I don’t remember a lot of the pop culture calamities from the start of this year, a decade ago, but a moment I remain strangely fixated by is when Jameela Jamil posted a Notes App screenshot (now deleted) on Twitter. It was an outpouring of fear and anger, and it was her public coming out. The usual Twitter storm had been chasing Jamil because she was announced as part of a new ballroom talent show despite her lack of participation in either the ballroom, or even LGBTQIA+, community. That is, until she thrust her phone screen in everyone’s face, simultaneously announcing she was “jumping off this hell app”.
The moment liberal spaces tell us is now a proud and certain stepping out into the world had become, for Jamil, a time to turn her back and retreat from the public eye. A collective assumption was made about Jamil’s straightness because she didn’t fit into the box which society draws – as narrowly as possible – of ‘queer woman’ and the evaluations, poised to arrive, about whether she did, or could, fit in this box forced Jamil to retreat – where? Not back into the closet she had just come out of, but away from judgement to a place where the closet doesn’t exist.
And then we were all forced to retreat from the world.
A couple of months after Jamil’s contentious coming out I was in bed taking part in a now internationally sanctioned pastime: binge watching. Mae Martin’s Feel Good cleverly observes many messy human behaviours, but it was George’s storyline which rang true. Her recently discovered queerness is not comfortably embodied or boldly presented, like other characters, rather George is attempting – with harmful consequences – to keep this newborn aspect of herself hidden, locked within her bedroom, away from friends and family. She gives herself fully to new girlfriend Mae, and to her own queerness, but only when they are alone.
This desire to hide the parts of yourself which challenge an accepted, expected, narrative; which are messy and unstable, struck a chord with me. George’s retreat might seem cowardly at first but she needs time and safety to develop understanding with herself before she has the bravery to finally tell Mae what she wants. In 2020, where we have all had to withdraw to some extent into our own, often physically smaller but emotionally larger, spaces, this refusal to ‘come out’, and instead confront what is within, has a particular resonance.
The chaos of 2020 has created a dichotomy for the queer community. The past seven months have seen a decrease in safety for LGBT+ people, especially the most marginalised; government and prominent public figures have escalated transphobic discourse. Without sufficient mental health provision, lockdown was an extremely difficult time for young queer people as it forced many away from their chosen family, the places where they could freely express their identity, and the things that made them feel most themselves. However, other queer people have spoken about how even the simplest acts became liberating, such as getting dressed without fear of being targeted for how you look. I am also reminded of a study from the beginning of lockdown by DIVA magazine revealing half of the queer women survyed had been outed at their workplace. I would hope the new work-at-home culture, which has materialised in some jobs, has allowed queer women to thrive, away from an environment which is not necessarily a safe place to be out.
It would appear this is not quite the case. At the end of August, Becky Albertalli, one of the biggest names in YA fiction, felt pressured into publicly coming out. Her article painfully mirrors Jamil’s tweet. We need to stop using the internet to target people, demanding them to be something they aren’t ready to embrace. Whatever amount of privilege someone has, their sexuality, their identity is theirs alone – when will we realise this?
I am writing this a month and a bit after Albertalli’s outing, in fact, it is National Coming Out Day. I find it strange that in a year where the desire for greater visibility seems to have become twisted into a will to expose people, today my timeline is full of the assertion that being “out” is not needed to validate your LGBTQ+ identity. This space, time and empathy needs to occur all year round because if you have an identity perceived as threatening and you are not privileged with the financial security, acceptance from family and friends, and independence of Jamil or Albertalli, coming out can be a serious danger.
You don’t owe anyone your identity, but because, sadly, coming out to the world cannot always be entirely on your own terms, I find performance artist Travis Alabanza’s Instagram post most comforting. They ask us to think past the binary of “out” and “in” – queer people’s “outness” is often as mutable as our identity. Travis says, and I agree, we must remember the coming out which we can control, which is most important, is the one which happens within.