Coming out of the closet is a process that is getting less and less press these days even though homophobia seems to be on the rise. I decided to start doing little bios occasionally on folks who are out of the closet at work and school. In this way, I can really use social networking for its ultimate purpose and hopefully, give my gay brethren a few words of encouragement along the way. The first person (and so far, the only one) to respond to my request for their perspectives on coming out of the closet is someone that I met and instantly admired as a girl but who is now a guy and I still admire him very much. Mason understood right away what my motivation was in wanting to bring the coming out process back into our consciousness. “I’ve definitely heard stories of people being very obviously fired for their identity and having no recourse. Sad as it is, sometimes it just isn’t possible to be out safely,” he warns.
Mason Strand was once a soft-spoken Midwestern girl, who went through a large part of his outwardly transformative process in NYC and has recently settled back in Chicago-land. But he has always been a student of the arts for as long as I’ve known him. The most difficult part in accepting my friend’s transgender status has been remembering to say “he” instead of “she” because, ultimately, in my mind, Mason hasn’t really “changed” but rather just expressed more outwardly who he really feels like on the inside. But also, until Mason, who has been a family friend for quite some time, came out as transgender, I had no frame of reference for this sort of thing. Being gay does not automatically give someone an innate perspective on all matters relating to sexuality.
Mason describes it this way:
“I experience and think of my entire queer identity as political, and I think a big part of that is not letting people get by with the “gay (or trans) people are just like us” thing. Some LGBTQ people are like straight people, but some aren’t, and shouldn’t have to be. Even though I’m male and date women, I’m nothing like you’re typical straight dude, and in fact don’t identify as straight, because no part of my sexuality fits into the ideas of what “straight” is. By being out, I queer even what people’s idea of a man is.”Seeing his identity as being political is something that I can certainly relate to as an activist of sorts. I suppose if we’re being honest, gays and lesbians seem to have a choice in whether or not to pursue the politics of our culture but we really don’t. Politics in America eventually comes knocking for all of us, because, as the feminist mantra goes – the personal is political.
Let’s, for the sake of clarity though, offer the rest of Mason’s thoughts on coming out in Q & A format:
FS: What made you decide to come out at school?
Mason: I feel like saying you’re “out” is something of a contradiction or a misnomer, because you can never really be completely out – you’re continually having to come out to people, because you’re continually meeting new people. And so you’re making these decisions every day: who do I tell? Have I known this person long enough? Will this affect our ability to work together?
The fact that I work on a campus makes it so that I am out in certain circles, while other people have no idea. It isn’t that I’m hiding it at all – I started and continue to run a group on campus for transgender students that has a pretty visible presence – it’s just that with some people that I see infrequently it simply hasn’t come up. It’s also a little different for me because, as an ftm I’m often perceived as a gay man. So even if I’m not out as trans, I feel that I’m often perceived as queer one way or another, and that makes me glad. I think that straight people feeling the presence of LGBTQ people is important because it helps them remember that we aren’t just the people they make jokes about, or the funny sidekicks on TV. We’re real, whole people, who are infinitely varied and complex. This is a big part of why I want to be out.
Additionally, I feel like it’s important for me to be out at work and at school (which are the same place for me) because I’m interested in working in and for the LGBTQ community, and I think that necessitates a willingness to be upfront about your identity. I can’t run a group for trans kids on campus, or advocate for our rights if I’m not willing to tell people that I’m transgender.
FS: Has your “coming out” experience been overall, a good one or a bad one?
Mason: Overall my experience of being out has been very good. I’ve actually not had any negative reactions, and have experienced nothing but support and acceptance. I know that this makes me very privileged and fortunate, and the fact that I work at a big liberal university in a large city has a lot to do with this. But, that said, the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in my life was when I was stealth (passing as male without disclosing my transgender identity) in a workplace. I was miserable and paranoid about being “found out.” Some people are perfectly happy being stealth all the time, but it makes me feel really icky (to use a technical term).
FS: What sort of work or school are you involved in and what special talents or appeal can GLBT persons offer to your line of work or education?
Mason: I work in the Center for Interreligious Engagement at the University I attend, where I’m also getting a Master’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies (my BA was in Film). I think that LGBTQ people are so incredibly valuable in a University environment because, for a lot of people, it’s the first time they’re really able to be out, and the first thing they’re looking for is a supportive community. My university happens to have a really high LGBTQ population, both in the staff and faculty and in the student body. This makes the campus a really great environment, because everywhere you go, you’re bumping into “family.” Even the Center I work at, which you would think would be conservative, is run by an awesome, progressive gay man, and does remarkable, thoughtful programming. I think that any person who has been marginalized tends to understand the world in a very different way, and has the potential to have a great, deep compassion for others who have encountered oppression. So that is something that I think LGBTQ people can be really great at, though I think it’s important to realize how interconnected all oppression is.
Additionally, I think that, on a Campus, whether you’re a student or an employee, there is a lot that you can do for LGBTQ students. Your presence and your work can inspire people to further explore their identity, and to feel empowered. It’s also great in that, if there’s something you don’t like at the school – a policy or the way something is run - you can work to change it. I think of it as practice for engaging the government once you get out of school (although you can, of course, do that while in school as well).
FS: If you could offer advice for anyone else who is thinking of coming out of the closet, what would that entail?
Mason: My honest advice for someone on coming out is to start small, especially if you are nervous about it at all. Tell a few people that you can trust, and work up from there. That way, if you ever do encounter any problems, you’ll know you have someone to back you up. I would also advise knowing what your rights are in the workplace, like whether there are anti-discrimination laws for lesbians and gays, or for trans people (because sometimes it only covers the LGB and not the T). These are different for every state, and I’ve definitely heard stories of people being very obviously fired for their identity and having no recourse. Sad as it is, sometimes it just isn’t possible to be out safely. But, if it’s possible, and you want to do it, I would advise people to be out in school and work, simply because it is so freeing, and everyone deserves to get to be their full selves in all parts of their life.
Their FULL selves… in ALL parts of their life… There’s a novel idea. I wonder if anyone in America can be themselves 24 hours a day anymore. We all wear so many hats and it seems as though the entire nation might be stricken with multiple personality disorder. Can a Christian teacher really be a Christian at a University? Maybe if they work at a religious school… Can a gay male athlete be himself while vying for placement on a college team? Can an HIV positive woman really be frank with her co-workers while she is covered by the company insurance? Can a Republican candidate admit to thinking that Equality is a worthy endeavor? I’d like to think that eventually the answer to all these questions will be “yes we can”. But for now, we just don’t know, do we?
One thing that certainly helps to ease the mind is knowing that people like Mason are out there, every day and in every state and every metropolitan area – being themselves to the best of their ability.