping, naturally, didn’t feel like an option for me.
But what if I started by putting on some skis? What if I started by learning to be more comfortable on the bunny slopes?
Arthur C. Clarke said something about the future being unimaginable. The truth is, when we think of the unknown, when we think of the options we’ve hardened our hearts to, when we think of things that are entirely different from the things we are doing now…they are unimaginable too. Sure, you think, someone out there is doing it — but it won’t be me. I just can’t imagine myself sitting at the top of a ski ramp. It’s beyond scary. I don’t have a plan for what I would do to keep myself safe, for what I would do to succeed.
But maybe, I was starting to think, I didn’t really need to have those plans. Maybe what I actually needed — all I needed — was to put on some skis and trust myself to learn and plan as I pushed along.
Ian McClellan was once asked, in a Buzzfeed interview, what his message to closeted gay people would be today. “Come out,” he said. “Join the human race.” And at the time I thought wow, that’s super harsh, it’s not that simple, there are so many things and people to consider and there are the complexities of this and that and the other thing and…
But here’s the thing. All of that stuff that we “adults” like to call complicated? A lot of it actually isn’t. A lot of it is simple, but it’s blocked by fear of the unknown, resistance against the unimaginable. Join the human race, he said. And after that? I assumed that one could get on with their life, as much as anyone manages to, and spend just a little less time living in their head, and a little more time, well, living.
That in itself was unimaginable too, but who cares, I thought — I might as well try anyway. And if I was so obsessed with these messages I received while growing up, then I decided I should probably pay a little more attention to the one they told us time and time again, at home and at school: you can do anything, they said, you can be anything you want to be. All that I have to do is try.
The very next week, I strapped on my skis, screwed my courage to the sticking place, and asked a girl out. A month later, I started telling some of my family and friends.
There are still people in my life that I’m not out to. It’s not all as easy as 1-2-3. Sometimes you have to make space in a relationship for that conversation to happen, and that space doesn’t open up overnight. But when I finally realized that I didn’t have to imagine it to make it a reality…a whole new world opened up. Thank goodness.
The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to be very reasonable, then I’ll fail completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have you any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.
–Arthur C. Clarke, talking to the BBC in 1964