Coming Out: A Never-Ending Process

I’ve just read a great blog post about coming out, which has got me thinking (again) about the whole process. I always say I came out at 14, but of course that’s not strictly true. What I mean by that is I told my best friends (via email – my bestie responded with I KNEW IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) but everyone else took a little bit longer, and it’s a process that’s still not really over. It never will be.

How many times do you refer to a gay person as ‘out’? What you’re saying, in effect, is that they’re out to you. That’s all. There is a perception that coming out is a single act, that one day you’re sitting quietly in your closet and hoping that no-one looks at you too closely, and the next day you’ve emerged in a shower of rainbow flags and glitter and from that point on everybody knows, for better or worse – but that simply isn’t true.

Coming out is a perpetual process. I know people who are out online but not in real life; who are out to their friends but not their family; who are out to their family but not at work, and so on and so on. And then there’s the thousand occasions when you interact with other human beings and you’re presented with the option to tell them or not and in a split-second you’ve got a decision to make all over again. Those instances happen all the time, as Josh pointed out in his blog post, and like him, I more often than not simply keep quiet.

Is it shame? Is it fear? To be honest, I’m not sure what it is. Maybe I feel loathe to shove my gayness down the throat of every person I meet. Does the woman I’m chatting to in a checkout queue really need to know that I’m queer? Does the accountant from work who’s come to my office for one day and will never darken my doorstep again? Does the person I’m sat next to on a train or the guy I make small talk with at a bar or the vet when I take my dog for her jabs or my dentist or anyone else actually need to know?

But then it’s a part of me, and if the conversation moves in the direction of relationships, why not tell them? Why let them assume that I’m straight? Am I hiding behind the fact that I can pass to – to what, exactly? Avoid conflict? Avoid embarrassment (mine or theirs)? Avoid showing them just how wrong their snap assumptions about me are?

It’s something I thought about a bit when I got the following comment on my blog post about the Dharun Ravi trial:

Also, we have a lot of information that Tyler was “out.” He went to gay interest group meetings at Rutgers and the 3 times he had this older man in the dorms, he had to go down to the front desk and sign the man in and accompany him to the room in front of all the other people in the dorms. Plus he was active on websites that are not private, including posting photos and videos of himself. He was “out” to the whole world.

I responded briefly to that at the time:

Being out online and being a well-adjusted gay man who is comfortable with his sexuality in a social context are two completely different things: there are many varieties and variances of ‘out’.

I never did get any further than that at the time, although it’s something I’ve thought about since. Because coming out is scary, whether to your parents or to a stranger on the bus. You might think it matters less if you’re telling someone that you don’t really know and will never meet again, but in other ways it’s worse. There’s a good chance you’ll anticipate in advance how people you know will respond, and while sometimes – many times – it’s not in a positive way, at least you’re forewarned.
Strangers, you might think, don’t matter. If they don’t like it, fuck ’em, you’re never going to see them again anyway. But your average person approaches strangers with a measure of goodwill – you’re not going to be interacting for very long, so you might as well be nice. An offhand rejection from someone that you don’t even know can be a devastating thing. (Just think how many times you’ve heard people respond to judgement with “You don’t know me!”) If they can’t even suspend their bigotry for the ten minutes or two hours or whatever that society determines that you should be pleasant to each other, then what does that say about them? About you?
Truman Capote got it about right when he pointed out that he was so obviously queer that he never had to come out, and that was a positive thing. You might think of the negatives – the fact that it makes you an easy target, for a start – but if strangers begin by assuming you’re queer then you never have to go through the process of deciding whether or not to tell them. You never have to see them stammering and their eyes widen even as they try and disguise the fact that they’re shocked. My all-time favourite reaction came from a policeman who’d pulled my friend’s car over and was engaged in a friendly-local-stop-and-search and while making small talk to me, asked if my mate was my boyfriend. I replied that we were both gay, and he responded, “Why did you bring that up?” That’s actually a very common reaction – like you’ve committed some terrible faux pas by placing them out of their comfort zone. Never mind that he was the one who actually brought it up (as I pointed out to him).
But perhaps that’s the point – to place strangers out of the comfort zones. To show them that gay people exist, not only ‘out there’ somewhere in the political ether, but here, talking to them, shopping at the supermarket and taking the train and even – gasp! – working alongside them. The more of us who come out, the greater the normalising process becomes. If people who don’t think they know anyone who’s gay discover that actually they’re interacting with queer folk 24/7 then perhaps they’ll get off their high horses and treat us like human beings.
Coming out puts a human face on the political rhetoric that too often the right wing gets swept up in. The world and his wife has an opinion on gay rights (or so it seems) but when confronted with the fact that they want to infringe the rights of someone that they know, they often change their opinions.
Simply by existing, we are political creatures – whether we want to be or not. We are the physical embodiment of a movement gaining momentum across the globe, and sometimes we need to stand up and be counted, but sometimes it’s nice just to be a person and not be judged on that one part of who we are.
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Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of contemporary and fantasy gay romances.
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