I interviewed Luca at their apartment near OSU’s north campus while we were making breakfast together. They’re originally from Michigan and are now studing astronomy at OSU. Many of the stories that they told me about their coming out process are ones that I had already heard, so our discussion hinged on a lot of familiarity and shared experience. They first came out as lesbian in high school, which resulted in their dad, a pre-school teacher, looking into why kids are gay since their older sister had come out as bi not long before. They were previously out to a lot of friends, and otherwise didn’t mention any adversity in being a lesbian.
They came out as non-binary 2 summers ago, a time that left them home-bound because of a surgery, which made things tense. There was a lot of misunderstanding at first, but Luca says that eventually their parents came to accept them and does their best to respect their chosen name and pronouns. As a part of the misunderstanding and process of learning, Luca mentioned how autism and queer identities are linked in certain ways, and how their dad found that and how Luca feels it might be applicable to themselves.
We also chatted about some experiences with other students while we were in physics together, a time and place that wasn’t as accepting of queer individuals. We both lamented at how even though many people used Luca’s name and proper pronouns, still more seemed to ignore this and continued to dead-name them. While this wasn’t a source of conflict, it was an added layer to the already tense environment of the Physics Lounge.
Before we wrapped up, we touched on the topic of micro-identities, activism, and what being “non-binary” means to us.
Luca’s mentioning of finding some commiseration in the idea that autistic people are more likely to be queer is another bolster to our theme that coming out and being out can help a person find support and community. Luca mentions that they think they might be autistic, which almost serves as a justification for being queer. They have another part of their identity that they were able to find community around. They don’t mention it in this interview, but for a long time we used an app called Habitica together, and they found quite a few queer autistic support groups that they felt validated by– strengthening the idea that coming-out (in a way that isn’t exclusive to queerness in this case) can help someone find community.
I interviewed my partner, Charles, in our apartment in the evening. He’s originally from Colorado, but was stationed in North Carolina while in the Army, and we’re now living together in Columbus. Being his partner, I already knew a couple of stories of his too, but his insight turned philosophical as opposed to narrative quickly. He says that he never really had a coming out story, just the realization that he was bi. He calls it a “coming out to himself,” since his background from a blue-collar, conservative-leaning family made it hard for him to first have exposure to queer identities, and second to find that within himself.
I ended up asking him about a gay teacher that he had in middle-school, and he tells the story of how he used the word “gay” in a demeaning way, and the teacher told him how that can hurt people that he isn’t aware of. Charles says how he is struck by the fact that this teacher didn’t say that he was hurt, but that he emphasized the hurt that might be caused to others. He says it was something that stuck with him for years.
Charles also talks about his time in the military, and how it feels to be queer within it. He mentions how, even though there were people who were out and proud and did just fine, he felt like he couldn’t and also didn’t have to come out, because it could have affected his respectability. He says that he never felt like he had to hide, just that he chose not to come out. He points out that he was very close with the people that he was around, even though they didn’t always agree. He does, however, mention how he is enjoying a newfound freedom of expression in civilian life.
As our conversation progressed, we got to talking about what it means for him to be queer. He pointed out that being bi doesn’t feel like a major part of who he is. We both contrast this with my perspective, in which being queer is a crucial part of who I am and the way I see myself.
Charles is more distanced from community building based on queerness. Instead, in his interview, he talks about how commun
ity is built in the military despite vast differences, and how that may have affected his choice not to come out while enlisted. He says that he didn’t come out because he wanted to stay respected, but that he never felt like he was hiding. In this way, I think that he insinuates that he doesn’t come out because he already had an established sense of community, and the introduction of that fact might have changed the community dynamic. He emphasizes that the military isn’t as homophobic as it used to be, so he seems to be saying that he wasn’t afraid of coming out, but rather he was worried about changing the community by being out. After the military then, there is no pre-established community that he is a part of, so he does have freer expression like he mentions– he gets to rebuild his identity from square one.
One of the striking differences between Luca’s and Charles’s stories is the difference in the importance of queerness to identity. Charles states that it’s not a big part of who he is, that it’s a fact about him rather than a crucial part of his identity. He then contrasts this with what he’s experienced of other queer people: “I, from what I’ve experienced of the culture. I seem to be different than a lot of the more outspoken queer people. I don’t see– I don’t see it as essential to my character. It’s what I am. It’s not who I am, I guess you could say.” Luca sees themselves differently; their queerness is a part of how they perceive themselves, especially with regard to being non-binary. They describe it as, “at least with me, it’s just like, I don’t really think of myself as like a man or a woman. I just think of myself as me.” Luca later specifically uses the word “identify” to describe their non-binary-ness, a word that isn’t ever present in Charles’s interview. This word alone marks off someone whose queerness is a part of their identity, and someone who sees their queerness as more of a fact about themselves.
Experiences with the Public
When it comes to how people interact with Luca’s and Charles’s queerness, and how they interact with the public, there is a pattern of not coming out in the traditional sense, but being out.
Luca and I have some shared experience in a place called the Physics Lounge, in Smith Lab at OSU. This was a place for physics majors to get together and do physics homework together. It was oftentimes high stress, very tiring, and full of as many different conversations as there were people in the room. There were regulars who came, Luca and I along with our friend group being one of them. I brought up our time in the Physics Lounge with Luca, and we talked about how silly it was that people heard lots of people calling Luca “Luca” and using their proper pronouns, but some people still dead-named them and used “she/her” with them. On the other hand, I had started using “Luca” and “they/them” in conversation with our friend group, and they picked it up too. Luca explains their reaction: “but it was just more of like an annoyance because I was like literally everyone else is calling me by a different name than what you’re calling me by.” There is an assumption on Luca’s part here, and mine as the interviewer’s too, that being out doesn’t have to include coming out, and that people should recognize queer people being out without a more stereotypical coming-out as a direct statement of identity.
Charles, even though he sees a different relationship between queerness and identity,
has similar experiences. Although he never came-out in the traditional sense, he has been out for quite a while. Though we don’t talk about it in his interview he tied bi-pride bandanas to the roll-bar of his Jeep. This is especially significant because his Jeep is a very important aspect of his self-expression; he loves his cars and is proud of his reputation as an owner of older ones, to the point of naming them and assigning them personalities. He plasters them with stickers that he enjoys and works on and modifies them as a way to make them his own. That bi-pride was included in such an important facet of his self-expression shows how Charles is content with being out, even if he hasn’t yet “come-out.” He also expresses enjoyment over freer self-expression outside of the military, saying, “it’s nice starting fresh because I don’t know anyone, so I can build my identity out from square one again. Like, I painted my nails the other day and no one said anything I just showed up with sparkly blue and purple nails. No one said anything. And it felt really good to be out in the open like that.” Again, he expresses joy and satisfaction with being out and having free self-expression. In this way, although being bi isn’t a crucial aspect of his self-image, it is important to him that he has the freedom to be out if and when he chooses.