A reader writes:
I have made a point of being out at work from my first real job, where I was hired to work in the mailroom 25 years ago. The first week, as part of training, the manager would take me on the rounds, introducing me to legal secretaries (who were all women) and then commenting on their looks when we turned a corner. On the second day he stopped the elevator between floors and asked me if I didn't like his way of talking or if I was gay. (Apparently, I hadn't really been responding to his running commentary.) Practically shaking with fear, despite the fact that I had been out to family and friends and lived with my partner at the time, I said I was gay. He said something to the effect of "Oh, then I won't bother," and we talked about other things.
First, I have to acknowledge the positive effect of his response. Whenever I have started a new job since then, without ever making a point of announcing "I am gay," I have simply mentioned a boyfriend or a date or some gay event I went to, and let the word spread. But, more in line with the content of your post, I want to point out that straight people come out all the time.
We just don't think of it that way; we just don't notice. They say something about a wife or a date or someone they think is hot. If you work in an office with people 40-60 hours a week, virtually nobody makes it through even a couple days without casually dropping signals about their "private" life. Being in the closet is not a neutral stance achieved by simply avoiding the action of "coming out"; being in the closet is the constant, active repression of natural human interaction.
Many years ago, before I came out, I was working at a large company and every 6 months the company nurse came around and checked everyone's blood pressure. Mine was always just borderline high something like 140/80. I started going out with guys even though I was also dating a girl at the time. I wasn't aware that I was acting any different that normal. One day my mother called and said she knew something was going on and they wanted to know what it was. I insisted everything was just fine but she would have none of it and told me that if I didn't come to their house, 40 miles away, they were coming to mine and we would get to the 'bottom of it'.
I swallowed hard, told my boss I needed the afternoon off, and drove home. After a long period of silence with my parents sitting in front of me I told them that my 'friend', who they had met, were more than friends. My father's first words were 'is that all' and my mother asked if I wanted some help or was I happy. I said I thought I was happy and that was then end of it.
The next time the company nurse came around my blood pressure was 110/70 and it is still pretty close to that today some 30 plus years later. Keeping the secret does have health consequences.
I've been pretty actively out as a lesbian since I first came out in college in the mid '80s, though one of my first jobs, as a high school teacher in rural Indiana, forced me to go in the closet. That lasted three years and almost killed me. I left that job believing that closets were toxic, but I was still scarred by the experience and in the habit of letting my sexuality "slip by" when I could – what did it matter if I called my partner my "friend" or my "roommate" when I was dealing with the person behind the pharmacy counter, or the customer service rep at the phone company, or or or …
But having kids changed all that. Very early on I realized that I couldn't very well raise my kids with the secure knowledge that our family is exactly as legitimate as any other if I was constantly hiding who we were to keep things simple. We're now 15 years into this parenting gig. Being out all the time – everywhere, no exceptions – is just the air we breath.
Of course, I am acutely aware that having a partner and a family also makes it much easier to be out all the time, even while it also makes it imperative. I very rarely say to someone I don't know, whose views I don't know, "I am a lesbian." I don't need to. It's easy enough to work in "my partner [female name]," or "my children's other mother," or, more recently, "my wife" – though I will admit that I sometimes still default to "my partner" when "wife" feels uncomfortable.
So I still have work to do. But I do acknowledge that unpartnered, childless gay men, lesbians and bisexual people have a harder time of it, and I admire those who still make a commitment to being on the front lines of being out. I agree with you, it really is one of the strongest forms of activism.