Coming out plots and dead ends

UKIP recently applied to march at London Pride, and were refused.
The debate – particularly those who wrote in defence of their right to be included – made me aware (again) that for many UK LGBT people, LGBT identities are white-by-default.

I (partly) blame the coming out story. (Or at least I think it’s contributed to the problem.)

Coming out stories were a big chunk of gay, lesbian and bi publication in the 80s and 90s, both autobiographical and fictional. They were powerful, and useful, and some of them are a delight. The stages of the coming out story became a kind of template for gay identity: first doubt, then self-discovery; telling others, getting hurt, finding friends; moving to The Big City.

However, a lot of these coming out stories followed the same pattern. The protagonist, a young gay chap, was supposed to be the inheritor of his culture. He was white, middle class, able bodied – why, then, was he an outsider? Why wasn’t he scooping up the goodies due him?
Because of homophobia!
This works, up a point. It shows homophobia can affect even the otherwise fine and dandy, so it shows how powerful homophobia can be.
But it’s a really politically limited rallying cry.
These advantages/goods/privileges aren’t neutral things. A young person taking up a position of privilege (even if they’ve overcome homophobia/biphobia to do so) isn’t a straightforward happy ending. The coming out story too often says: ‘The world is mostly fair. It’s a tragedy that you, gay chap, didn’t get the penthouse because of the world’s one bit of unfairness.’ That isn’t a narrative that makes sense for working class people, queer women, disabled people, people of colour. It’s a way of telling the story which actually relies (for impact) on the not-straight person being privileged in all other aspects.

If this one type of story corners the market, and becomes ‘the story of being gay’, it helps to make gay identity white.

Not all coming out stories do this. At its best, the realisation of homophobia/biphobia leads to a greater examination of the way the world works. Characters/writers in less privileged positions often develop other, more nuanced plots to tell their stories.

White not-straight people, myself included, need to pull away from the ‘where’s my penthouse’ way of telling the story. It’s got the pull of a simple plot – it’s a kind of boiled-down hero’s journey – but it’s a dead end.


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