Coming Out, Into Solidarity


Solidarity requires visibility. As second-wave feminists argued, “the personal is political,” and this was carried forward by the LGBTQ+ rights movement’s call for “coming out.” The process of coming out, while deeply personal, is also always political. While there are some good reasons to delay coming out to some people in our lives, and though coming out is not a necessary pre-requisite to mental health, the political motivation behind the movement’s push for coming out was to build visibility, so as to build solidarity. As Paula Rust argued, “identity is the link connecting the individual to the social world.” Thus, when I come out, it’s not just to find a place of psychological authenticity in the world, but to connect to a social community and a politics of social justice. Community is a central point of the politics of visibility: solidarity requires a sense of shared meaning and it requires a connection with others, with the collective. We cannot establish social solidarity without other people to connect to.

My favorite Emile Durkheim quote is as follows:

“Surely there can be no solidarity between others and us unless the image of others unites itself with ours.”

In my read, what he is saying here is that when I make decisions that put you first, I am really caring for myself. And, that we make our best decisions when we hold others’ needs at the center of our process. And, that we need each other. And, true solidarity brings everyone in (it does not push some people out).

Living in society, as humans have always and will always do, means that we are all in relationships with each other, even those people we will never meet or share a meal with. Constructing shared meaning, an agreed-upon way to live amongst each other, allows us to among other things, communicate, organize, construct currency, build complex transportation and communication systems, share resources, and have and sustain a (fragile) democracy.

Given the fragility of all these systems–remember everything has a historical start date and eventually, an end date–we must always be thinking about:

  1. How to protect what allows everyone to thrive.
  2. How to change what is limiting everyone’s capacity to thrive.


As Marx argued–and Sociologists have carried this argument forward into a central point of our theoretical perspective–inequality is unsustainable in the long term (though hegemonic systems do allow unequal relations to persist for many years/decades/centuries longer than is good for people’s well-being).

One reason that inequality is unsustainable is that it is divisive and dehumanizing, and thus weakens our capacity for solidarity. Do I need to mention social media’s mental health effects on girls and on democracy, gun access and gun violence, the Supreme Court’s impending decision on abortion rights and women’s bodily autonomy (and maybe down the line, along with it, interracial and same-sex marriage), the January 6th insurrection and ongoing live hearings, or continued covid vaccine conspiracy theories? All of these dangers illuminate what happens when profits are put before people, when divisiveness outpaces solidarity, and what harms come when some people are dehumanized so that others can stay in power.

Without solidarity, it becomes difficult to live amongst each other in ways that allow everyone to be safe and thrive.

Inequality allows us to accept pushing some people out, not just of the protections that come from social institutions, but from humanity. In the case of women’s rights to make decisions about their bodies, losing the protection of Roe v. Wade will push many women out of the workforce and (further) into poverty; these experiences will be shaped by systemic racism. When abortion becomes illegal again this will further exacerbate inequality: the women who live at the intersections of race, class, and gender will experience the most harm. A “dangerous dependency” indeed.

Ellen Scott highlights this issue through the lens of the intersection of (limited) social welfare programs and domestic violence. She astutely writes, “dependency is a societal necessity, not an individual flaw.” This means that when an individual is dependent upon a person, a social service agency, an employer, or a governmental program such as Medicaid, they haven’t failed. Quite the opposite: they are normal, they are us, and we are them.

I am dependent upon my employer for health care, and as a breast cancer survivor, this dependency relationship saved my life. My employer continues to employ me, in part, because students continue to register for my classes. In this way, I am dependent upon my students. Your tuition dollars, along with your tax dollars (for those who live and/or shop in district), help me feed myself, my wife, and my dog, and have allowed me to maintain my health insurance, which was beyond necessary as I underwent breast cancer treatment. I am dependent on my family members, on organizations and institutions, on grocery stores and all those who work inside them, on taxpayers, on health care providers, on bank tellers, on the local, state, and federal government, and on you.

What, then, is a “dangerous dependency?” That is when our relationships at both the level of “personal troubles” and “public issues” are a threat to our capacity to survive and thrive. For the White women in Scott’s article, they were dependent upon their abusive exes: dangerous men they had left but returned to not for romantic reasons, but for instrumental ones such as transportation, child care, and housing. What pushed them back to their abusive partners? According to Scott, and backed up by empirical evidence, the changes that were made to the welfare program back in 1996 during Bill Clinton’s presidency were successful in reducing the number of people receiving welfare benefits but the policy did not alleviate people’s poverty. Instead, it pushes them off welfare and sometimes into more destructive relationships. Thus, the danger is not just abusive (ex)partners (micro-level), it’s also the policy itself (macro-level). And who is at most risk? Children and the elderly tend to be the biggest beneficiaries of welfare programs.

People on welfare have not failed at the task of independence, because sociologically speaking none of us are independent. While we might become financially independent from our parents, for example, this does not make us sociologically independent, given our reliance on our employers, the government, and the economy at large. Even when we live alone we are utterly dependent upon others: the landlord who cares for our apartment, the Nicor worker who keeps the gas coming into our stove, the local AC repair person who keeps the air conditioning running during a heat wave. We might be eating alone, but that’s only possible because of the people who grow the corn, the people who pick the corn, the people who transport the corn to the grocery store, and the grocery store workers working at the cash register when we go grocery shopping. And I haven’t even gotten to the butter, the salt, pepper, the water, the plates, the silverware, or the lights.

We need each other, we depend upon each other, and we are at our most healthy when we have solidarity; when we bring everyone in. The politics of visibility is about seeing everyone, including the least among us; it’s about (re)claiming our humanity and our rightful seat at the table. It’s about being seen, heard, and valued.

Back to that Durkheim quote:

“Surely there can be no solidarity between others and us unless the image of others unites itself with ours.”

A healthy society is built upon seeing ourselves in others, in caring for others as we want to be cared for, and in the reciprocity of this care. The sociological ask here is to step away from inequality–the divisiveness and dehumanization–and towards each other; towards solidarity and thus, greater personal and collective well-being.

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