The simple phrase “I’m gay” can easily be one of the hardest sets of syllables to form and give voice, right up there with “will you marry me?” or “you’re adopted.” For someone who is straight, and especially someone who hasn’t been around LGBT people who are just coming out of the closet, I could see how it would be hard to understand exactly what coming out means. I’m sure people can get an idea, much in the same way we can imagine what it’s like to ride a roller coaster before we’ve been on one, or what it was like to be a prisoner in Auschwitz during WWII. However, getting an accurate picture is easier said than done. The only way to really understand without experiencing one of these things yourself, is to look at all the factors that go into it. Hopefully, this blog will help with understanding the internal battles of coming out of the closet.
I suppose we can’t go anywhere without at least touching on the genetics vs nature vs nurture vs choice discussion. The scientific jury is still out on that decision, and I really can’t say definitively what it is either. I would even go so far as to say the reason could be different based on the person (e.g. the reason behind girl who kisses another girl in the bar to turn their boyfriend on as opposed to a hermaphrodite born without a clearly defined gender identity). I will say for my sake that whether it’s nature or nurture, even if it’s a choice, it wasn’t a decision I made consciously. I’ve been attracted to men for as long as I knew what it meant to be attracted to anyone. It’s part of my personality, right down to the core. As much as straight men can’t imagine being attracted to another man, I can’t imagine not being attracted to a hot guy. It has a pronounced physical effect on me before my brain has a chance to react. People don’t choose who they love, and I’ve loved both men and women.
Now that the elephant has cleared the room, onto the real story.
Coming out, in its most basic form is an identity crisis. Most people can identify with this as we have them periodically throughout our lives. Something in the back of your mind says something is wrong but you can’t figure it out. Then, one day, you wake up, and realize the person you thought you were isn’t really who you are, and to be happy, you need to change. This can be anything from the accountant who realizes they really just wanted to be a musician, to the fry cook who realizes they just turned 30 and haven’t gone to college like they had planned. In most of these cases, once you realize who you are, it gnaws at you until you realign your outward persona with your inward one.
In the case of coming out, you realize that the hetero-normative lifestyle you were brought up to believe was yours (whether rigidly with religious or bigoted parents, or simply from pop culture), is not who you are. The point at which this happens in a persons life is important too, since the longer someone believes they are heterosexual, the harder it is to disbelieve it, even if it’s wrong to begin with. It might be the realization that contact with someone of the same sex affects you more than you’ve ever felt with a heterosexual partner, whether you’ve had sex or not. Or, it might be an epiphany after wondering why it is that you’ve never found someone of the opposite sex whom you wanted to be more than friends with. For me, it was coming to terms with the fact that I would get just a flustered by the sight of a cute guy as I would with a cute girl, often times more. To put it more simply, the first person you have to come out to is yourself.
Okay, so you’ve come out to yourself. Now is where it gets tricky, because you’re living your life with the knowledge that you’re not straight, but are still telling the world you are. There are a lot of factors that go into how difficult it will be to go from being honest with yourself to being honest with the world.
The first, of course, is your own beliefs. If you have religious beliefs, or have some misguided notion that being LGBT somehow makes you less of a person, you might try to dismiss it or hope you “grow out of it.” You might feel shame about it and protect it like some dark secret you don’t want people to know about it. In American culture, men are generally not supposed to show weakness of any kind, and feminism is synonymous with vulnerability. I know that concept made it harder for me to come to terms with my own sexuality, and contributed to the fact that it took several years from when I first admitted to myself that I was bi to the day I first told someone else.
Then you have the beliefs of the person you might want to come out to. If that person is part of a subculture on personality type that is stereotypically homophobic, it will make it hard to tell them. Talking about your sexuality is a very personal subject, so tends to make you vulnerable to getting hurt, and no one wants someone they value to think less of them or tell them they’re a freak of nature or are going to hell after they open up to them. I’d say it’s on par to crying on someone’s shoulder after you broke up with your significant other, and having them say “stop wining you crybaby, they were too good for you anyway, you loser.” Whether it is a rational fear that the person is homophobic or not, it will make it harder to talk to that person about it.
Another factor is how empathetic and self-conscious you are. If you’re someone who is very self-empowered and doesn’t care what others think, then it might be fairly easy to get over the aforementioned hurdle and tell people you’re gay. However, if you’re like me and can feel it when someone is disappointed in you, and value the opinions of others, then it’s going to be a bit harder, especially at first.
The other big factor is how long you’ve known the person. Our personalities change depending on whom we are around. Just like the adult who reverts back to their teenage personality of not picking up after themselves and being rebellious when they go home to visit their parents, these behaviors are engrained in us, whether we have changed them since then or not. Think of it also as the concept of “saying what they want to hear” or acting as you’re expected to act. The longer you know someone, the more it’s engrained in their mind that you are a given persona, and coming out forces you to change that persona in them. It’s easy to start out a friendship with it already established that you’re gay or bi, but trying to tell your parents or childhood friends has to be the hardest.
I’m sure there are more hurdles and hangups than what I’ve mentioned thus far, but these are the ones I’ve experienced and can think of. For instance, I know some women who don’t like coming out to guys because men can be pigs when they think they can get a chance to see, or partake in, a little “girl-on-girl action.”
In any case, once you’ve decided to tell someone, you’re still not out of the clear. Since you’re talking about sexuality, it might not be a topic you talk about a lot, especially if you’ve avoided the subject in the past because you weren’t being honest with yourself. This goes back again to looking at who you’re talking with. Your best friend might be easy to talk to because you tell them about anything. However, telling your parents is easily just as awkward as the proverbial “birds and bees” talk, only in this case, you’re the one giving your parents “the talk,” and correcting them that with you it’s just birds and birds, or bees and bees, so-to-speak. Sometimes there’s no easy way to lead into it. You just have to stop the conversation and tell the person, “look, there’s something I have to tell you.”
When I first came out, it was because I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to tell someone so that I wasn’t stuck obsessing over it in my head all the time. I was trembling as I told John for the first time that I was bi, and was in tears when I told another friend. It was a very emotional thing for me. Even after becoming comfortable with who I am thanks to some great and supportive friends, it was still nerve-wracking to come out after Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed, and even more so talk about it on the base website.
So, hopefully, if you know someone who’s just coming out of their closet, welcome them with open arms whether you agree with them or not, and if you’re the first person they tell, feel honored that they were able to come to you. It’s not an easy thing even in this day and age, and is a big reason why people who are out like pride events so they can celebrate being true to themselves and showing those still in the closet that it’s okay to come out.