Out, Proud, and Brave?

Earlier this year, in a statement released by the Windy City Times, Lilly Wachowski came out as transgender — something her sister Lana had done years prior. The news was met with initial elation by the public in support of her decision to come out. That, however, was overshadowed by subsequent vitriol following Lilly’s statement that she was forced into outing herself after barrages of news reporters demanded a statement before they published a story — thus outing her without consent. The media have an ardent interest in celebrities’ narratives of coming out. These moments of intense personal vulnerability for the celebrity are sensationalized and sold and retold ad infinitum. When Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender a year ago, the story stayed in the headlines for weeks. Then it exploded again, for a different reason. Jenner was to be given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, which commemorates bravery. Her supposed valor was the subject of intense scrutiny: a monsoon of think pieces discussing whether or not she deserved to be considered brave washed across every consumable form of media.

Jenner was not the first and has not been the last celebrity to be called brave for coming out publicly: Ellen Degeneres was described this way when she came out in 1997; so were Anderson Cooper, Ellen Page, and Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy. These few and many more, encompassing the whole LGBTQ community, have all been qualified as brave individuals marching to the beats of their own drums. Society assigns a specific value to bravery, a positive and powerful value that is reserved only for the great. Thus, to some, Jenner’s bravery didn’t exist, but to others, she represented the epitome of bravery. The former opinion is destructive in and of itself as it holds back the progress of justice and liberty; the latter opinion, that Jenner — and any other person who comes out as non-conforming to cisheteronormative standards — is brave is positive, but insidiously stagnating. The valorization of LGBTQ individuals is only superficial activism; it encourages nothing of those who do not agree. Furthermore, it fetishizes and sensationalizes LGBTQ individuals, turning them into objects for admiration rather than people to continue to fight for.

Other people usually frequently referred to as brave — policemen, soldiers, firefighters, etc. — are people who voluntarily put their lives in dangerous situations. LGBTQ people often exist in situations that are life-threatening, not because they volunteered to, but because current societal structures do not include them. Cisheteronormativity establishes heterosexual relationships and cis gender identities as the norm, and assumes that non-heterosexual relations and non-cis gender identities lie outside the norm and require a “coming out” process. Because of the increased acceptance of non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, and non-binary identities, and the combined awareness of continued malice towards these identities, many people who are on the reciprocal end of a “coming out” choose to valorize the person, and exalt them for existing and resisting social paradigms that act to marginalize them. The problem with this valorization is that it does nothing to combat the overarching systems of cisnormativity and heteronormativity. In fact, it only encourages these systems by othering LGBTQ individuals and making their presence more known, making their existences hypervisible within a cisheteronormative space.

The problem with this valorization is that it does nothing to combat the overarching systems of cisnormativity and heteronormativity.

Just a few weeks ago, North Carolina passed a law that has been called a “takeover of human rights” and “the most sweeping anti-LGBT law in the country.” This law requires everyone — but is primarily directed towards transgender or gender-nonconforming people — to use the bathrooms according to the biological sex they were assigned at birth. This law not only conflates gender and sex, but demonizes trans people, especially trans women, by likening them to sex offenders and using fear tactics to gain traction within the state’s government and population. In a time when trans women are being murdered at a “historically high” rate and the simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility of LGBTQ individuals is being pushed into the media constantly, there is no room for congratulatory complacency. Though strides have been made in recent decades, there is still a necessary urgency to protect LGBTQ individuals from policies that infringe upon their rights and their identities. Naming bravery is not enough to shrug the weight of prejudices from off the shoulders of the LGBTQ community; systemic change is required to unfetter society from the bonds of cisheteronormativity and patriarchy in order to create actual change.

The various waves of the LGBTQ movement have had different goals in each of their iterations, but several overarching aims have remained consistent throughout: justice and equality, both de jure and de facto. In order to achieve this, the LGBTQ community at large seeks not to  be assimilated into a congratulatory culture, but instead to break down cultural traditions that divide heterosexuality from non-heterosexuality. LGBTQ activism will not stop until this distinction is abolished, along with cisheteronormativity. Assimilation should not be mistaken for liberation; valorization should not be mistaken for safety.

The popularization of LGBTQ movement has led to positive policies being enacted: anti-discrimination laws, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, legalization of same-sex marriages, and so on. This popularization has also led to an increased public fascination with famous figures that operate outside the cultural norms of cisheteronormativity. When these figures come out, the most common public response is a congratulations of bravery for the figure’s choice to live their truth publicly in a society that hasn’t accepted them for their identity that challenges paradigms. While it is important to celebrate their act, it is equally as important to introspectively analyze how this prescription of bravery affects the movement as a whole within society’s assumed progression towards justice. The positive connotations of bravery stagnate this progression by lauding someone for existing outside boundaries and doesn’t actively challenge the reigning cisheteronormativity of cultural spaces — in fact, it quietly preserves those structures that hold this structure up. It is still okay to tell people they’re brave for coming out, but through an active shedding of prejudicial notions, there may and should come a time when coming out isn’t brave because coming out isn’t even required, a time when gender and sexuality isn’t assumed and people are free to be who they are and be with whomever they desire.