Coming Out As Self Defense
Content Warning: Emotional Abuse
Photo Credit: Mark Fosh
[Image Description: a close-up of two coat of arms shields on the exterior facade of a gothic style building at Cambridge Uni]
Coming out is a process, more than a destination. It took me a long time to learn this — a long time and a lot of new places. I spent most of 2017 as a temp, moving from office to office every three months. The introductory ritual was always the same. "Hello, my name is Waverly, I’m [covering for whoever/replacing whoever else/stepping into someone else’s life for a while], I used to sell books, I used to study literature, I used to have a girlfriend, would you like a cup of tea? No, no, it’s really okay. I’m already going to the kitchen."
(This is another thing you learn when temping: people can generally be bought with caffeinated drinks.)
Yet I have never had a girlfriend. Everyone I’ve dated has been non-binary, like me. But it’s easier to fluff the details — of your own identity, of others’. ‘Girlfriend’ is the protest sign I carry in upraised hands to each everyday coming-out. Sure, it lacks nuance, but nuance is for long-term projects, not short-term necessity. It’s there to make a point, the point being in this instance that I’ve never been heterosexual in my life. I want that to be absolutely goddamn clear.
What I mean to say is coming out is an act of self-protection every time I do it. It’s a piece of armor I’m always waiting to put on, a defense against assumption, a shield to deflect any casual, thoughtless harm. The thing is that it’s always worked. The first time I ever came out, I traded visibility, and thus vulnerability, for respite from an ongoing trauma — although that sounds much more directed than it felt at the time. In the moment, I felt like it was the sensible choice. Which is sort of hilarious, under scrutiny, with hindsight.
My father drives us all out for the day. He is proud of me in the ways he knows how to be proud of me, which are condescending at best and ferocious at worst. The atmosphere in the car is strange, colored by heat and traffic. I have learned to measure these things according to instinct and necessity; I am getting better all the time. My sister doesn’t speak. I put in my headphones — announce it to the assembled company so I have an excuse to keep quiet too. The faint strains of Radio 2 filter in through the music in my earbuds. The beats of the songs fail over and over to align.
I’m dressed smartly, which is to say I look somewhere close to presentable despite my complete incapacity with fashion and make-up. We are going to the council chambers and those are capital-F Fancy. I am representing my school and that is capital-I Important. I shake all the necessary hands. When I was five years old I took classes on all of these things — eye contact, quiet hands, the peacekeeping ritual of small talk — because it never occurred to me to do them without prompting. Now I am adept. Adults love me. Adults have loved me for years because I have talked like I am one of them since the age of maybe six.
I make my speech. It is all very pop-feminism, dancing in circles around the heart of a movement to which I came shamefully late. I overrun by ten seconds. This turns out to matter; a boy who speaks both engagingly and to time beats me to first place.
That isn’t why it matters. It wouldn’t matter to me if I were here by myself and if I were doing this only for me. But my family has been sticking to these leather-cushioned chairs for the past two hours, anticipating victory. They have grown accustomed to failure as a catalyst – not for reflection or renewal of efforts, but for something altogether more explosive. They came here for me, though I can’t imagine I wanted them to. Now they think they have to tiptoe around me in the wake of my loss. This is an effort. My father is not capable of walking on his toes.
(For a while my mother was a ballet teacher. She made sure that my sister and I were taught the basics, and though we both dropped out of our Saturday classes in the end, what I learned has never quite left me. Even nearly two decades on, I remember the list of positions, one-two-three-four-five; the tension in my calves, the brittle arch of my arms as I balanced on the balls of my feet. Ageless, thoughtless reflexes inhabit my body, ghosts in a haunted house. You don’t outgrow what you learn that early on.)
We emerge from the council chambers into the light. My father wants to stay. "We could make the best of it," he says. "Go shopping. Have fun."
Nobody is in the mood for fun. I’m tired, overwhelmed. My sister has been quietly sulking all day. My mother can see the brittleness in my father's smile and knows better than to say what she means. Stuck in this deadlock, we limp around the shopping center for maybe half an hour. I’m out of emotional energy; I poured all of it into competition nerves or on-the-spot resilience. I don’t have it in me to soften the blow when he gives up and we duly troop back to the car.
"I am putting in my headphones," I say, as we start to descend through the grey concrete layers of the car park. Nobody really says anything back.
We’re halfway home when my father cracks. Was it something he said? Why is everyone so quiet? What has he done this time, he wants to know, and it falls on my mother to pacify him.
"We’re fine," she says. "We’re just tired."
"I’ve had my headphones in,” I add. “So I didn’t hear if you tried to talk to me. Did you try to talk to me?"
He did not try to talk to me.
My sister stares sullenly out of the window. I put my headphones back in. The silence resumes. We are all going to die in this suffocating car if I do not find a way to intervene.
At least that’s what it feels like. The man in the driver’s seat is a time bomb with a short fuse. Seconds left on the clock. I don’t have anything to cheer him up because I lost the goddamn competition. I don’t have a means to pacify him, because all my sensors are screaming danger and providing absolutely nothing more useful than that. I need a distraction. I need something big enough to command attention, something emotionally affecting enough to make fighting unconscionable for the rest of the afternoon.
My brain lands somewhere it would never have landed if it worked the way it should.
We pull up into the driveway; evacuate the car. I slip into the house before anyone else, take off my shoes, stow them away. I don’t feel my body anymore. I have stopped being a person and started being a purpose, which is not a skill that many sixteen-year-olds possess.
I climb the stairs, just a little way, enough for a height advantage on my father. I look into the mirror right opposite the staircase in my parents’ house. I used to get told off for looking into it too much like this was vanity. It wasn’t vanity. I was only ever trying to find a sense of object permanence, vis-a-vis my own presence in the world. My reflection catches my eye as my parents crowd in the hallway, wiping their feet on the mat. It’s nothing to do with me at all, this funny-looking stranger in a smart sheath dress and a string of old pearls.
They’re starting for the kitchen. I take a breath.
"There’s something I want to tell you," I say, and they stop still in the doorway. There is a banister between them and me, neat white railings like bars. "I’m bisexual," I say. "I’ve known for a while."
And that is all it takes.
My father claims to have always known. My mother is startled, tripping over herself to tell me that of course, of course, it’s all right. All the tensions of our family outing are forgotten. The gesture does everything I need it to do, and I get genuinely, exceptionally lucky into the bargain. Nobody disowns me. Nobody screams. Nobody tells me I’m wrong.
I climb the stairs quickly and quietly. My bedroom is blue and airy and light, and I wrap it around me like my very own cocoon. I lift the lid on my laptop and sit at my desk, where I always sit. I open my browser, click around, drift between mindless flash games while my feelings start to come back online. I don't know if I want to cry. When I reach for whatever it was that presented the question, my hand closes on empty air; there’s a concept, but without the language with which to express it, I might as well be trying to hold onto smoke.
My mother taps at the door. "Come in," I tell her.
She puts her head around the frame, tousle-haired and owl-eyed and ever so careful. "I’m sorry," she says. There’s a terrible self-discipline underpinning it all; the steadiness of her hands, the studied calm of her voice. She’s en pointe. I learned from the best. "It’s such a lot to take in, and it’s hard to know how to respond in the heat of the moment. But I don’t want you to think I’m unhappy because I’m not. I’m so happy you felt you could tell us. You know I love you, don’t you?"
The first time I saw my mother cry, it was after a fight at the dinner table. My father took a chair and threw it to the floor, stormed up the stairs while the three of us drowned in our own horrified silence. I crept upstairs to bed, later on, while she sobbed in the kitchen with my father’s hand on her shoulder. "You shouldn’t call them stupid. They’re very intelligent little girls," she said, tears streaming down her face. We were children. For days after the fact, he was so kind to us, overflowing with energy and laughter.
"I know," I say, and look down at my hands on the keyboard. "I love you too."
I am still in contact with my parents. Every few months, for a few hours at a time, they come to visit me in the city where I live. It is a compromise that feels very similar to coming out; it staves off a reckoning for just a little longer, and the only thing it costs me is another piece of myself. I stumble between encounters and I hope for a solution that won’t demand anything more from me. My mother did the same for decades of marriage, and she is still there, still hoping.
"It’s hard to know how to respond," she said, "in the heat of the moment." She was right. I’m like a plant, choked and stunted into a shape it can’t sustain. Sure, I can read a room in a heartbeat, and I can curtail an imminent danger faster than anyone I know, but I’ve spent my life watching every entrance and exit for any hint of trouble, and I’m exhausted. Self-acceptance is one thing. Throwing out scraps of my identity like signal flares – look over here, don’t go that way – is something else entirely. It’s an act of self-defense against the threat of harm, however ignorant and however reflexive that harm might be, and it works so terribly well that I might never be able to stop. One day there won’t be any diversions left. More to the point, there won’t be anything of me.
I don’t identify with ‘bisexual’ anymore. I go with ‘queer’ where possible; in spaces where it’s not, I opt for ‘gay’ instead. No matter what, I am always waiting for someone to notice the quiet elision of my gender. Then there are the words with which I’ve been diagnosed, the words I am still slowly attempting to interrogate. Dysthymia, depression, anxiety, trauma. All any of it means is that I don’t feel things the way I should.
But the words matter, don’t they? We bargain with the world for what little respite we can get. We put names to what we are and hope it forestalls the inevitable, whatever our inevitable might be. There’s protection in systems; there’s some small, bitter self-defense in every compromise we make.
Coming out, compromising, coping – the process defeats me over and over, and there might never be a destination. I don’t know what the answer could be. I can only hope that there’s meaning in the effort to articulate the question.
Waverly SM survived a Cambridge education and ran away to a bookshop in Oxford, disappointing their parents and most of their teachers. Their hobbies include staring into space, thinking about ghosts, and masking existential dread with blue hair dye. They’re working on a book about a world-devouring god, its chosen prophets, and their efforts to reclaim their agency in the face of the apocalypse. They’re regrettably active on Twitter, and a selection of their essays and poetry can be found on Medium.