Making the outside of the closet safer

Thursday is the 30th annual National Coming Out Day, a day that was founded to raise awareness of the LGBTQ+ community. And we still need that awareness-building, especially in the realm of the broad and beautiful spectrum that is gender identity.

Despite my many quirky and fun coming out stories, and the nearly daily experience of some level of apprehension when I use a female pronoun to describe my sweetheart, it’s not that side of the experience on which I want to share my thoughts today. There’s a flipside to that coin.

In her brilliant and moving TEDx Talk, Ash Beckham talks about how everyone has a closet or three from which to emerge.

“All a closet is is a hard conversation,” she said.

Hard can be telling your partner that you lost the family’s savings due to a gambling addiction you’ve been hiding, and it can also be telling someone that you love them.

It can be leaving a relationship. It can be sharing a heartfelt idea. (This is one of the reasons making art and innovating is so crazy scary.) It can be apologizing for a wrong, telling someone you love that you think they behaved poorly, or telling your parents that you’re leaving the family faith for another or for none at all.

The variety of closets are infinite because what makes a thought a closet is that the seclusion and shame of not sharing “may feel safe, or at least safer than what lies on the other side of that door,” as Ash also said.

And what’s on the other side of that door? The reactions of others.

What leads to my nearly daily experience of apprehension about being open about my sweetheart? That at some point, a person will disparage or demean me for being queer, or that they might even see fit to cause me bodily harm. Friends, this week marks 20 years since Matthew Shepard’s murdered; so far this year, we know of the murders of 21 transgender people.

In recent weeks, we witnessed as a nation as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came out of her closet of sexual assault and what awaited her on the other side of that door was belittling, mocking, and even death threats. And while the backlash aimed at her was particularly brutal given the national spotlight, the average woman can expect to face the compounding of her trauma in similar ways. She might easily face doubt, disinterest or blame for having been harmed – from professionals and people in her life alike. I can only imagine the shaming and disbelief that male survivors of sexual assault might fear and face.

It’s no wonder that according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 34.8% of sexual assaults were reported in 2013, the last year for which I could find published statistics.

For the other 65.2% of women and men who were sexually assaulted, the closet seemed, understandably, safer.

Still, I agree with Ash that “…a closet is no place for a person to live.”

This is where we have an opportunity as individuals and as a community. We can make the outside of the closet safer by noticing our own reactions and biases. We can choose to be – and then practice being – safe stewards of others’ confidences, to meet their revelations with openness and compassion and presence.

We can put ourselves into the world such that our every word, our every moment of eye contact, our every vote says, “I see you. I believe you. I care about your reality.”

Last Friday, Theresa and I were out for a cup of tea, each of us wandering in and out of line to look at various things while we waited. A woman loaded down with presents for her new grandchild joined us and we started chatting about the toys. I saw on her face the moment she realized that Theresa and I were together, more than friends. The double-take was so pronounced that I expected the conversation to end cold right there. Instead, she regrouped within seconds and picked up right where she left off.

We can all be more like this doting grandmother, willing to regroup and reconnect time and again.

I see you.

I believe you.

I care about your reality.