One of the stories of the week in the most recent Friday Five was a link to a series of tweets where Alexander Leon, a writer and human right activist, talked about an aspect of coming out that lots of people don’t understand, and many queer people seldom talk about. The tweets were an attempt to sum out an essay he had written but had never gotten published. Towleroad has subsequently published the entire essay (along with some cute yet informative pictures from Leon’s childhood): Out of the Closet and Into the Fire — How I Stopped Performing and Fought to Become Myself.
Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.
This is a topic I’ve touched on a few times before, but usually buried in a discussion about people who were part of our lives when we were closeted and how they react when we come out. Specifically, the idea that some of our loved ones didn’t actually love our true self, but rather they loved the mask or facade (or as Leon calls it, armor) that we had adopted in an attempt to protect ourselves from the bullying as well as the much more subtle forms of homophobia.
That particular bit manifests in many ways. Some of them talk about how we’ve changed so much they don’t recognize us any more. Some of them get annoyed (or worse) any time we mention anything that reminds them we’re queer. And I do mean anything. “Why do you have to keep calling him your husband?” “Because that’s who he is? Would you be happy if I started referring to your spouse as ‘your friend’?”
Our family, our friends, are often not aware that life after the closet isn’t the simple relinquishing of our previous self and the effortless taking up of a new-and-improved queer persona, but rather a complex and arduous process of unlearning the often toxic ways in which we have dealt with negative feelings about ourselves and our place in the world. They see the closet door wide open and don’t understand how we could still be hurting.
When, in the past, I’ve called it a mask, that implies that unlearning those coping/hiding behaviors is as simple as taking the mask off. Even the analogy of armor is somewhat misleading—unless you think of it as a kind of cyberpunk armor, which computer chips are surgically embedded in our bodies and wires go through us to connect to and control portions of the armor. It isn’t as simple as just taking off a set of armor and putting on a new ensemble of clothes. I don’t think it’s an accident that a disproportionate number of gay men claim the Star Trek: Voyager character Seven of Nine as one of their favorite characters.
It isn’t a simple process. One reason it is so difficult is because the false self we were constructing wasn’t just meant to fool potential bullies—we were also desperately trying to fool ourselves. That leaves us living in a super-charged imposter syndrome.
It’s not fun. I am deliriously happy with most aspects of my life. I’ve been successful in my career. I have somehow managed to get married to the most capable man in the world (who also happens to be incredibly funny, sweet, kind, smart—as more than one friend has said, he’s awesome and gives great hugs). I have amazing, talented friends.
I’ve been completely out of the closet for just a bit over 28 years, now, and I still occasionally catch myself deflecting and dissembling in certain circumstances. There are still times when I find myself asking why I said something that I know I don’t really agree with or care about, and then realizing it’s on one of those topics—things someone once told me I’m supposed to like because that’s what men are interested in, or something I’m not supposed to like because it’s “girly.”
Which is really wild coming from a guy who was feeling proud of the big sparkly purble rhinestone earrings I’d picked to go with the dangly purple-wires-twisted-into-the-shape-of-steaming-coffee-mug earrings a friend gave me for Christmas; proud because more than one stranger I ran into that day told me that they liked my earrings.
Feelings are, by definition, irrational. One’s identity is a complex combination of feelings, thoughts, memories, and a whole bunch of subconscious supplements. Becoming who we are is an ongoing process of discovery and re-invention. It isn’t easy, but things that are worthwhile seldom are.
Today is National Coming Out Day. If Ray were still alive, it would also be the day we’d be celebrating the twenty-sixth anniversary of our commitment ceremony (he promised to stay with me for the rest of his life, and he did). My (very-much alive) husband Michael and I don’t have any anniversaries that are close to this date, but this is the twentieth National Coming Out Day we’ve lived together.
I’ve written about why I think it is important that every queer person (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, pansexual, nonbinary, genderfluid, asexual, aromantic, two-spirit, questioning, et cetera) who can safely be out of the closet to do so. Study after study has shown that the more queer friends and acquaintances a straight person has, the more likely they are to support equality for LGBT people. Studies also show that queer and questioning teens and children who have positive queer role models in their community are significantly less likely to attempt suicide than those who don’t.
But it is also important for your own mental and physical health. Being in the closet means living in a constant state of fear. You second guess everything. You’re constantly worried about being rejected by friends or family members if they find out. All that anxiety and stress takes a toll on your mental and physical well-being.
Make no mistake: the fear is real. About 40% of the homeless teens are in that situation because they were kicked out of their homes by their parents when the parents found out they were gay or trans (which is why I advise young people to be very careful about coming out while still financial dependent on their parents). Even if you wait until you are a self-supporting adult (I was 31 years old when I came out), you may still face rejection from people you have loved and counted on your whole life. One of my grandmothers forbade any other family member of mentioning me in her presence. A friend I had thought of as closer than a brother since we were teen-agers was quite angry when I came out and to this day (he happens to be married to a distance relative of mine, so I still hear about him from time to time) insists that I’m going to burn in hell because I’m gay.
But, not everyone reacts that way. And some people will surprise you. One of my aunts who is otherwise quite politically conservative declared that anyone who had a problem with me being gay would have a bigger problem with her. Some people who had been acquaintances that I thought would just shrug and move on became genuinely close friends because coming out to them is an act of making yourself vulnerable—and when they react to that vulnerability with acceptance, that changes the way you perceive each other.
Once I was no longer spending all of that time and energy trying to hide part of myself from anyone, I found that I had more energy and enthusiasm to do the things I love. And when you’re doing that, you meet other people who love some of the things you do. Coming out meant losing (and in some cases evicting) more than a few people from my life. It wasn’t a loss, though, because those people had never loved me for who I was—they liked the mask that I wore when I was closeted. And that’s true even of the relatives who had suspected I was gay for decades and had spent many years praying that god would change me. Those were people who were not adding to my life—their love was conditional, and one of the conditions was that I live a life of fear and without love and intimacy. Separating myself from those people, made room for a much more wonderful and supportive found family.
I was lucky enough to fall in love with a sweet man who loved me back. And after he died, I was lucky again to meet and fall in love with another (though very different) man who loved me back. Being able to love and be loved and not keep that love a secret is something that straight people take for granted that many literally can’t comprehend why being out matters. Once you experienced it, you’ll be amazed at how long you put up with concealing your real self.
So, if it is safe for you to come out, you should. You’ll find that standing out in the light, being true to yourself, is so much better than hiding in the dark!
Oh, and some of you may find this article useful: Trevor Project Releases Coming-Out Handbook for LGBTQ Youth.
Frequently, Bisexual Awareness Week is the same week as my birthday, so I had been planning a post about bi-erasure, the importance of bi visibility, and so forth for next week. Then I saw a link on a newsblog that this week is it.
I often quote the study completed by the Centers for Disease control in the early 90s whose conclusions included the line, “Americans would rather admit to being heroin addicts than being bisexual.” I’m not bisexual, but my husband is. A lot of people leap to the conclusion that because he’s a man married to another man that he is gay. He’s not. A have several other friends who are bisexual who have ended up in long-term relationships with opposite sex partners and people assume that that means they are straight. They aren’t. And that’s just one aspect of bi-erasure.
One of the reasons I take bi erasure a bit personally is my husband: I love him, and being bisexual is part of who he is. It’s not that I only love his “gay half” (as if that even existed), I love all of him. Because he’s awesome.
I have to admit that another reason I take it personally is because I owe bisexual people an apology, because I’m one of those gay guys who—during the time I was struggling with coming out of the closet—lied and said I was bi. I was lying to myself at least as much as I was lying to anyone else, but it was a lie. It wasn’t a transitional phase on my way to being gay. The complicated forces of internalized homophobic and the tremendous social pressure that defines adulthood, in part, on getting married to a person of the opposite sex and starting a family cause us to do some stupid things. And unfortunately, the existence of exclusively gay or lesbian people who falsely identified as bisexual for a time while struggling with their identity contributes to another aspect of bi-erasure.
Bisexual (and pansexual) visibility is important. There are people out there—many of them young people—who aren’t out yet. They may be struggling with even understanding what their sexuality is. And the more examples they can see of adults of all sexualities — bi, pan, ace, gay, lesbian, queer — the more they will know that they aren’t alone and that they can have a future full of love.
And that means that the rest of us in the queer community need to do what we can to make our bi+ siblings feel welcome in queer spaces. If someone tells you they are bi, believe them. Don’t argue with them. Don’t tell them that they may feel differently later. Recognize that they are trusting you with information that makes them vulnerable, and be the kind of ally you wish your straight friends and family members had been for you when you came out.
There are less extreme reasons why it isn’t safe for everyone to come out, I get that. So not everyone is ready. But…
Being in the closet isn’t just an inconvenience. Studies show that being closeted adversely affects your physical health. You live in a constant state of high anxiety about people finding out and what they might do when it happens. This affects us the same as extended trauma, inducing the same sorts of stress changes to the central nervous system as PTSD.Coming out is scary. Some of your family and friends will react badly. There may be drama. You may have the unpleasant surprise to find that some of the people you were sure would be fine with it are not at all. On the other hand (and I speak from personal experience), you may be pleasantly surprised at some of the people who support you—one of my aunts that I was certain wouldn’t react well was the first person to say to a bunch of my relatives, “If you have a problem with Gene being gay, then you’re going to have a much bigger problem with me!”
And coming out isn’t a one and done thing. People will continue to assume you’re straight. You’ll find yourself coming out again and again. But the thing is, being out is so much better than being in that closet. You will be amazed, as you process the aftermath, at how much energy you were expending worrying about people finding out. You will be surprised at the sheer weight of the stress you were dealing with being closeted. Like me, you may discover that a lot of health issues were fueled by that stress, and they get a lot better once you’re no longer hiding, deflecting, thinking of plausible lies, and constantly dreading someone finding out.
I wish we lived in a world where fear of being who we are wasn’t so real.
But one of the small ways we can make the world a little less scary for queer people is to come out. As a teenager, the one time I saw a gay couple on a news program being interviewed about the gay rights struggle probably saved my life. There were two men admitting they were gay—two men who had been in a committed relationship for years and seemed happy. It was a ray of hope I desperately needed.
And that’s one of the reasons I am out. It’s why I mention my queerness as often as I do. So that some frightened queer kid might see that, look, there’s a gay man who is happy, has a good life, has people who love him, has friends—gay, straight and otherwise—who have his back. So, maybe, we can be a glimmer of hope for them.
No one deserves the closet. No one deserves that fear and self-loathing. When you’re ready, come out. It really is a wonderful world outside of that closet.
It’s National Coming Out Day! And just for the record, in case it isn’t clear: I’m queer! Specifically I am a gay man married to a bisexual man. For many years I lived in the closet, and am ever so happy that those days are far, far behind me. So, if you’re a person living in the closet, I urge you to consider coming out. Being in the closet is scary—you live in a constant state of high anxiety about people finding out and what they might do when it happens. Studies show that this affects us the same as extended trauma, inducing the same sorts of stress changes to the central nervous system as PTSD.
The problem is that coming out is also scary. 40% of homeless teen-agers are living on the streets because their parents either kicked them out because the teens were gay (or suspected of being gay), or drove them away through the constant abuse intended to beat the gay out of their kids. This statistic is the main reason I advise kids not to come out until they are no longer financially dependent on their parents. Yeah, there are many stories of kids who came out to their parents and those parents became supportive allies. But not all, by any means.Even if you are a self-supporting adult, coming out is often accompanied by drama. Some of your family and friends will not take it well. You will be surprised at some of the ones who you thought would be okay with it being exactly the opposite. On the other hand, some people will surprise you with how fiercely supportive they become.
In the long run, being out is better than living in the closet. You will finally know who loves you for who you are, rather than those who love the idea of who they think you ought to be. You will also find out that you were expending far more energy than you realized constantly being on the look out for signs your secret is discovered. There will be a moment when you feel the burden lifted. But you will also discover the coming out isn’t a one-and-done deal.
But the freedom of no longer living a lie is incredible. So when you’re ready, come out, come out, where ever you are!
Don’t just take my word for it:
I’ve written more than once about why I think it is important for all Queer people (by which I mean people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, Genderqueer, Nonbinary, Pansexual, Genderfluid, Questioning, Polyamorous and their Allies) to be out about who they are. Because it can be dangerous to come out (kill the gays laws exist in many parts of the world, while here in the U.S. about 40% of homeless teens are children who were kicked out of their house by their parents for being queer or being suspected of being queer), there are some people who probably shouldn’t be out until their situation changes. But being in the closet is harmful in many ways. Studies and history has shown that the fastest way to get other people (and society at large) to accept and support queers is when queer people come out.
The more straight people who actually know queer people, the more minds are opened.
So, in case somehow it isn’t clear: I’m queer. Specifically, I’m a gay man married to a bisexual man.
Being in the closet takes an incredible emotional toll which affects your physical health as well. When you’re in the closet, you’re living in constant fear of rejection. Particularly if, like me, you grew up in a fundamentalist religious family and community. The fear of losing people you love—people who you have depended on—can be debilitating. The constant anxiety of what people’s reactions will be corrodes your soul.
The thing is, staying in the closet is no guarantee against that rejection. Someday someone is going to figure it out, not at a time when you’ve picked and prepared yourself.
Coming out was hard, and there was drama (oh, was there drama). I put up with all the wailing and the angry letters (28-page handwritten letter from one aunt outlining all of the words and topics I would not be allowed to bring up around her, explaining several times that if I brought my partner to visit we would not even be allowed to call each other honey, et cetera). But while many reacted badly to begin with, it wasn’t everyone. Another one of my aunts was the first to call to tell me she loved and supported me. She made it clear to folks on her side of the family that if they had a problem with me being gay, they would have a bigger problem with her.
If and when there is drama about your coming out, you have to treat said drama as your parents (or whoever) throwing a tantrum. They are trying to force you to pretend to be someone you aren’t for their convenience. And just as when a child throws a tantrum, you can’t reward that bad behavior. Dan Savage, the sex advice columnist and gay activist, puts it this way: the only leverage adult queer people have over parents and other family members is our presence in their lives. We shouldn’t fear losing them, they should fear losing us.
It took a few years for some of my family members to come around. I remain grateful that my mom and one set of grandparents did so before my first partner, Ray, died. He had only a short period of time of feeling welcomed into the family. Now, years later, my husband Michael isn’t just welcomed, I’m pretty sure some of them like him more than they do me. And I can hardly blame them!
A few of my relatives never became accepting before they died, and it was their loss.
There will be some surprises. Some people who you were certain before you came out would never accept you will become your biggest defenders. Some people who you thought might understand will disown you and go to their grave without reaching out. You will definitely learn which people really love you, and which only love the idea of who they think you ought to be.
The thing is, being loved for who you are, instead of the illusionary non-queer person you pretended to be, is wonderful. The sooner you are able to find those people the better. And remember the wisdom of Dr. Seuss: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
And being out doesn’t just free you. Being out frees others.
HRC Celebrates National Coming Out Day 2016:
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Today is National Coming Out Day. If Ray were still alive, it would also be the day we’d be celebrating the twenty-second anniversary of our commitment ceremony (he promised to stay with me for the rest of his life, and he did).
Since I am still occasionally surprised to learn that someone I know or work with hasn’t figured out that I’m gay: my husband (Michael) and I are both men, and we’re very much in love with each other and happy together.
But while I’m (re-)stating what I think ought to be obvious, I would like to announce that I am a card-carrying liberal gay man who thinks:
Tragic Coming Out Story:
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Coming Out to Grandma:
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No one’s coming out goes exactly the same as any other. The fear that the guy talks about in the first video (and the anxiety you can see on the young woman’s face in the first part of the second) is very real. Even in 2015, 40% of homeless teen-agers are homeless because they have been kicked out of their homes by parents because they are gay.
I tried to come out to my best friend—a guy I loved like a brother—dozens or more times. Because we were both attending fundamentalist evangelical churches, I tried to ease us into the conversation. But every single time that even a hint of the topic of non-heterosexuality came up, he would instantly go into “Gross! Sinful! All homos go to hell!” mode with such vehemence, it’s amazing I wasn’t physically hurled from the room by the strength of his condemnation.
Ironically, when I finally did come out years later, he insisted that the reason he was ending our friendship was not because I was “an unrepentant homosexual” (his words), but rather because I told someone else before I told him. He was also one of the people who insisted emphatically that he had never, ever, ever suspected at all that I was gay before I came out.
I don’t believe that statement, either.
Several relatives and close friends from back then made equally insistent denials of ever suspecting. Of course, one of those people was my Mom. And when one of my aunts found out Mom was claiming she had never suspected, that’s when the aunt informed me that beginning when I was about 14 years old, she and my mom and several ladies from church had begun meeting once a week to pray my gay away. I also was informed by one of the former board members of the evangelical touring teen choir I had been involved with as a teen-ager that it had been explicitly known that one reason I wasn’t given solos or put into one of the small ensembles for the first many years I was active in the group was because the leadership was certain I was “struggling with the sin of homosexuality.”
They were correct in that I was struggling mightily to stop feeling attracted to other guys. But unlike a lot of the guys who they did put into leadership positions and gave solos to, I wasn’t acting on my feelings. I wrote about one of those cases, but he wasn’t the only queer boy in the group fooling around with other guys back then.
I’m glad that more people are getting reactions like the second video: “I always knew. Were you afraid to tell me?” But far too many queer people have plenty of reasons to fear rejection (and worse) from their own families and friends if they admit who they are. And that’s just wrong.
Today is National Coming Out Day. If Ray were still alive, it would also be the day we’d be celebrating the twenty-first anniversary of our commitment ceremony (he promised to stay with me for the rest of his life, and he did).
Since I am still occasionally surprised to learn that someone I know or work with hasn’t figured out that I’m gay: my husband (Michael) and I are both men, and we’re very much in love with each other and happy together.But while I’m (re-)stating what I think ought to be obvious, I would like to announce that I am a card-carrying liberal gay man who thinks:
I often quote the study completed by the Centers for Disease control in the early 90s whose conclusions included the line, “Americans would rather admit to being heroin addicts than being bisexual.” So I am hardly the first person to notice that bisexual visibility is fraught. As one friend said, “My orientation is bisexual, but my temperament is monogamous, then I fell in love with a man, and there’s just no natural moment to mention to your future in-laws, ‘oh, by the way, I’m bisexual.'” Later, when we were both members of the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Chorus, she said the chorus finally gave her a way bring it up with many people as she would try to sell tickets to the concerts. “No, you don’t have to be gay or lesbian to sing in the group, we’ve had a few straight members. But I’m not one of them.”
Most of the bi people I know (or I should say, most of the people I happen to know are bisexual) have wound up in long-term opposite-sex relationships. Just as a matter of statistics, there are more straight people, so the number of potential partners who happen to be opposite sex is much larger than the number who are same-sex. Some bi people, like my husband, end up in long-term relationships with same-sex partners. That same CDC study I mentioned earlier found that about one-third of people who self-identify as gay are actually bisexual, but keep quiet about it.
Because society—even folks who think of themselves as enlightened—assumes that people will settle down as part of a couple, when you do get into a long term relationship, colleagues and acquaintances assume they can infer your orientation. If you wind up with an opposite-sex partner and they are aware of any of your previous same-sex relationships, they assume it was an experimental phase. If you wind up with a same-sex partner and they are aware of any of your opposite-sex relationships, they assume you were in denial.
And gay people like me who actually did try to convince ourselves that maybe we weren’t really gay but actually bi don’t help your cause. Because there was a time when I described myself as bi, and because many gay people do that as part of their own coming out process, a lot of people assume that’s what everyone who describes themselves as bi is doing. For which I apologize.
I do know that the only way to decrease the stigma of being bisexual is to be out. Just as the only thing that has made people warm to the notion of gay and lesbian rights was for more and more of us to be out to our families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, that’s what it’s going to take for bisexuals. Yes, it’s scary. But being open and honest is very liberating.
So, come out, come out, wherever you are!