‘Do I Have to Be Out as a Writer?’
You're trapped in a mirrored closet. Close your eyes.
Author’s note: Thanks to those who participated in yet another lively conversation at The Writing this Wednesday. I’ve gotten great ideas on where to take the series next. Next Wednesday’s edition will be out at 20:00 EST.
I hope this letter finds you well. Congrats on the Substack Fellowship, and thank you for the generosity and thought you put into your letters. I’ve learned so much from them.
My letter is about boundaries, and about permission. Mainly, as they relate to writing about parts of myself that I don’t yet (and may not ever) feel comfortable discussing publicly. I’ve written a novel from the POV of a queer woman, which is how I identify. My friends and partner know this about me, but I’m not out to my family or on social media. The reasons I’m not out are complicated but have to do with not wanting to deal with backlash from my tight-knit immigrant community.
We’ve all seen the types of questions that women and nonbinary folks, queer folks, and people of color get asked in interviews. There’s that insidious assumption that we are writing autobiographically, and a kind of entitlement to ask us deeply personal questions. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I worry that I’ll be asked point-blank if I’m queer. Or, because I’m in a relationship with a man, that I’ll be read as straight, and will have to either let that assumption hang there or challenge it. I really don’t feel comfortable addressing my sexuality head-on in a public way, and I don’t know how I’d navigate a situation like that. And while I think it’s totally inappropriate to demand that someone disclose their sexuality, especially when doing so can be dangerous, I’m sympathetic to readers wanting to know. I would hate for anyone to feel queer-baited, or to think that I’m cosplaying or appropriating queerness because it’s trendy. The last thing I want is to cause harm. My day job is largely centered on helping queer folks, and I regularly promote the work of queer writers and support queer causes in person and on social media. I may not be out, but I’m part of a queer community.
Any advice you have for working through all this -- the desire to be myself on the page without outing myself to the world, to make queer folks feel seen without making them feel used -- would be so helpful. Thank you so much for reading.
I don’t know how to write about queerness without addressing my own
The moment I saw “tight-knit immigrant community,” I knew that you had written the letter I would have sent to this advice column if it had existed five or even ten years ago. Back then, I, like you, had been out to friends and activist circles but not to my family, and I had no plans of ever making that the case.
As you mention in your letter, you’re sympathetic to those who would want to know this information. The pressure to be out is very real, as is the need. Not knowing what immigrant community you come from, having queer role models living out happily and proudly is harder to find once you look away from the scores of white men and women who inundate mainstream queer media. I remember scouring the internet for examples of navigating that narrow margin between my atheist, but conservative, Chinese family and my implicitly white queer culture, whose pamphlets mainly spoke of navigating coming out against conservative Christian objections.
The answer to your initial question is easy: no, you don’t have to be out to write about queerness, nor do you ever have to. Your life is not a source of exotic intrigue and entertainment and no one is entitled to it, despite what centuries of colonialism and imperialism may have you believe. Interviews are like first dates: trust the other person as much as you like, but at the end of the day, you pick how much you want to show yourself. The same thing goes for readers. No one has a right to your personal information, and you’re the one who decides on what that is, full stop. There is a such thing as a glass closet, but whether you want to make one and stay in it is a question that only you can decide.
Now, I want to do some of the harder work with you in this letter. Because the thing is, though the answer about boundaries is clear, how you’re feeling about it isn’t. This question of being out is haunting you, down to even becoming an obsession of yours, and that’s because you have two strong wishes that are at odds with each other. You’re rightly suspicious of readers who assume autobiography, but then you also hope writing a queer protagonist would signal your queerness to them; you’re bracing your response for the interviewer who will ask you point blank about your sexuality, but you’re also thinking of the readers who need your representation; you’re conjuring others’ accusations of queer-baiting and being trendy, but you also want to write as who you are. In your letter, you’ve even pre-written your defense to the interviewer who does not yet exist: that their question is “completely inappropriate,” but you also take the side of these imaginary readers for whom your refusal to leave the closet may “cause harm.”
This future interviewer and queer readers are external opposition to the external reasons you’re staying in the closet at all: your need to avoid that backlash you mention from your small immigrant community. Neither of these scenarios, interestingly, reflect your own thoughts or desires. Whether it’s staying in or coming out, you’re looking to other people to make the frames of your choices, making them not really your choices at all. Perhaps, for you, it’s too painful or scary to even think about what that would mean, and that’s why you feel trapped, instead, between what everyone else wants, fated not to exist enough anywhere.
No, I’m not about to belittle the reasons why you want to stay in the closet and chastise you into coming out. I do want to talk about the possible consequences of what it means to straddle that line or try to live, without fail, on its razor-edge.
Like you, I couldn’t separate the story of my queerness from the story of my immigrant community. In isolation, my parents’ grief and disillusionment with the US, themselves, and each other was amplified and distorted privately, though they kept up the face of good immigrants in the face of racism publicly. Their fear of failure—and their fear of already reaching it—permeated my own sense of duty and my acceptance that I had to be perfect for them. It was not a question for me. They sacrificed their lives so mine could be better, so why wouldn’t I hide a small part of myself that I could, in theory, still live?
That was the logic. The other part was the fear—I was much more reluctant to admit that. The only time I felt the anger and violence my parents usually directed at themselves or each other was when I first tried to come out, and even then, those were moments they invaded my privacy—read my journals or forced me to show them private messages on social media. It was not just at home, either. Losing my parents meant losing my access to a whole community and identity. Being public as my self would alienate them from their own community. Coming out meant I’d never be able to go back to being Chinese. And for what?
I don’t know the story of your life now, IDKHTWAQWAMO, but I’ll guess that you had a newfound freedom when you moved out of your immigrant community. After all that meticulous scrubbing and hyper-vigilant secrecy, you were able to let your guard down and live out your values at work and with a chosen family of friends, maybe get your first short haircut, maybe go to pride events and protests and even be an out-and-proud role model to other queer people who now look up to you.
Perhaps, like me, you grew up learning that being your real self was dangerous in your own home, and if you didn’t scrub things away or lie effectively, you would be punished in ways that you couldn’t even imagine. Perhaps you’ve only known, for as long as you can remember, a life that revolves around a cycle of damage-control and secrecy and, after years or even decades of doing this, you’ve gotten used to being in control to the point where it now seems necessary.
The problem with control is that you have to stay one step ahead. No matter how much you think about them, you’ll never catch up with the number of scenarios that writing in public will bring to you. That’s part of the charm, really. But you won’t be able to enjoy any of that surprise because you’ll be thinking, for years, even decades, about the next lie or evasion you have to do to keep your identity secret.
This is coming up in your art for a reason. Because art is one of the few places where we really have choices: no one on earth can tell you where to place that stroke of paint, how to break a line, or what a character does next. When you tell a story in your writing, no one else but you knows the difference between the details that are fiction and fact. When you lie in your art, no one else but you scrubs away the parts of yourself that want to be visible. Your anger against this imaginary interviewer is correct but perhaps partially misplaced: for when you speak for your art and feel as though you still have to lie about it, you watch yourself inflict the violence you’ve been trying to control for so long. You may feel invisible, but your art is showing you how you’ve been taught to contribute to that fact.
The closer you get to that awareness, the closer you’ll find yourself in a messy pool of anger, shame, and guilt, almost perfectly mirrored in the situations you wrote about in your letter. You were taught to think around one community, so you’re in the habit of doing it with all others, but you’re anxious because for once, you’re not in control. Your closet’s walls are mirrors, each reflecting back to you an idea of what your queerness might look like to other groups of people. If you’re not one panel, then you have to be another, but the more you try to contort to one reflection, the more another one will distort.
If you close your eyes, you won’t be able to look at any of these reflections. A closet is also a safe and private space. It’s yours. You can choose, once and for all, to throw those mirrors out. If you close your eyes, that’s the beginning of coming out. It’s not an event like crossing a border. It’s not determined by what we see in others’ mirrors, but the portraits we draw from memory; the words we learn to write for ourselves, that show who we are. Those reflections of who we’re supposed to be are what we predict when we’re afraid to make mistakes. There is no failure for a life that has no model. To shape your life after what you want and not someone else’s model of perfection—that’s a lifetime of coming out.
I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that there will be work ahead now: you’ll start noticing, more and more, how you’re taking yourself out of your own choices. For those of us socialized as women, we were taught to never say “no.” We object through indecision—we choose indirectly. Our bodies speak before our minds. Your stress is telling you something: it’s time to reconsider the walls you had learned were immovable. Then, you have to choose, every day after that, what it means to come out for only you and no one else.
When you start choosing for yourself, you have to give up control of other people. When I chose, things got bad enough so that I had to cut off my parents. Although we speak occasionally today, there was a time, out of mutual trauma responses, that I feared for my life. My parents used other people I loved to get to me; those people also bore the brunt of my parents’ reactions. To protect my privacy, I stopped publishing under one name and chose this one. Despite those efforts, they did, eventually, find out about my transition. To respect my parents’ wishes, I will never see my extended family again—I didn’t even attend my grandfather’s funeral.
That pain will always be written as silences. But wherever there’s silence, there can always be noise somewhere else. In those same years, tentatively free, I edited a queer and trans Asian folio and published a book openly talking about my life. I fell in and out of love and I found queer Asian communities in New York. I cut my hair without repercussions. I went to therapy. Whatever Chinese-ness I thought I’d lose, I made a Chinese American life in my own image and the images of newfound friends and our art. And now I’m writing to you.
In your letter, you say that “[you] may not be out, but [you’re] part of the queer community.” I want to say it back to you, and more. Every day, someone will read your work or meet you and you’ll have to start the process all over again. Someone doesn’t know you’re queer. Someone doesn’t know where you work or who you’ve loved. But the number of people who don’t know don’t constitute its truth. You do.
Queerness is not a set of standards or rules: it’s us. We make it, we live it, we dream it. You exist to me and all the people who you talk to and touch directly about and with because you’re queer. You exist when you live your life and your art informed by your queerness. You exist when you know who you are. Some of us—many of us—have had to protect that light for as long as we needed to to survive. Wherever you are, you’re already one of us. Whenever you’re ready, we’ve been waiting to hear from you. We’re ready to love who you are.