In October 1988, I was a shy eight year old. The first few years of primary school were pleasant: there was reading, writing, arithmetic, and play, and my world was genderless and simple. Everyone played with everyone, and barely had a sense of themselves, let alone a sense of stereotype. Nowhere was this more true than at home, where my two best friends other than my brother were the girls that lived nextdoor in our two neighboring houses. We usually played outside, running and frolicking in the summer, with squirt guns and balls and flowers and an empty street. While outside was fun, I always looked forward to those rare days when we would go inside and I’d get a glimpse of their bedrooms. They were full of things that toy stores implied I could not have: dolls, doll houses, pink, and pillows. So. Many. Pillows.
While the gendered world was just revealing itself to us through 80’s commercials and department store catalogs, it also revealed itself through school. Some of the 3rd graders in our class had seen this world more clearly, and began to police. At recess, the boys would say: “Boys don’t play with girls. You can’t play with her.” At show and tell, the boys would say to other kids: “That’s a sissy toy! Don’t be a sissy!” During class, the teacher would say, “I don’t get these computer things, I wish my boys were here to explain it.” While these messages weren’t always explicit, they were always clear: there are two ways to be human and I must pick one or be shunned.
While that fall I was realizing I had a choice to make about gender, on that October 11th, gay rights activists were marching on Washington, celebrating the first National Coming Out Day. If the message to me from my peers and teachers was fuzzy, the message of LGBT history month was clear: be yourself, be proud, and we’ll make a new world in which human gender and sexual diversity is accepted, celebrated, and normal. Thirty two years later, National Coming Out Day is now very much an International event, spreading that same message across the world.
Unfortunately, the message of that 1988 march on Washington didn’t make it to my Pacific Northwest home. Our suburban culture was still one that was, at best, silent on diversity, and at worst, destructive. Anyone I looked to for answers about the dangers of being myself sent a clear signal: we don’t talk about those things, so you shouldn’t either. And so I was left to sort them out for myself. And within my limited eight year old capacity to reason, the logic went like this:
- Everyone says there are boys and there are girls.
- Everyone says boys can’t spent time with girls or play with their toys.
- Everyone says boys are better than girls because they are strong.
- Everyone says that computers are for boys.
- I like computers.
- Everyone says I’m a boy.
- Therefore, I must be a boy.
That is the moment I entered the closet.
But what was my “closet”? The answer is buried in the ideas above. Let’s unearth them:
- Gender essentialism. This is the myth that there are fixed, intrinsic, innate qualities to women and men (e.g., there are only boys and girls; boys are strong, girls are weak). This is all a lie of course, as is now clear from decades of science and centuries of culture. This lie built the foundation of my closet.
- Misogyny. This is the bigotry that despises and diminishes femininity (e.g., boys are better than girls). This kind of sexism was the frame of my closet door, drawing me into the safety of pretending to be a boy.
- Transmisogyny. This is the intersection of the two above. It is the culture of hate, violence, and discrimination against transfeminine people that emerges from embracing both gender essentialism and misogyny. This transphobia was the door, hiding my trans self from the world.
Of course, while my closet was built from these destructive ideas, I was the one who chose to enter it. Perhaps if I’d had parents and family that spoke against these ideas, or perhaps if I’d been more assertive, I would have had the courage to deny the closet. But I was alone and afraid of violence and rejection. What choice does an eight year old have other than to hide?
“Coming out,” then, at least for me, wasn’t about revealing myself, or even about courage, but about deciding to leave a refuge for a fuller life. This is what makes the closet so attractive: if only LGBTQ people can hide these parts of ourselves, we might be able to survive the world unscathed. We accept that it will be dark, lonely, and suffocating because we imagine the alternative would be far more grim. We willingly enter it to protect ourselves from harm that others create through silence and hate.
I first peeked out of my closet when my first marriage was dissolving and I was seeing a therapist, trying to get support to navigate my separation and my job search. Along the way, we talked about my marriage, and my role. Gender roles came up, and I told her, “Sometimes I feel like a woman.” There was a long pause—she looked disturbed and confused. She asked me a few questions, and I responded, confused and scared, but clearly signaling that this wasn’t some metaphor or coping mechanism. She broke another long silence to say, “These feelings are an abomination. I’m afraid I can’t help you any longer.” I left the office adrift, in tears. I should have been angry that she would abandon someone so vulnerable. But instead, all of that internalized transphobia led me to blame myself. Why would I say that? There’s a reason we don’t share this secret. You’re stupid, idiotic, and deserved it. I went home to my empty house, missed my wife and my daughter, who had moved out after our separation. And my dad, who lived with me, returned from errands, asked if I was okay: I closed the closet door, and said, I’m fine.
I came out to strangers in subtle ways to assess my safety. I experimented with hormones off the internet, coming out to Vietnamese pharmacies. I bought secret clothing online, coming out to mainstream e-commerce. I lurked on transgender forums, coming out to supportive communities. With a new boldness online, I hinted about my gender feelings to my then wife, and she made it immediately clear that this reveal, on top of everything else broken about our marriage, was too much: our separation would must end in divorce. And so I slammed that closet door shut again. Why didn’t you learn your lesson? This secret only leads to violence and destruction. Erase it.
I was resolved to a life of darkness and thought maybe I’d just end it. But fate had a different idea. I fell in love again. She, more than anyone I had ever met, knew how to love and how to show it. She wrote cute affirming notes about her love. She said nothing of my subtle crossing dressing. She loved me, simply. And for the first time, I started to see the world not as a place of only hatred, violence, and rejection, but maybe one that was very much full of those things, but also refuge. I stayed in my closet, but she made it safe to venture out cautiously.
After we married in 2016, the bliss and security of a loving, supportive relationship was emboldening. I started to wonder if maybe my world was safe enough venture out after almost 30 years. What if it’s easier to see out there? What if I can breathe better? Maybe my world won’t fall apart. I began to give myself license to be me in small ways, and it became harder to contain. I feared I’d lose this wonderful person who loved me, but I also feared a lifetime of hiding. I spent three months crafting a two sentence email to a new therapist: “I’m looking for help sorting through some gender issues. Are you taking clients?” Eventually, she became the first person I came out to that responded with acceptance and support. All it took was one person for me to believe that I might deserve that from everyone else in my life.
Three years later, here were are. I came out to my wife, I came out to my ex, my daughter, my family, my personal and professional community, and to the government. And every time, coming out was only possible because I felt safe to step out of a cage that the world demanded I build and live in, or else. For me, coming out now is no longer about safety, but about pride: I am Amy and I am transgender. Deal with it.
In the LGBTQ community, there’s a lot of discomfort with the idea of the closet. Many believe that there’s enough visibility in the world that we don’t need to come out anymore. The argument is that we should move to a new phase of framing gender and sexual diversity has a given, rather than reinforcing cis, hetero, binary conceptions of sex and gender as normal, and asking everyone else to disclose. I think there’s merit to this, and want to see that world in which sharing our identity isn’t an event, but just part of sharing ourselves. But I also think that this comes from the privileged premise that the visibility that exists is actually reaching everyone who needs it. After all, 32 years ago, there was a march on Washington that didn’t make it to my home, my classroom, or my mind. And the same is likely true today, not only across the United States, but across the world, with children, just like myself, only hearing messages of misogyny, gender essentialism, and transphobia, and none of love, pride, and acceptance. Until they hear us, we need to accept that there are millions of people worldwide still hiding and scared, and justifiably so, and that they are probably our friends, family, and neighbors. We need the closet so that we can name it and validate what it represents: refuge from a world that still very much wants us to disappear. Don’t be silent: come out and tell everyone until no one cares who we are or who we love.