Why is Coming Out Not Coming Up?

Written by: Megan Johnson, Project Co-ordinator (LGBT and Dementia Project), LGBT Health and Wellbeing

Published: 27/11/2018

Megan reflects on her own personal experiences and the difficulties that LGBTQ people with dementia face.

Recently I dropped a small piece of paper on a train. As I leant over to pick it up a man joked ‘is that your boyfriends number?’

Now, I like to think I’m hilarious, so I responded with a joke too. All in all, it was a fun interaction with a friendly person on the train to work. But I was reminded that still the general assumption as I pass through the world is: we are all straight.

This creates an environment in which, for LGBTQ people to speak freely about themselves, they need to constantly and repeatedly ‘come out.’

Co-ordinating our dementia project it is a privilege to work with my community and hear their stories. Some of their experiences are painful to learn of. Whilst I have experienced discrimination I have never experienced criminalisation in the way many members of my community have in their lifetimes. I cannot imagine how it feels to navigate everyday choices of ‘coming out’ if you can remember a time when doing so might result in imprisonment.

At first glance it doesn’t seem like the biggest deal, to not be out all of the time, in all of the places. Why do we need to know these things about each other anyway? Isn’t it private? But when you consider how these interactions playout in a GP’s office or care home you can see how quickly it can lead to someone’s needs being misunderstood or neglected. Simply asking ‘do you have a husband?’ can be enough to create a chasm of space between you and a woman who does not want to explain to you that she is caring for her partner who is also a woman.

Since beginning the project the majority of practitioners I have encountered have said they have never worked with an LGBTQ person. They mostly then go on to say ‘I know that isn’t true.’ In short they are saying that LGBTQ people are not coming out to them. So then the question is, why not?

Sometimes when moments like the one I described on the train occur I think of saying ‘oh actually I’m a lesbian!’ and sometimes I do. More so if it’s someone I’ll see again. someone I trust. Or, (let’s be honest shall we?) someone I fancy. But sometimes I don’t bother. The choice not to come out in these moments isn’t always for reasons of personal safety – although sometimes it is. Most often I just don’t want it to be awkward. Awkward for the person who I come out to, for me, for any passers-by overhearing things like ‘oh you don’t look like a lesbian!’

And the truth is probably that most people won’t blink, won’t care, will go back to their morning coffee, will be kind. Maybe I’d get asked on a few more dates? Who knows! But when you are relying on the kindness of strangers to simply feel safe to acknowledge your own identity it can sometimes start to feel easier to just keep it to yourself. Just in case.

That feeling is magnified a thousand times over in situations where I feel vulnerable, in need of support or reliant on others for care. Is it worth running the risk of coming out and having to live with any negative results that may come from that? 8 times out of 10? No.

This is especially important when we consider that many LGBTQ people with dementia fear or live with the reality of no longer being in control of the choice to ‘come out’ – sometimes feeling unable to stop themselves referencing their identity by mistake. Maybe by referring to a partner without meaning to. The worries that result from this alone can be a substantial barrier to LGBTQ people with dementia or LGBTQ carers accessing services or support.

But it shouldn’t be this way. And I know most people agree. Yet, every time we say ‘ladies and gentlemen’ we erase non-binary people. When we say ‘gay marriage’ instead of ‘equal marriage’ we erase bi people – and it isn’t only straight and cisgender people who do this erasing. We have a collective responsibility to consider who we include and exclude in the ways we choose to communicate – through words, images, ideas and actions.

The exciting, freeing thought though is that we can use the way we communicate to tear down these barriers. We can consider our language and utilise it in a way that includes and empowers people. And if we keep it up for long enough, we might even one day do away with the need to ‘come out’ all together.

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