Coming Out Casually
Welcome to this week’s Queering the Narrative!
Throughout the discussions I’ve posted to this blog, I’ve had one common thread of advice for writing queer characters: let them come out. As I’ve said before, this lets the character retain their agency over their identity and shows respect not just to them, but to your queer readers as well.
However, that advice always comes with the caveat that if you haven’t personally experienced (or thought about) coming out, then it can be a difficult scene to write. This is because coming out is a nuanced, emotional, and highly varied experience that is also, in many ways, still integral to the queer experience. So, with that in mind, how are you supposed to follow my advice if you yourself are not queer?
Part of why I write this blog is to make it more accessible for non-queer writers to include queer characters in their work. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE queer authors, and think the world needs as many more of them as we can get. But that doesn’t mean that non-queer writers shouldn’t ALSO be including queer characters in their work. My hope for this blog is to facilitate BOTH of these groups in writing more queer characters.
And part of knowing how to write queer characters is to understand what it means to come out. This topic is far too large for a single blog post, so I’m going to be tackling it in pieces. This week, I’m going to talk about what I like to call Casually Coming Out.
Keepin’ It Casual
LGBT+ people never really stop coming out. A lot of the world seems to think that coming out is like an on/off switch, that you make that decision and do it, and then you’re out and everyone knows!
But what about all the people who didn’t follow you back when you made that Facebook post? Or weren’t in the room when you told your family, at prom when you slow danced with your sweetheart for the first time? We meet new people everyday, and many of them become parts of our lives — new friends, new co-workers, new teachers — and unless you tell them you’re queer, they almost certainly won’t know.
Most queer folk are “stealth” in that they are not immediately identifiable as queer, but therefore have to tell people it that’s the case. If a bi man wants to talk about an ex-boyfriend, he’ll have to come out. So will an agender person who wants people to use the proper pronouns for them, or a trans woman wants to talk about her experience with gender.
And really, that doesn’t have to be a big deal. A lot of queer people come out in completely casual ways — making jokes, providing context for stories, or simply saying “Oh, btw, I’m gay.” After a certain point, it’s almost easy. Once I’ve determined that someone isn’t going to be a transphobic twat, I’m happy to talk about my identity, and I do so relatively freely. My partner and I both speak openly of our bi identities, as it’s relevant to our experience.
Sometimes there’s some raised eyebrows — “Oh, wow, I never would have guessed!” — or some confusion. But in general, if a queer person casually comes out, then it’s treated as a casual thing! More often than not, people don’t even react — they just absorb the information and use it to frame whatever needed that context.
So when your characters come out to each other in your fiction, it doesn’t have to be a whole big thing. Consider the below as an example:
“Yeah,” Amy said. “Back in college my girlfriend and I went to a water park and almost died on some industrial-sized slip’n’slide.”
“Girlfriend?” said Chuck.
“Hm?” Amy said. “Oh, yeah, I’m bi.”
“Ah,” Chuck said. “So how’d you almost die on a slip’n’slide?”
This is a perfectly reasonable exchange that two mutually respectful people might have, in which one of them came out and it really wasn’t a big deal. But Amy, your bi character, was granted the agency in your narrative to own her identity. This does two things: it shows respect to your queer character (and by extension, your queer readers) while ALSO illustrating to any non-queer folks that coming out doesn’t always requires a gigantic emotional response.
It also doesn’t have to be an explicit coming out (though that’s often better for less-visible identities). Things like using nonbinary pronouns, dating people of the same gender, or displaying attraction to multiple genders can be a casual way that a queer person comes out without having to be explicit. I, however, would always argue in favor of erring on the side of being explicit at some point.
All that being said, note that this is not always the case. While some queer folks — especially from more widely understood identities — will be out-loud-and-proud, coming out is still an immense demonstration of trust. When someone comes out, it’s because they’re confident that the person they’re coming out to won’t react negatively. As such, “thank you for trusting me” is a perfectly acceptable and respectful response.
Overall, if you’re going to do a casual coming out, make sure you understand the motivations. Why is your character coming out? Why do they feel they can trust the people they’re coming out to? Why is it easy for them to be coming out? Do they even have to come out, or do the people around them already know?
No matter what, make sure that you treat your queer characters with respect and dignity, and think critically about the situations surrounding their coming out. It’s possible that in your narrative, a casual coming out isn’t appropriate — either because the character isn’t in a situation where they need to come out, or because the character does not trust those around them. When in doubt, ask a sensitivity reader.
That’s all for this week! In the coming weeks, I’ll be tackling a few of the more emotionally involved types of coming out. But, until then, cheers!