Straight Until Proven Innocent




WORDS || Jon Papadopoulo

“So, when did you come out?”

I’m asked this question all the time, in situations involving my friends, sometimes friends of friends, even total strangers, and also in my professional capacity as the GLBTIQ Coordinator in Macquarie University’s Equity and Diversity Unit.

But how can I answer it?

Because honestly, I came out to myself – the hardest thing to do – when I was fifteen, then to some of my close friends after High School, my parents a year later, most of my family two years after that, six years ago when I started studying at university, four months ago when the taxi driver asked if I had a girlfriend, the other day when I reminded my grandmother that my ex was my boyfriend not just my ‘friend’, and now as I write to you.

For many, and I’m truly troubled by this, coming out is a daily struggle. People like me are faced with a choice: do I come out, or not? In a perfect world, this question is obsolete. But instead, my brain kicks into overdrive, options and consequences flying through my mind . . . do I come out, or not? It’s a never-ending source of anxiety.

Lie, Jon, I think. Don’t tell them the truth. Or maybe I should? No, it’s safer to tell half of the truth.

What happens is that we often fear the chance of encountering adversity or rejection. The decision whether or not to come out is defined by the weighing up of risk and possibility. Is it safe? Will this person tell other people who don’t already know? Could I lose this friendship if I’m honest? Will I miss out on the promotion? Will I be treated differently? Or, even worse, could I be attacked, insulted, or vilified? Maybe kicked out of home? Killed?

Imagine experiencing this arsenal of fears everyday of your life. For many people, this psychological and emotional crisis is an ongoing reality.

So here’s the thing: I’m gay and will be coming out forever. In our Hetero-Normative society, heterosexuality is assumed to be normal, default, and the only valid sexual orientation. An inherent ignorance in the ways we discuss GLBTIQ issues is the failure to recognise the differences between what is normal and what is the majority. They are not the same thing. People, like myself, with diverse orientations and/or gender identities constantly have to come out and identify ourselves so our identity is acknowledged and validated. I like to joke that I’m “Straight until proven innocent”.

And even after coming out, there is an expectation that we explain our identity and answer every intrusive question thrown at us regarding our personal lives. Suddenly, every member of the GLBTIQ community is supposed to be a master of Queer theory and Queer identities.

For some of us, coming out is a political statement, a way of saying, “Dammit, I exist! I’m different and that’s okay – I’m here, I’m Queer, get used to it!’

However, for the majority of us, it’s about being accepted for who we are. “I’m here, I’m Queer, please see me, love me, accept me, and understand me.”

People who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and/or Queer, still face violence, discrimination, oppression, and prejudice in every aspect of modern life. In particular, young GLBTIQ people are over-represented in the statistics of alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, mental illness, and suicide. All credible scientific, medical, and psychological research demonstrates that the cause of these issues is how we are treated by the people around us more than anything else.

Some people do not publicly come out until they are older and secure in their lives, even though they may have realised their true gender identity far earlier. Others, and this still amazes me, come out at an extraordinarily young age and show the most amazing courage and confidence. Some people wait decades, even a lifetime, to come out and accept themselves. Unfortunately, a few will never come out, and are never seen or respected for their true identity.

But there isn’t only bad news. Even though society has a long road to sexual and gender equity, being Queer is better understood now than ever before. Sexual orientation, gender identity, and intersex status are now protected and attributed under Federal Legislation. The marriage equality debate is occurring in Australia, with the future prospects of success looking increasingly bright. A number of services and organisations are set up to accommodate our needs. And there are so many out-and-proud role models in the public eye.

So here’s the thing: I’m gay and will be coming out forever.If you are straight or cisgender, you may never understand the struggles hand-in-hand with coming out and being accepted. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not due to arrogance or indifferent blindness, but rather because you are privileged enough by the mantra of contemporary society to never have your identity questioned or invalidated. It is incredibly difficult to explain the feelings and emotions involved in coming out. Every time you do, it’s different: a mixture of euphoria, anxiety, stress, anticipation, excitement, or even an attitude of “I don’t care anymore”.

What I ask you to remember is that your words and actions directly impact on somebody’s selfhood in deeply life-altering ways. Even if you don’t notice, it could be a really big deal for someone when they come out to you. Accept who they say they are, not who you perceive them as. If they ask you to protect their confidentiality, listen to them. If they don’t want to share anything else, respect their privacy. And try to appreciate how someone has trusted you enough to confide their authentic self.

When I was a young man beginning to come out, the common responses from people, all of who meant well, ranged from “Well you’re too young to know for sure,” to “How can you be sure?” and even “Maybe it’s just a phase”. But when I came out to somebody who was Queer and had experienced the same ordeal hundreds of times, they simply said “Congratulations, I’m proud of you”. I encourage all of you to do the same.