Coming out through the years: Abigail C. Saguy explores LGBTQ and others' 'closets' conquered

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday May 12, 2020
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Abigail C. Saguy, author of Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are
Abigail C. Saguy, author of Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are

It all started with a quirky off-the-cuff observation Abigail C. Saguy, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at UCLA, made while interviewing leading activists in the fat acceptance movement that promotes appreciation of body size diversity and confronts weight-based stigma and discrimination: they all used the same phrasing, "coming out as fat," the identical concept associated with LGBTQ activism.

Saguy wondered why; was coming out as fat the equivalent of coming out as LGBTQ? Thus, Saguy's new book, Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are, was born.

In addition to this movement, Saguy studied other groups that used the coming out term: undocumented immigrant youth, Mormon fundamentalist polygamists, and sexual harassment activists in the #MeToo movement, as well as LGBTQ people, addressing disparate multiple meanings of this concept.

Basing her analysis on gay historian George Chauncey's groundbreaking Gay New York, coming out first developed with men making their entrance into the gay world via 1930s Pansy Balls, similar to high status women debuting into elite society. Saguy notes how the word gay popularized during this period, derived from the slang of female prostitutes.

Saguy maintains that this pre-World War II culture allowed gay men to develop a limited positive identity. During the late 1940s/early 1950s when LGBTQ people were persecuted for being suspected communists or perverts, they came out secretly to each other with the proviso such information would never become public, even using code language (i.e. friend of Dorothy) as protection but proving one was a member of the "club."

After Stonewall, coming out became a political tactic to reveal one's sexual orientation to family, friends, and coworkers in an effort to challenge stereotypes/false myths and gain sympathy. Heterosexuals now realized they did know gay people whom they liked and respected, making it less likely they would support discriminatory laws.

Visibility encouraged other LGBTQ people to join the movement for equal rights (i.e. Harvey Milk's slogan, 'Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are') acting as role models and empowering them to be proud of who they were, helping to end silence and shame.

It was openly LGBTQ people who brought coming out experience and terminology with them as through overlapping memberships and social networks, they became involved in other movements, which then incorporated this dynamic as a political strategy, to "cast off negative stereotypes and internalized shame, draw attention to injustice, gain public sympathy, mobilize fearful constituents, and enact social change."

Even conservative Mormon fundamentalist polygamists who disapproved of homosexuality, used coming out lingo to link their fate to that of sexual minorities for strategic reasons to generate deeper empathy and solidarity.

Of all the profiled groups, the one most similar to the LGBTQ experience is that of undocumented immigrants for whom coming out is risky, as they face the real possibility of losing a job, being arrested and/or deported. Not coming out meant no public transparency as their movement for acceptance couldn't have been mobilized, especially DACA youth/young adults. Instead, false information would continue to be disseminated, demonizing faceless people with the greater likelihood of enacting oppressive measures.

Saguy briefly spotlights intersex people and women who had abortions, as needing to come out to gain public support for their "causes." But coming out can also have negative repercussions, as when extreme right factions, such as white nationalists or the anti-immigrant group FAIR, feel emboldened to emerge out of the shadows and share openly their opinions.

However these reactionary forces want to exclude others as opposed to movements who want to achieve rights and resources without taking them away from people. The shadow side of coming out is that groups end up focusing more on how they are different than on their common interests, turning their anger against each other, instead of against the social-structural factors that keep them all oppressed, partially explaining the divisiveness of identity politics.

Come Out, Come Out works best acting as a history of these movements detailing how coming out has advanced their agendas. For example, Saguy reveals that #MeToo consciousness is not new, originating in the 1990s campus-based Clothesline Project to break the silence of violence about incest, domestic abuse, and sexual assault by women wearing T-shirts that advertised the cruelty they suffered, even sometimes naming their perpetrators, controversially then and now, raising the issue of people being falsely accused or judged in the court of public opinion rather than a court of law.

Saguy, a straight ally, doesn't address the issue of how other groups using coming out terminology impacts on LGBTQ people themselves and whether it dilutes the political/cultural influence of the LGBTQ community.

Still, this methodically researched book worthily broadens the idea of coming out, which Saguy rightly observes, is about sharing stories that provide language, concepts, and tactics for people who have been invisible or in hiding to become visible.

Ultimately, coming out is about the right to be recognized and to belong.

"It is about saying, "we're here" already among you. This is how we are. Make space for us."

Saguy believes coming out "will lead more people to affirm the common humanity and dignity of all people," notwithstanding their differences. As we muse over the reforms the COVID-19 pandemic may instill in society, Saguy gives us hope that as more people come out to resist stigma, we can all band together, despite social distancing, to advance a more just world.

Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are by Abigail C. Saguy, Oxford University Press, $24.95.

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