Naturally I did not come out of the closet.
The kids at my school opened it without my permission.
They called me by a name I did not recognize.
But I was more boy than girl,
more Ken than Barbie.
It had nothing to do with hating my body.
I just love it enough to let it go.
I treat it like a house.
And when your house is falling apart,
you do not evacuate.
You make it comfortable enough to house all your insides.
You make it pretty enough to invite guests over.
You make the floorboards strong enough for you to stand on.
— 'On Coming Out' By Lee Mokobe
This beautiful poem intricately captures the universal experience i.e. ‘coming out’. But have you ever wondered why the act of coming out is only applicable to straight people? The answer, of course, is heteronormativity. In a society where ‘straight’ is the default gender orientation, the act of coming out is only germane to you, if you’re not straight. When you’ve been in the closet a short or long time, you know it can be a little dark and a little scary not being able to express your authentic self. Coming out, expressing your queerness, and celebrating it can be wonderful.
However, when you see even in the 21st century, the stigma, violence, and othering meted out to people who aren’t straight, the closet can feel safe and familiar as well. You have the freedom to remain there for as long as necessary and in no way, does that diminish your authentic queerness. The decision of when and to whom you choose to emerge from the cocoon is deeply personal, something only you can determine. Yet, should you opt for this transformative step, a vibrant community eagerly awaits, standing in solidarity, brimming with exuberance, and ready to embrace you.
Speaking of such a community, we delve into interdisciplinary artist Avril Stormy Unger’s Project Almirah, a new website that provides a safe space to document stories of queerness and of coming out during the pandemic. Presently, the website has eight interviews in podcast format. For a span of more than three months, Avril dedicated herself to conducting interviews with individuals who had come out during the pandemic. "I actively sought out these stories," Avril explains, recounting the diverse sources from which she uncovered these narratives — they emerged from chance encounters with strangers on dating apps, members of the expansive queer community she was already acquainted with, and individuals who approached her following a captivating performance centered around her personal journey of self-discovery and expressed how deeply it resonated with them.
In an interview with the Hindu, Avril says that the foundation of her website lies in her own journey of self-discovery during the pandemic.
"The pandemic brought up a lot of stuff about my own queerness and sexuality. I think that culminated in early 2021 as was the case with many queer people. This got me thinking about coming out late in life and I began looking for stories of people who had gone through a similar experience only to realize that there wasn’t much information available in the Indian context. That’s when I felt the need to speak with others who had similar experiences and look at what caused this revelation, how it felt safe to come out to oneself when the world was unsafe, what happened next, what was grounding, and what helped."
Avril Stormy Unger, in an interview with the Hindu
In a heteronormative world, where homophobia is internalized even within the queer community, Avril feels that the visibility of these stories that says that it’s okay to be queer is of vital importance. In late 2022 when she was searching for funding, she received major help from the Amra Odbhuth Collective, a queer and trans collective and community center in West Bengal, India.
They managed to get some funding and gave me a part of it for this project.
Avril, in an interview with the Hindu
Out of the ten interviews she conducted, a total of eight found their place in Project Almirah, a name that resonated strongly with her. Moreover, the individuals she interviewed were compensated for their valuable contributions to the project. With an eye toward expansion, Avril aims to enrich the archive with an array of formats, including audio, video, text, and imagery. Encouraged by the influx of inquiries from individuals eager to share their stories, she has expressed her desire to secure additional funding to accommodate this growing vision.
"Giving queer people a voice to tell their story is unique. Knowing that other people went through similar experiences makes one feel less isolated. After reading and listening to the stories, I felt so much solidarity and connection."
Angel, a non-binary bisexual person, whose story is also part of 'Project Almirah', in an interview with the Hindu