by Zahra Axinn, ’12
In this phrase, Einstein—perhaps inadvertently—describes to me the process of coming out. People ask me the question, “When did you come out?”. It is a common misconception that “coming out” is somehow a contained moment, yet this trying exercise in “coming out” has been going on for well over six years for me.
The whole concept continues to baffle me. How are you supposed to answer such a question with an answer—one that encompasses your emotions, your body, the deepest corners of your heart—in words, in a label. How can something so personal be distilled? I am boundlessly fortunate to have around me people who cherish me for who I am and have made it possible me to thrive, and yet this process has still been difficult.
Over these years, I’ve asked myself questions of what it means to be “out”, what to “come out” as, whether I was “out” enough, whether I was too “out”. The concept of being “out” comes wrapped in the idea of “passing” too. How many times have I let people make little assumptions about me, about my identity? How many times have I allowed myself to make decisions based on some idea of who I thought people saw me as? How many times have I been afraid to be who I am?
I don’t know exactly how to make all of this any easier, but over time I’ve come to see that it’s important to pose questions and have discussion. These particular thoughts relate to my experience with questions surrounding “sexual orientation”, but I think the ideas and questions relate to other areas in my life and the lives of others.
One of the things that has helped me to feel comfortable “coming out” has been my serious commitment to following the representation of queer people in the media and popular culture, specifically—but not limited to— lesbian and/or bisexual and/or questioning women.
My journey with popular representations of queer women came through an interesting channel. When I was in middle school, girls in my grade were obsessed with Harry Potter. The obsession extended to such an extent that there were frequent arguments over who would be the first to marry Tom Felton. I, having purchased the books devotedly at midnight for each release and a sincere admirer of J.K., participated in the fangirling, albeit peripherally. The big thing to do at the time was to read fan fiction online. I recall one conversation, where I was talking with some other girls about their favorite fics. A few of them mentioned that they loved the slash stories between Harry and Draco. (Thirteen year olds in Berkeley, always risqué…) As nonchalantly as I could, I asked if any of them had read any femslash stories. I was promptly told, “No. Those are just…gross.” Though I did not say anything at the time, I felt that the dismissal of the stories was also a dismissal of me, given how much I had identified with the stories. This uncovering of my own attraction to women was mediated through a peculiar marriage of the familiar childhood world of Harry Potter and the strange expanse of the internet.
From that point on, I began to look for reflections of myself and the questions I had in books, movies and tv shows. The OC had a sweeps week lesbian plot during my freshman year of high school and I suddenly had to catch up on the show. I discovered AfterEllen.com and watched movies like Chasing Amy, Saving Face and Kissing Jessica Stein. I read many books, particularly loving Nancy Garden’s Annie On My Mind. I slowly combed through what I could find, and by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, shows like South of Nowhere and The L Word became instrumental in helping me mold my own queer identity. I kept it all to myself for the most part during high school, not out of fear but rather because I felt like I could not explain most of what I was feeling to my own self, let alone others.
Over the last few years, I have kept my eye on the representation of queer women in the media. I am throughly pleased that things have steadily improved. To say the least, I do not think that we would have had a popular TV show like Glee with a woman of color coming out as a lesbian in 2002.
Recently, I watched Pariah, a truly brilliant movie. In the film, there are several scenes where main character, Alike, deals with “coming out”. While I will not spoil the plot by revealing too much, I will say that this representation of the life of a high-achieving black teenage girl figuring out her sexual orientation and gender identity struck a cord with me. I am glad that the film is being released and generating as much discussion as it seems to be. While sitting in the theater, I experienced a rare feeling—that of seeing myself on the screen, something some people must take for granted when going to the movies. It is not that a representation of another prevents me from enjoying a story—far from it—but it is a lovely thing to be able to hear a voice not so different from my own.
I do not imagine that “coming out” will be something that completely disappears from our society. However, I do believe that as we continue to have better and more widespread representation of all types of people, we will come to a more nuanced understanding of identity in all its manifestations.
Zahra Axinn is a senior double majoring in Drama and English. She studies both because she is fascinated by intersections between performance and the written word. She lives to tell stories, whether through playwriting or just over a cup of coffee. Zahra’s other talents include pottery, baking and reconfiguring the Stanford LGBT•CRC’s entertainment system when it malfunctions. Follow her @zahraanne to hear more of her musings.