Today is National Coming Out Day. As such, I felt it entirely appropriate to talk about the subject of coming out of the closet. Rather than focusing on the benefits of coming out of the closet (something Peterson Toscano and others has already covered quite well), I thought I’d offer some practical bits of advice and thoughts on the whole coming out process.
I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that it is a process rather than an all-or-nothing proposition. I don’t have to tell my best friend, my boss, and my mother all on the same day. (Though if my best friend is lousy at keeping secrets and knows my mother, I might want to take extra care in deciding what order to come out to them in.) Personally, I’m not very out at my current job and that works for me. But then, I’m not very close to any of my coworkers and we tend to travel in very different social circles outsides of work. So I don’t have to worry about leading a double life and keeping two worlds from colliding.
Also, it’s been my experience that coming out to new acquaintances is much easier than coming out to long-time friends and family members. This is because I don’t have a lot of emotional energy invested in the relationship with new acquaintances. If a new person in my life is uncomfortable with the fact that I’m gay, it’s easier for both of us to walk away. It’s not nearly as painful, so the risk of rejection is easier to take. And coming out to new acquaintances gives me the opportunity to make sure that I get the whole issue out of the way before building the deep friendship I’d then be afraid of harming by coming out later.
When it comes to acquaintances, especially new ones, I’d also point out that there are many ways to come out without even saying, “I’m gay.” Coming out can be as simple as mentioning that my boyfriend and I went to see the new movie that came out last Friday and we both thought it was terrible. Or I can simply mention that I think the guy walking down the sidewalk across the street is kind of cute.
The nice thing about that kind of approach is that it replaces the idea of a scary declaration into a natural comment that can be offered as a simple aside. After all, heterosexual people are talking about going to the movies with their boyfriends and girlfriends all the time. And enough heterosexual guys voice their opinions about the women passing by. So it stands to reason that it’s perfectly natural and normal for us to act similarly. And if it shatters a few assumptions on the part of those around us, all the better.
I will admit that such an approach doesn’t feel natural at first. But I can say from personal experience that it does get easier. And I’ve noticed that in general, most people get over their initial shock fairly quickly. After all, they’d have a hard time justifying a complaint about such an off-handed comment without it becoming obvious that they’re the ones making an issue out of your sexuality. And a great many people simply take the whole thing in stride.
Note that I’m recommending this approach for people one has just met or have a fairly casual relationship with. The bonds between close, long-time friends and family members require a bit more sensitivity and a personal touch when it comes to coming out. With a close friend or family member, I would always choose to sit down and have a talk which involves expressing my sexual orientation in a personal manner that is appropriate to a relationship.
As I said, coming out to close friends and family members is much more frightening due to the emotional investments involved. Being rejected by a close friend or family member hurts deeply, and no one wants to face that. However, this is where coming out to people we have casual relationships with first shows its second benefit. By coming out to acquaintances and people I’ve just met, I’ve built up confidence. I now know that the world doesn’t end just because I tell someone I’m gay. And I know that people can still accept and love me despite knowing that I love and am attracted to other men. And if people who are just meeting me for the first time can still be accepting, I can be confident in most cases that the people who already know me and love me will continue to want to do so after coming out to them. After all, they know the kind of person I am, and nothing I tell them will change that.
It may take some time for some loved ones to come around. They will have to get over their initial shock (but then again, didn’t I go through some of that myself?), but in the vast majority of cases, love will win out. And my experiences have born this truth out and convinced me of its veracity.
Of course, I don’t recommend that anyone put themselves in danger by coming out. If there’s a very real danger of losing one’s job, coming out to one’s boss just isn’t worth it. If one is financially dependent on parents who would disown a gay child (and sadly, such parents still exist), then it’s best to wait. But part of the trick is learning to distinguish between real dangers and dangers that are a matter of fear and perception only. And that takes practice. So find a situation that involves a level of risk you’re comfortable with and start practicing. In the end, it’s well worth it.