“When did you come out?” is a question I’ve been asked on numerous dates. (I’ve also asked it, usually when there’s not much else to say.) It’s a question that stands in for other questions: How well do you know yourself? How risk-averse are you? How liberal were your parents, your peers, your places of worship? Where would you situate your family, socioeconomically? Mostly, it’s a stand-in for: How new are you at this? And: Can I trust you?
Gays like me are conditioned to divide our lives in two: Before and After. Year Zero is the day we decide to walk out of a mental construct we’ve designed to keep ourselves safe. And then we keep walking… never to return. Goodbye old self, hello new setting on my dating app. Now I can finally be real with you, people without last names.
Like a lot of external milestones we tend to pour way too much meaning into — marriage, getting hired, getting fired, saying yes to the dress — the coming out myth rarely (never?) matches reality. Becoming yourself is deeper than going public about your sexuality. It’s more than a single conversation around a kitchen table (or a Twitter timeline). The before-and-after narrative tends to mean more to straight people than it does to the actors at the center of this myth. It’s like: Finally, we know what to call you! (People love knowing what to call other people. They can’t get enough of it!)
I never “came out” of “the closet.” And by that, I mean there was no single point in time when I decided to Be Myself. Instead, I just sort of… expanded. I oozed outward in slow-motion, like a ball of slime. I gave myself permission to break the rules I’d spent decades inscribing into my consciousness. I made out with people and then talked about it. This was awesome and mortifying and totally normal… and no one cared. It happened somewhere between 2010 and 20… the year I die? What you’re reading now is part of it. Part of the ooze. Because it doesn’t stop, it’s just an ongoing expansion. Like, first I was in the closet. Now, the closet is in me. I ate it.
I say the closet is a part of me because I’m sure some people reading this never thought of me as anything but straight. Probably because they never thought of me at all. And why would they? I’m like Schrodinger’s Thirtysomething, simultaneously in and out depending on how well we know each other.
More importantly, I remember what it was like to live in accordance with an imaginary book of rules. Wear giant hoodies! Be sort of boring! Don’t laugh like that! It was annoying, but I don’t disown that rule-follower. Existing in a confined space taught me small ways to be free within any confined space I might find myself in. And there are a lot of those, especially this year.
Of course, I don’t say all this stuff to strangers at a bar (or a Zoom). Instead, I usually tell people I came out “late.” (I was 22 in 2010, which if you recall correctly is when all of this started, though to be honest it probably began at birth.) I say this to preface the fact that I may be bad at dating. That I never feel like “myself,” whoever that is. Mostly, I say “late” as an excuse: Hi, sorry, I’ve been tardy my entire life, please help me speed things up.
Never mind the fact that 22 is not “late.” Never mind that “late” is an excerpt from a rule in someone else’s book, one I was handed as soon as I started dating guys. Never mind that I’m still trying to unlearn those rules and all the others.
I wonder when we’ll stop implying there’s some vague timeline for being gay, or being anything. I wonder when we’ll ditch the before-and-after for something more realistic: come in, come out, come out a little more, go back in, oh are you cold? do you want to come back inside?, ad infinitum. I recently learned that time is a spiral, which makes a lot of sense to me. No befores and afters, just backs and forths along a Z-axis that marches forward indefinitely. It reminds me of one of my favorite essays about slow-motion coming out, in which Chloe Caldwell bullet-points becoming bi. Here’s my favorite part (I’ve been this person at the Pride parade, too): Last summer, my mother and I were cleaning out my apartment on the same day as the Pride parade. We took a break and walked to the parade. My dad was there, too. The three of us stood in silence. It meant something to me, since I was inwardly identifying as queer now. “Maybe they know,” I thought.
When did I come out? Just now, if you were paying attention. But also, a decade ago. Last week, when a gay friend-quaintance of 15 years asked me, sort of sheepishly and in the middle of a conversation about ergonomic chairs, “So, wait, when did you come out?” Every time I talk to my dad and hear the barely perceptible silences. That day I went to the doctor and, after I told her I was gay, she asked if I wanted a meningitis vaccine (“The rates of contracting… are higher for…”). Over Google hangouts, when someone I barely know prefaces a question with, “I don’t know what your dating situation is, but.” Sometime in 2003, wrapped in a blanket burrito on a friend’s floor, realizing Oh, yeah, hmm, I guess I have a secret.
You’re always circling back to the people you used to be. Editing the rules you used to follow into new, less suffocating ones. I live in a territory most people would confidently call After, yet it feels no less tenuous than the Before Times. In a million ways, I haven’t even come out yet. Maybe I will soon.