No one was surprised when Ricky Martin came out of the closet as gay.
I’ve been writing under a pseudonym for a long time.
In 2008, I decided to take all my theories about S&M — and all my confused feelings — and use them for sex-related activism. I started Sex+++, my sex-positive film series in Chicago, which was an unexpectedly huge success. I volunteered at the Leather Archives, the world’s only S&M museum. I began writing this blog. Soon I was getting speaking engagements. Then I started publishing articles in big outlets. Always under the name Clarisse Thorn.
I had several reasons for writing under another name:
1) I thought I might want to explore a career path at a conservative company. In fact, I spent the first two years of my Clarisse-Thorn-time working for bosses who would not have been okay with the fact that I’m a decently well-known S&M writer.
The social climate now is somewhat liberal — it’s mostly okay to be gay, for example, or at least it’s more okay than it has been for hundreds of years. But S&M is something else. Less than ten years ago, a prominent U.N. employee named Jack McGeorge was publicly attacked in the media because he was an S&Mer. And while you might think times have changed, a sex blogger who called herself The Beautiful Kind (real name Kendra Holliday) lost her job in 2010 when her boss found out.
BDSM — and sexuality in general — is still very stigmatized. People who write openly and personally about sex are taking huge risks with their employability.
2) I’m lucky because my parents are both very analytical, liberal thinkers; they’re deeply interested in gender politics, and they think my work is awesome. However, there are other people in my social network who would not be cool with Clarisse Thorn. For example, one of my closest friends comes from a hardcore religious family. I like her family. I’ve been to their house for Christmas. They’ve told me that they think I’m “a good influence” on their daughter, although they understand that I’m pretty liberal. But if they knew I was kinky, God knows how they’d react.
Another example: a former boss of mine is very, very conservative. In fact, he’s a Tea Party member. This boss has always been incredibly kind and generous to me; I visit him occasionally even though I don’t work for him anymore, and he’s told me that he thinks of me like a daughter. Would he “disown” me if he knew about Clarisse Thorn? I don’t know.
Some people who work in sexuality say: “Well, I wouldn’t want to work for someone who can’t accept me as I am,” or “I wouldn’t want to be close to someone who wouldn’t be okay with my sexuality.” Maybe that’s true for them. But people are complicated, and the world is a nuanced place, and I’ve drawn a lot of comfort and joy from these relationships, even if I disagree with those folks in some ways.
3) I hope to have kids at some point. In USA culture, the most efficient way to go about that is usually to get married. I don’t want a potential husband to be in a position where people will assume he’s perverted just because he’s marrying me; if he wants to be out, then that’s fine, but I don’t want outness to be a precondition. I don’t want to risk his employment along with my own. And if I’m going to meet a fiancé’s family, I’d rather they had the opportunity to get to know me as a person before they Google me and discover this. I mean, I’ve dated men whose families would have had trouble adjusting to the relationship because I was white. Imagine if they knew that I was a pervert.
And my poor potential kids! I mentioned Kendra Holliday earlier; her son has definitely caught some flak at school. I’m pretty sure the famous S&M writer Janet Hardy stayed in the closet, writing under the name Catherine Liszt, until her children were grown — I seem to recall seeing something she wrote where she described kids as “hostages to social stigma,” although I can’t find it now. (Update: Janet did stay in the closet until her kids were grown, but she doesn’t recall saying anything about hostages; see comments.)
There are other reasons for being closeted. I am, in fact, nervous about having everyone in the world know details about my sex life (even though my writing is fairly vague and emotional and political, compared to most sex writing). Personal safety worries me, too.
There is something shadowy and romantic about having a “secret identity” — and as a dedicated child of the Internet since 1996, when anonymity was the norm, I always liked playing identity games. But this is more inconvenient and stressful than romantic. I mean, earlier this year I spoke at the biggest new media conference in the world. Imagine attending a four-day social media convention while preventing yourself from being photographed or identified. It was intense.
I like being able to shed the CT persona if I have to, although this writing has become so integral to me that it’s kind of difficult to relate to people who don’t understand this aspect of me. On the other hand, the last three times I went to Wicker Park, I ran into people who know me only as Clarisse Thorn. And there have been many opportunities cross-pollinated among my various lives. People who know mostly my “real” self have given many leads to Clarisse, and vice versa.
I made a list a few years ago, of factors that I’d want to have in place before I came out of the closet:
1) Either massive wealth (ha!) or a career trajectory that makes me certain I won’t ever need a job where CT’s existence is a drawback.
2) Married to someone who doesn’t mind, with kids who are all grown up.
3) Social changes such that there’s massively decreased social stigma around sexuality, especially S&M.
4) Some factor that tips the balance towards making it worth coming out of the closet: i.e., some opportunity that I can’t take unless I come out, which I would be a fool to turn down.
5) The development of Clarisse Thorn as a “legitimate” public intellectual.
I have put so very much energy into maintaining my privacy. But it has always chafed, too. I’m writing this now, today, because I’m really close to coming out. S&M has become way more culturally okay in the last five years. Clarisse Thorn has written for major media outlets and lectured at important cultural institutions.
And an opportunity has come my way that I would be a fool to turn down.
I find myself on the brink, finally, of a decision that has been in the back of my mind for years. I’m hesitant. My cautious freelancer side tells me that I want some serious money in my hand before I make any big decisions. My list is incomplete. I’m not married. I don’t have kids yet. In this economy it’s impossible to be certain of anything, career-wise.
I’m thinking of making coming out into a game. It appeals to my geeky soul. Offering some kind of prize to a person who identifies me, as long as they document their Internet Detective procedures; this would be a great object lesson of why long-term pseudonymity is impossible in the Information Age. I’d love to see how different people go about it!
I’m not there yet, though. I’m close. I’m so close. It will most likely happen soon. But I’m not quite there. I’m uncertain and scared and once I make this decision, I can never take it back. I’m waiting to see if a couple of things pan out.
In the meantime ….
Happy National Coming Out Day.
UPDATE, same day: This afternoon I bit my lip and went to talk to my Tea Party ex-boss. He was totally cool, and said he was surprised that I was so worried!