Myths about coming out that Asian LGBTs commonly encounter

The visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the media has never been this intense. Celebrities have been publicly declaring their sexual orientation or gender identity on TV and social media. Global leaders from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to US President Barack Obama have stepped up their public support for the LGBTI community. In some Asian countries, serious discussions on previously unheard of LGBTI issues, including marriage equality, are happening.  Coming out in the media used to be synonymous with witch hunts – or LGBT people being outed against their will – but now there are more people, from celebrities to ordinary folks, who take to Facebook, Youtube, or Twitter to come out.

How LGBTs are being portrayed now contributes to positive visibility, provides new role models for young LGBTIs, and creates new spaces to engage the public on SOGIE-related issues. However, it is also creating a lot expectations on how we LGBTs should proclaim our sexual orientation and/or gender identity. It is adding to existing myths and harmful stereotypes, and it is time that they are debunked.

Myth No. 1: Asian LGBTs do not need to come out – your mother can tell anyway

This myth is packed with layers of assumptions about Asian culture and how being LGBT is attached to a particular gender expression – one that parents can discern easily. In the context of coming out, this myth often arises when people are discouraged from making a public disclosure of their gender identity or  sexual orientation – at the expense of humiliating loved ones – when in fact it is already implicitly known, and it does not need to be openly acknowledged.

Saving face (or avoiding embarrassment in social settings to maintain dignity) is a core social norm in many Asian cultures, and being frank on a subject considered taboo by many is a social risk to be considered when coming out. But the need to come out is best determined by an individual who should weigh the risks involved, the expected benefits, and the motivation behind the decision.

Coming out is not so much about confirming what others already know, or aligning your gender expression with pre-existing stereotypes about being LGBTIs.  For many, it means sharing something essential about your identity to others who are important to you.

Myth No. 2: You are being dishonest if you don’t come out

This alleges that being in the closet is an act of deception, disregarding many socio-cultural barriers that prevent people from talking openly about their sexuality or disclosing their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Worse, it assumes that coming out is an obligation to others and not a personal decision.

This is problematic because it takes away your right to decide how to self-identify and how to proclaim your own identity. It also often means forcing LGBTIs to conform to traditional stereotypes and prejudiced notions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Coming out is eminently a personal decision. It is informed by one’s readiness, contexts, and the desire to disclose our identity to others. Whether inside or outside the closet, we need to support each other to make the best decision for ourselves.

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Myth No. 3: You need to do it for the cause

It is true that people who know someone from the LGBTI community tend to be less prejudiced than those who do not know any openly LGBTI persons at all. Thus, for many advocates, coming out has an important political value, since visibility helps in altering other people’s attitudes and behaviors towards LGBTIs.

Coming out, however, is a personal decision, and many factors need to be considered: your immediate safety, the availability of support around you, the possibility of bullying, cyberbullying, discrimination, or the presence of punitive laws that could be used against you. Generating visibility for the community is a commendable goal, but don’t put your own safety and well-being at risk because you feel you owe it to the community.

Myth No. 4: It will lead to love and happiness

With more and more celebrities declaring openly that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, media portrayals of coming out have started to follow stereotypical  narratives: You come out after being in denial of your sexuality, and then you find acceptance, happiness, and possibly, love. The expectation then is that in order to be happy and to find love, you first have to come out.

There are coming out stories with happy endings, but it is dangerous to assume that these are universal experiences. Coming out stories are diverse. And while there are studies that link coming out to encountering less stress, the benefits of coming out to your well-being are influenced by the presence or absence of a supportive environment. If you consider the factors that can facilitate or rule out a positive coming out experience and the situations where disclosing your sexual orientation or gender identity become necessary, you’ll realise that coming out is not a straightforward process. You won’t be coming out just once, and in every situation, the outcome can vary; in risky situations, NOT coming out in certain circumstances might have better results than being open about your sexuality or gender.

The same goes with love. Coming out is not a prerequisite to finding a partner. Being out or being in the closet present different sets of challenges in finding a partner. To what extent you are out is another question, and whether you are out to everyone or out to a few people, love will always be complicated.