In 2013 so far the biggest celebrity coming out story has been that of NBA star Jason Collins making history as the first openly gay and active athlete. Coming out has also enabled people to fight against oppressive legislation like DOMA. But what does it mean to “come out?”
I’m Pakistani. The first language I learned as a kid was Urdu — which is similar to Hindi in some ways. In Urdu, there’s no direct translation for the phrase “coming out.” In fact, I think most other non-American English languages cannot translate it perfectly. So, non-Westerners or people outside of the U.S. have to: 1) be literal with the words 2) offer a detailed explanation or 3) invent a word.
Literally, I know how to say “come outside” in Urdu. I also know how to say that someone’s family knows they “like people of the same sex” or are “men who gender identify as women/men who crossdress/eunuchs” (all the same word).
I haven’t invented a word yet for “coming out,” but it’s on my to do list for 2013.
In general, “coming out” is about revealing your sexual orientation to your community and choosing to live a life without secrets about who you love. And even if you’re out, you still make choices regularly on whether or not to disclose that information to someone. Like if you’re at a concert and someone asks where your boyfriend is, do you feel like saying, “I don’t have a boyfriend…but my girlfriend is over there?” Or if you are starting a new job, do you reveal that your partner is actually your romantic partner, not your business partner?
I remember when I was in my first serious relationship with a woman. The movie Milk had just come out in theatres and I went to see the movie with my girlfriend at the time and our friends. Milk is about Harvey Milk, the civil rights activist who served 11 months in San Francisco as the first openly gay elected official in the U.S., before being assassinated in 1978. This guy was a hero and a leader. It was exciting to see Hollywood embrace this gay icon and celebrate his story.
Now, I’ll admit (and I’m sure some people will rebuke me for my ignorance), but at the time, I didn’t know who the heck Harvey Milk was. I was born in Canada, was raised on the northeastern tip of the country next to the Atlantic Ocean, born into a conservative Pakistani Muslim immigrant household. I grew up on lentils, French and hockey. I didn’t celebrate Christmas, I wasn’t allowed to date or hang out with the boys. I was not allowed to go to parties, prom or eat pork. No one in my family drank alcohol. And sex is a word I never heard from my mother or father’s mouth. (My father passed away 6 years ago and I never saw them kiss, not even on the cheek.)
I was totally new to self-acceptance and being openly gay. I mean, I was negotiating how to just be in a relationship with a woman, without having to also memorize the encyclopedia of gay politics and gay history in America. CUT ME SOME SLACK.
What I would learn is that Harvey Milk’s main message was that “every gay person must come out.”
“As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family,” Milk said. “You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.”
Milk helped build and strengthen a community and inspire a gay revolution in California. The film was an important building block in my queer identity. However, it simultaneously terrified me. Why? Because for weeks afterwards, all my gay friends were talking about the same thing: the strength of Milk’s message today. And it didn’t matter where we went, from a gay BBQ to a gay dance party to a gay political rally, the message was clear: you must come out.
It’s one thing to watch a movie and be moved by the message, but for me to come out like that? Whole different cricket match. That freaked my brown skin right off my bones. Because suddenly I felt a glaring fluorescent spotlight on my closeted South Asian Muslim existence. My gut reaction was that most people didn’t understand, that I needed more time and that my family was different. I didn’t have a better or more articulate answer than that.
Now? Now I have words to describe my gut. Mind you, it has taken me a long time and a lot of work immersing myself within my queer community, as an activist, as an artist and as a voice. But, I think my gut was relaying real and valid feelings. My gut was scared. My gut was terrified by a lot of, but specifically confused by the definition of “coming out.” Because if “coming out” means “a queer-identifying person disclosing their sexual orientation,” it also means to disclose something not known about someone, like a secret, right? But what about all my other secrets and beliefs that I know would cause total shame to my mother, my family and my ancestors?
Doesn’t that mean I’d have to: come out as loving a woman, which, in homophobic circles is only about having sex, which my family and I never discuss? Also, I wasn’t supposed to have sex before marriage even with a dude, but if I’m living with someone, then I’m probably having sex with that person. Also, in my daily life, I wear clothes I’d never wear in front of my mother out of respect. I drink, I’ve eaten pork, and recreational drugs definitely crossed my path a time or two.
“Coming out” suddenly conjured an image of me showing up at my hijab-wearing mother’s house, drunk, wearing a bikini, holding m1y equally scantily clad girlfriend in one arm and a big ham in the other and saying, “Hi, Mom! This is who I really am.”
It’s a lot to process. Having so many different layers of identity to juggle, especially being raised in the West, affects your outlook on life and your choices and your interpretation of culture and language. Will you know your parent’s language? Do you like the food? Can you cook it? Do you practice the religion of your parents? Have you ever been to the country your parents were born in? What do they expect of you? Were you raised conservatively? Did you follow those rules? Will you marry someone of your same religious, cultural, racial background? Do you want to?
This is a lot to reconcile. My issue was that, if you can’t even translate “coming out” perfectly in any other language, other than American English, how can anyone expect all queer-identifying people to “come out” in the same way? I think we have to remember that the phrase is inextricably directly connected to a Western culture and to very Western sensibilities that don’t necessarily always translate to all cultures, races, religions, experiences or ultimately, people.
For me, “coming out” is something that is ongoing and perpetual. It will be something I do forever. I can tell my mother I won’t marry a guy, but she will still send me online marriage proposals from shaddi.com, which is like wedding.com for Indians and Pakistanis. I can tell my mother I have a girlfriend but I will never order a glass of wine or a whiskey in front of her. I can be openly queer in my work, on Facebook, on Twitter and in articles and interviews, but I won’t ever wear a swimsuit in front of my mother.
In Islam, they say heaven is below your mother’s feet. And you know what, heaven or not, I was raised to give her respect. And I want to. And for me to “come out,” I realized I needed to reconcile: What is my queer identity? Not society’s, not Harvey Milk’s, not my girlfriend’s, not popular culture’s version of it.
So, obviously I am “out.” Even this writing is an act of it. I’m forever changed for coming out to myself, to my friends and family and to my communities. But my gut was right: we can’t go around telling everyone to “come out” until we realize that it doesn’t mean the same thing to people raised in different cultures. And to assume any less is not sensitive to those people. I had to translate what “coming out” means to me, into actions and choices I understood. So do others.
There’s no perfect or singular path on this journey, especially if the language of someone’s experience hasn’t given them the vocabulary to quite understand how to come out.
image – Milk