I teach a Women’s Studies course called “Body and Identity,” where I offer students a deeper dive into some specific experiences—like being fat, being a woman with a lot of tattoos, or choosing plastic surgery.
For instance, I have often used Amy Farrell’s book, Fat Shame, to help students understand the history and context of fat stigma in American culture. I also happen to be a fat womanand when we come to this unit of study, I always tell the students, “Listen carefully! I want you to know that I know that you know: You have a fat professor.”
See what I did there? I came out as fat.
It’s not as though students can’t tell I’m fat just by looking at me, but people often have a hard time talking about being fat as an experience—exactly because it’s shameful. We tend to use words like fat and old as insult words—even though they are really neutral, descriptive words, like tall or blonde. These are embodiments and identities people actively try to avoid.
That’s why I state the obvious. I want students to know that I’ll talk about our subject of study from a perspective informed not only by scholarship, but by lived experience. My experience is valuable, and my body and identity as a fat woman are part of my inalienable humanity.
This is what “coming out” does. It makes a socially shameful or stigmatized identity visible and open for discussion. It makes people’s complex lives more visible. Time (and research) has shown us that when people come to see others’ lives as similar to their own, hatred and fear are harder to maintain.
Of course, the language of “coming out”—especially to those beyond immediate allies—comes from the gay rights movement of the 1970s, but it has become extremely relevant for a wide array of human rights campaigns.
Abigail Saguy’s new book, Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are (Oxford, 2020), offers a fascinating and powerful analysis of how various groups are using “coming out” to gain personal power, allies and increased civil rights.
Skillfully, Saguy allows members of each group she studies to tell their own fascinating stories.
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As Saguy describes, Harvey Milk famously made the slogan “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are” the slogan of his campaign to defeat Proposition 6 in California in 1978. This proposition would’ve banned gay teachers from working in public schools in California.
Saguy offers a concise history of the use of the term in LGBT communities in the U.S. before moving on to uses of “coming out” of which readers may not be aware.
Fat acceptance, for instance. I’m not the only one who believes open discussion of fat identity and experiences with fatness to be beneficial to ending oppression of fat people.
And how about undocumented immigrants in the U.S.? How is it possible that people who risk deportation if their undocumented status is revealed can choose to “come out?”
It’s possible because living in secrecy breeds fear and makes it very difficult to organize with others for better treatment. Even though the risk is great, many have found it worthwhile to free themselves and empower others in the process.
Saguy’s book is based largely on interviews, making an interesting and nuanced read. She handles movements that affect huge portions of the population, such as #metoo, along with smaller movements.
Minority outliers such as polygamists (aka plural marriage advocates) are also “coming out” as a political strategy. This chapter is particularly interesting because “coming out” may indeed highlight the humanity of those who are telling their stories, but it doesn’t always sway others to support their position. Indeed, the book does an amazing job at presenting “coming out” as a political tactic, without editorializing the merits of each specific movement. Saguy allows the interviewees to speak for themselves in that regard.
Though the groups profiled in this book don’t always share political views, they are each trying to influence political processes and they all acknowledge the common origins of their tactics.
Coming out—as a political tool—emerged from struggles for LGBT rights and the tactic is highly transferrable. This means that Saguy’s book is hugely relevant in its analysis of cross-issue organizing as well. As she points out, in some of these movements, it has been those experiencing intersectional oppressions—fat, queer women, for instance, or queer undocumented immigrants—who have been at the forefront of the work for single-issue causes.
The primary thing that all of these “coming out” movements have in common is this: If you don’t believe you know anyone fitting that shameful description, it’s easy to make up terrible stories about “those people.” As soon as one knows someone who has a plural marriage, or who is willing to talk about harassment as a result of being fat or gay, or whom you respect as being smart and hard working, in addition to being an undocumented immigrant, one can never rely only on ignorance and lies again. Or, it becomes harder to do so, and more likely to confront the aspects of oneself that one has also kept hidden—like being a sexual abuse or rape survivor.
Suddenly, we are more likely to see ourselves as part of diverse human family, each worthy of dignity and inalienable rights.