When Not to Come Out (Or, It’s Not Always About Me, Except When It Secretly Is)

A couple weeks ago, I visited a home for adults with mental illness and cognitive disorders for a tour, as a precursor to potentially volunteering there. One of the residents was talking with me when another came up and interrupted: “Are you a boy or a girl?”

Now, online, I’m about as out as I can be about my gender without restating it every five seconds or yelling it in your face constantly. (Recap: I do not fit into the gender binary commonly presented.) Offline, I am out to friends and close family, though most of those people have forgotten on purpose and/or outright deny it, to my face, on a regular basis. I am out to the local queer group. I’m not insistently out in my professional life, though I do tell people I am close to and would reply honestly to colleagues if ever asked. However, they routinely assign me a binary gender, and I don’t fight it. Had an equal or another professional asked me this question, I would have answered, “Neither.”

But it’s a totally different relationship when you’re there to help someone. This particular resident I had already met; I knew he had difficulty with learning new information. I might have answered honestly with a less cognitively involved client, as a reflex, but after the briefest pause, I replied, “Thank you for asking. You can call me a girl. Are you a boy or a girl?”

“You asked. I’m a boy. A big boy. And you’re a girl. We’re different.” With that pronouncement, he turned to another group and people and left my conversation.

As I move closer to licensure and full-time work, this is one of those subjects I have to think about. Clients I’ll be seeing may have similar difficulties to this resident, but not all of them will. Still, treatment sessions are supposed to be about the client, not about my gender.

But let me admit to being human, if you’ll permit me. I live in a state where women’s rights are only grudgingly upheld; queer rights are essentially unheard of. When I’m in a professional situation, I present as female 100% of the time. I do not disclose my gender unless directly asked. I don’t get into my sexual identity or orientation, though I do wear my fabulous rainbow scarf. (However, people apparently take that as just a colorful accessory, instead of recognizing that’s it’s my QUEER QUEER QUEER advertisement. This would baffle me more if I hadn’t realized years ago that this state operates in a permanent condition of denial.) Whether I’m operating as a professional student (eventually, a paid professional) or just as a casual volunteer, I’m not sure I would feel safe sharing my queer identity in any place even remotely connected to the future of my career as long as I live in this state.

So yes, I put some thought into it and decided that, in any sociopolitical climate, it’s best to focus on the client’s needs unless they directly ask and don’t have documented difficulties precluding full disclosure. But I’m also terrified that I’ll be removed from my clinical placements, fired from my jobs, psychologically and emotionally abused, and even physically and sexually endangered if I let myself be as out as I’d like. Sometimes it feels like a delicate dance on a non-existent middle ground: I’m either in the closet or I’m an ‘aggressive queer’ – that is to say, I tell people once, quietly and politely, that I’m queer, and they feel threatened by it and must immediately retaliate by threatening me.

I look forward to the day when I move somewhere safer, where the decision of how to answer the “boy or girl” question is solely based on the client’s needs and capacities. I look forward even more to the day when enough progress is made that the answer is based on the client even here. Until those days, though, I’ll stick to keeping myself safe, even if that means half-truths and neat side-stepping of the actual question.

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