Challenging the need to come out in a heterosexual society

The act of coming out enforces heteronormative systems of classification that reduce gender and identity into a normal/not normal dichotomy. This isn’t good enough, writes Rhianna Goozee

“Why the hell can’t society stay out of my happiness and stop tarring it with its own concerns that really have nothing to do with me or my life?”

I wrote the above line a few months after meeting my first ever girlfriend in my early twenties. In the preceding years I had only ever had heterosexual encounters and although I was aware that I sometimes found women attractive (mainly in the form of the inaccessible beauty of female celebrities) I had never been attracted to any of my female acquaintances.

The beginning and subsequent development of our relationship was smooth and, gender aside, ridiculously conventional. We had romantic picnic dates, we spent hours talking and then marvelled at how much time had passed. We cooked each other dinner and we text or called one another every day. I had, finally, discovered what is often called the honeymoon period of a relationship; a feeling that I had always seen as somewhat of a secret harboured by those in love that I was not, and perhaps never would be, privy to.

Of course, the honeymoon period by definition cannot last forever and although we remained very happy together the initial feeling of being alone in the world was disturbed as reality hit. “What happened?” I hear you ask. Well, it was simply the realisation that I would have to tell everybody that I had a girlfriend.

Imagine, if you will, that you are a young girl and you have just met a young man. You start dating and you like him quite a lot. In fact, there’s potential for something long-term. Who knows where it is headed?

So, of course, you have to tell everyone, right? However, it’s not enough to phone your mum and announce that you have met someone you like and you’re going to see how it goes. No, wherever possible you have to tell people to their face — after all, this is big news. When you make the announcement you are of course worried about what they might think and you have to be prepared to answer their questions. Questions such as “How long have you felt this way about men?”; “What is it about him that made you feel that way?”; “Do you only like men?” ; “What do you think it means for your future?”; and “What about kids?”.

You have to repeat this process with everyone you know and if you fail to tell someone before they hear it from someone else they will feel rejected and possibly as though they have failed to support you, even though you might be perfectly comfortable in your happiness.

Then you have to put up with people talking about you. “You know so-and-so? Did you know she’s got a boyfriend? Can you believe it? Who would have known that she likes men?”

Some of these people barely even know you. They remember you from school but you’ve hardly spoken since. They just heard from someone, who heard from someone else. No one really cares that much about the man himself. They want to know why you like men. Then there are those people who don’t approve of such feelings — they may tell you what you’re doing is abnormal, disgusting, and an affront against nature.

I could go on. I could talk about the way that strangers might look at you as you walk hand in hand in the street, including the leering gazes of middle-aged men. I could talk about how people question the validity of the relationship and see it as an exploration of sexuality rather than a legitimate connection between two people.

Now, the majority of my coming out was met with supportive, caring responses from my loved ones. I have little to complain about compared with others I know who have been met with tears, disappointment and ultimatums. I am not bemoaning the experiences I have had and I am not criticising the responses I received from people. What I am trying to do here is to raise issue with the idea that a coming out process should be necessary at all.

Why should it be that heterosexuality is the dominant framework, with homosexuality or bisexuality as deviations from the norm?

Some might argue from a biological stance. Sex is required for making babies. A man and a woman are both required to make a baby and hence it is ‘normal’ for a man and a woman to have romantic relations and sex, whilst deviations from this are not ‘normal’.

I would first venture to suggest that we are not slaves to our biology or evolutionary history. The process of evolution is not value-laden and it does not provide judgement about whether or not it has been done in the right way. Evolutionary outcomes are only inevitable inasmuch as they are perceived in hindsight.

In fact, the whole idea of the existence of just two sexes is less certain than most people believe it to be. Work from several researchers, notably the feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, reflects on the spectrum of sexual anatomy found naturally in human bodies. Fausto-Sterling has argued that the model of a gender dichotomy is culturally constructed and she has presented stories about intersex individuals who are forced to conform to one or other gender rather than being accepted as the valid individuals they are. For those interested, I would recommend reading Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality.

Nowadays, the majority of sex that occurs on the planet has very little to do with making babies.

Indeed, most people go out of their way to prevent this from happening. Yes, evolutionarily we may be built to mate with a different sex (or more technically, combine sperm and egg) to produce children, but having sex or being in a relationship is a separate kettle of fish.

There is, of course, a religious extension to the argument, invoking sin and shame for deviations from heterosexuality.

It seems more than slightly ridiculous that if there is a God, they should create a gay person only to destine them to hell for being the way they created them.

Perhaps you might argue from the perspective of numbers. The vast majority of individuals in society are or appear to be heterosexual. We therefore begin from an assumption of heterosexuality. The validity of this assumption could be tested by measuring the numbers of people identifying as homosexual in the population.

Such surveys differ in methodology and definitions and so the ‘prevalence’ of homosexuality differs across studies, across time, and across place but I would imagine that all find heterosexuality to be the majority group. There are a number of issues regarding asking people about their sexuality, including how the questions are asked, the values of the society, and whether or not the participants are telling the truth. Besides this, if the labels themselves are not helpful or are socially constructed then there may be no meaningful quantity or entity to measure with such questions. This may lead to a process of placing square pegs in round holes.

It would be interesting to see if, by magically changing society so that there was no underlying assumption of heterosexuality and all sexual orientations were equally accepted, whether the numbers of people identifying as gay or bi would increase. I wonder how many people repress or suppress such possibilities within themselves — consciously and unconsciously — as a result of external and internal pressures. The difficulty in gaining accurate measures within a value-laden society is well-known within psychosocial research, particularly attitudinal research. How do we know whether respondents are giving their own opinion or attitude, or simply the one they think is expected of them or that they feel the experimenter wants them to conform to?

I would be surprised if these kinds of concerns were not relevant to research in sexuality. Surely the need to come out at all is a sign of social desirability issues; a throwback to earlier times when any deviation from the societal norm of heterosexuality were seen as sinful, sick and something to be ashamed of and hidden away?

Clearly, we do not live in a perfect society and discrimination still exists but for true equality to exist in a culture such a revelation about sexuality should not be necessary. I wonder if the personal journey of realisation or awakening to homosexuality (sometimes described as an internal coming out) would also disappear in such a society because there would be nothing to awaken to. The possibility of a romantic relationship with a person of any gender would be acknowledged and so no transition from a standpoint of ‘I am heterosexual’ to ‘I am homosexual/bisexual/insert any other variation’ would need to occur.

Perhaps the language of sexuality is inadequate? Fausto-Sterling has argued against the simplicity of traditional dichotomous gender divisions. Perhaps a division of the population into heterosexual or homosexual is too simplistic and does not capture the true complexities of individual feelings, experiences, and behaviours. For example, people in surveys may not identify as homosexual but at the same time report same-sex sexual encounters.

In much the same way, I would not describe myself as a lesbian despite my current same-sex relationship. I might argue that I should be labelled as a heterosexual currently in a same-sex relationship but most people wouldn’t accept this blurring of the boundaries. One wonders what is actually being measured by the questions.

In the sexual health research community, no judgement on sexuality is made at all but the people studied are referred to as “men who sleep with women” or “men who sleep with men” and so on. This describes the actual behaviour of individuals without having to affiliate them with a particular label or group that might have attendant stereotypes, assumptions, or value judgements. It may not be practical to apply this language to everyday life but I hope it illustrates a way of replacing labels that have baggage attached with words that simply describe behaviour.

How about we give up labelling people altogether? So when a girl, who has always had male partners, meets and begins a relationship with another girl, or a man suddenly shows an interest in other men, it is not necessary for them to come out and announce it to the world. This way there are no preconceptions about who they are or are not likely to date based simply around their gender.

Could it ever be as simple as meeting a person (gender aside), connecting with said person and allowing the natural course for whatever behavioural expression that connection elicits to just happen as long as it is consensual and creates happiness for the those involved?

If we move away from the idea that man, wife, and 2.4 children is the only formula for happiness we might discover that all kinds of relationships with all kinds of people can sustain us through life. The qualities of the relationships are what are important (trust, companionship, love, mutual understanding, etc.), while the details of the bodily parts contained under the participant’s clothing are not.

I realise that in practice it is difficult to give up our classification systems. They are ways of organising information and, in this context, of predicting other’s behaviour based on a sexuality group affiliation. How, without a sexuality label do we know if someone we meet is likely to engage in a romantic relationship with us? I would argue that if everyone was open to the possibility of relationships based on individuals rather than gender then this would not pose much of a problem.

The extent to which our bodies and genes dictate our gender identity and sexuality as opposed to culture and environment is a topic more debated than most would first realise. The emphasis on making individuals conform to a binary model of sex reduces identity to the idea that we are born either male or female and that there are certain ways for a male or female person to be.

This is relevant to the construction of gender roles and how acceptable it is for a man to show femininity vs. a woman to exhibit masculine traits. In addition, the possibility that social values and classification systems construct bodies conforming to a dichotomy and that the presence of said dichotomy is used to reinforce our classifying process creates a self-validating process of systematising ‘normal’.

These issues are not just relevant in the sphere of sexuality but can be applied directly to the topic of gender equality and more broadly to issues of difference in other factors such as race. For example, would it still make sense to argue that men should be big, strong and provide for the family, while a woman’s role is to rear and raise children when the very notion of men and women as discrete concepts is debatable? Where within these prescriptive roles do we place someone of ambiguous sex?

It is important for us to realise the power of society to construct systems of classification that we unthinkingly accept as reflecting objective reality. It is also important to acknowledge that such classifications can create situations of inequality by proposing a position of normality from which deviation is at best undesirable and at worst pathological.

During my coming out a number of people mentioned that they were very surprised when I told them that I was in a same-sex relationship. I had apparently never announced that I like girls ‘in that way’ before. The funny thing is I don’t remember announcing that I like boys ‘in that way’ either or telling anybody that I would never consider a same-sex relationship. If people hadn’t made these assumptions about me I might not have had to interrupt my honeymoon period with the stress of spreading the word, and the often difficult and intrusive process of coming out would not be necessary at all.


Rhianna is a science graduate who spends her days as a medical editor and her evenings dabbling in the odd bit of feminist discourse.