Are You *Actually* Safe to Come Out To?

Happy Pride! It’s such a lovely day to be queer.

It’s hard to celebrate with pure enthusiasm this year, given the slew of anti-trans bills being passed across the country (more on that soon). Trans, nonbinary, and gender-expansive people are facing a fresh wave of violence, and most of our cis friends remain silent, even many of our cisqueer community members. A lot of the trans people I know are frustrated beyond belief, scared, and angry, yet still determined as ever to continue to honor ourselves and our community in our words and actions.

In light of this and other events, it can be really jarring to see the perhaps-inevitable social media posts from cis (and especially allocishet) people that say something along the lines of “I am a safe person to come out to!!” Every time I see one of these posts, my gut instinct is actually to think, no, you’re not. And today I want to sit with that a little and break down why.

Coming out in one-on-one environments is a super intimate, vulnerable, scary thing. Almost no matter how well you know the person you’re speaking to, there’s a little bit of a question mark hanging in the air in the moments before (and sometimes immediately after) you reveal your identity. A safe environment is never guaranteed, even with other queer folks. Sometimes we get lucky, and everything goes well! But sometimes . . . it doesn’t.

Remember, coming out is a series of calculated risks. We aren’t (usually) going up to the most queerphobic people we know and trying to have those conversations straight off the bat. A lot of the coming-out conversations we have before any public announcement is made are with our loved ones! If any space is supposed to be safe and expecting, it’s that one. (And those should-be-the-safest conversations don’t always go well!)

I can’t speak for everyone, but one of the things coming out has thrown into stark relief for me is how many of the people around me are not affirming and “safe” but neutral and ambivalent about how well they should treat me and others like me.

I think my biggest problem with the “I’m safe to come out to” line of thinking is that a lot of allocishet and sometimes cisqueer people think that actually means “I’m not going to spew hatred at you if you come out to me.” And that sentiment is fine, but it’s not what safety is in this context. Safety is active affirmation in both words and actions. Safety is space where we can be unsure of our next steps and acknowledge the path to being publicly out is not often a straight line. Safety is an environment where the person we’re talking to has the cognizance to realize they don’t know everything about how we experience our identities and the humility to accept correction even if it’s messy.

Being a “safe” person to come out to is being someone who will accept, love, and actively affirm us even if we are still figuring out the right words to articulate who we are. It’s being someone who signals to us in everyday life (not just when they want something) that intentionally supporting the queer (and not just cisqueer) community is part of their continuing practice. Importantly for me, it’s being someone who doesn’t lash out when someone they assume is cis uses gender-expansive language to advocate for themself.

I wanted to come out in the fall of 2019, but a series of interactions with gatekeepers in the Nash Composers Coalition not only made it clear that my genderqueerness wasn’t welcome in the room but also proved I would likely face disdain, derision, and malice from my colleagues in the Phoenix jazz community if I came out. That set me back half a year, because in a room full of men I respected and who I thought respected me, when I described a form of oppression by referencing my body rather than lie about being a woman, I was excoriated by a member of the group. And though Connor and Keith got me through the project with support I’m still immensely grateful for, no one in the room set the standard that we, as an ensemble failing its diversity commitments more than ever, wanted to treat marginalized members better than that. So I left. (related posts on this here and here.)

Today, I’m cool with some of those people, but not all of them. And I won’t be back at the Nash anytime soon. But that was a room full of men who would probably describe themselves as pretty good allies, and most of them weren’t safe to come out to. (I wasn’t even coming out; I was laying the groundwork to maybe be able to come out soon.)

The thing I’m getting at here is that some of the people around you that you assume are cis (or straight, or allo, or endosex) aren’t that, and you won’t know it until(/unless) they choose to tell or show you. And because of situations like the above, I have a hard time believing that folks who claim to love queer/trans people actually mean it when their choices of language in other situations publicly betray them.

But above all, “I’m a safe person to come out to” is probably a lie for one reason: you can’t guarantee that for everybody. Even white, gender-expansive folks often aren’t safe for queer and trans people of color to come out to! White supremacy manifests everywhere! And if we can’t be sure we’re always going to get it right with differently-marginalized members of our queer community, y’all allocishets are . . . usually facing significantly worse odds.

Tight, safe bonds of affirmation are possible with folks who aren’t queer, in case you were wondering. One of my favorite people in Phoenix is a saxophonist who knows me better than most of the other non-queer folks in my life, and because so much of that knowledge grew from an accumulation of small things over a long time, sometimes he just gets it. Even though he doesn’t always pronoun me perfectly, we can go deep into analysis together (while I’m trying to figure out the right words for a thing!) and he’ll make important connections on his own. He takes the time to listen to me share myself with him when I feel like sharing, and no matter how much I tell him, he doesn’t assume he has an inherent right to more. Though he may not be safe for everyone to come out to, he was and still is safe for me to come out to because we’ve built a powerful friendship that allowed him to see bits and pieces of who I really am before I even had the words to explain it to myself.

That kind of seeing is part of what makes people safe to come out to. Maybe you’re that kind of positive force in someone’s life! In fact, it’s entirely likely you are! But there’s no way you can be that (or similarly supportive in a meaningful way) to everyone, especially not every queer person. And every time someone makes that kind of a blanket statement, what I understand in that moment is that they don’t understand the queer community well enough to consider when it wouldn’t be true.

Let’s be real: the things you say the other eleven months of the year are going to do more to affect if we come out to you or not than what you post in the thirty days where every corporate logo is a rainbow.

If you’d like to learn more from me about queer identities, I’m running a month-long lecture series (for free, unless you want to tip me!) over on my Twitch channel and Discord server. We meet Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7pm AZ time (7 Pacific/8 Mountain Daylight/9 Central/10 Eastern), and you can attend the lecture by watching the Twitch stream or jump in the Discord voice chat to join the discussion. Video recordings are available on Twitch for two weeks. I’d love to have you join us! [On the docket for next week: nonbinary identities on Tuesday and transition & transphobia on Thursday.]

Thanks for reading! If you learned something from this post and would like to tip me, head on over to my Ko-fi page. For more analysis and commentary like this in your life, check back again soon, and consider subscribing to my mailing list (at the bottom of the page or in the sidebar) for quarterly update emails on my biggest projects. To support the long-term work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.