Coming out of the closet as a gay man can be a delightful experience, a frightening process, and sometimes both. By accepting your sexuality and acknowledging it publicly, you are about to enter a whole new world. You are going to make enemies out of people you've never even met, and you are going to make friends with people you probably would never have otherwise met.
Coming out can seem, at first, like jumping without a parachute. When you were a kid and your family moved to a new town, the neighbors organized a "welcome wagon" to fill you in on the good stores, the good schools, and the bad part of town. You quickly met the other kids in the neighborhood, and they told you which house the old witch lives in, where to get the best candy, the best secret places to play, and which teachers to avoid. If you went to college, you were taken in hand and sent through orientation, with a helpful older student showing you your way around the campus.
But when you realize you are gay, it can seem as if you're on your own. Your parents, having had sex together to have you, are probably heterosexual and have no advice to offer you on the world you're about to enter, and there is no orientation program to help you adjust (though there probably ought to be). Chances are you've cobbled together a picture of your future life from an old Damron travel guide you peeked at in the local independent bookstore, the plot of Dancer From The Dance, the later episodes of Ellen , and the reminiscences of your high school drama teacher. You are not ready. But, if I've done my job, after you read this book, you will be a whole lot closer to ready than you were before.
This book is a substantial update on Alyson Publications' previous book on the subject, Coming Out Right. While much of the advice in that book still holds true, substantial changes in the gay community and the straight community's treatment of us have necessitated a whole new book. However, I would be out of line if I didn't acknowledge the previous guidebook on this subject as my jumping-off point.
For the most part, this book is geared toward the younger reader. Coming out can happen at any age, though, and there are sections in this book that address the special concerns of men coming out later in life. But in today's relatively liberal climate, it's most likely that a gay man will come to terms with his sexuality earlier in life rather than later.
Moreover, the visible gay culture in the big cities is composed of bars and clubs geared toward the young or the worship of youth, and while this is most certainly not all of gay culture, it is the entry portal for most gay people, and it holds its own particular set of hazards for the young gay person, both in terms of physical dangers (sexual diseases, substance abuse) and mental and emotional dangers (the danger of getting caught up in a "bar mentality" where you measure yourself and everyone around you on the basis of looks, money, and penis size). While a man coming out later in life has lots of lost time to make up for, he's also had the benefit of years to mellow in certain emotional departments, and consequently won't face the same hazards younger men face.
This book is divided into two parts. First is an introduction to gay life and some of the challenges you will face during the initial coming out process. Mostly, this section deals with the above-referenced "entry portal" to the culture, the gay nightlife. Most gay people's first experience with a large group of other gay people happens in a bar, and there's no reason you should walk into your first gay bar without some idea of what you might find. This section also covers all the aspects of sexuality you will encounter during a surprisingly short amount of time spent in your new community.
The second part of this book deals with the world beyond that entry portal, where most gay people end up living and working--the world of community activism, social activities, politics, and just about everything else in the world there is to do besides hit the bars, as well as how to deal with the pitfalls that await you--gay bashers, scam artists, and the police.
So let this book be your welcome wagon, your orientation session, and hopefully your friend as you come to terms with the fact that you are a member of a group that is always and forever going to be a minority on this planet, and that your life is and always will be, in some ways, different from the life lived by the majority.
Chapter One: Telling Yourself; Telling Others
The first person you have to come out to is yourself. Anyone who has been through this process can tell you that, depending on your circumstances, this can be either the easiest or the hardest part of the whole process. If you are lucky, you come of age in a liberal, tolerant atmosphere, attending a school with other smart, sophisticated young people for whom being thought of as prejudiced is a worse taboo than any difference you could present; perhaps you've had an openly gay teacher or your parents have openly gay relatives or friends whom you have come to know. In such a case, acknowledging your sexuality is a path that has been smoothed for you.
If you are not lucky, you live in a conservative community where boys still call each other "faggot" as a taunt, you had a gay teacher who everybody knows about but who would sooner die than present his or her sexuality publicly, you have parents who profess religious beliefs that are dependent on scapegoats for a sense of personal righteousness (and that set of scapegoats nearly always includes homosexuals). In this case, accepting your own sexuality will be harder, as you will know damn well that being known as gay in such an environment could lead to grief if not bodily harm and/or ostracism from your family.
Your first step in either case is going to be to look in the mirror and say to yourself, "I'm gay." No, you don't have to make your first announcement over a public address system like Ellen DeGeneres' character did on the show. Maybe the first time you say it you have to whisper it to yourself in the bathroom, with the door shut, the water running, and the fan on. But, whatever the age at which you come out, this has to be the first step. For some gay men it's a knowledge they're born with, for others it's something they repress and deny for years.
No book can tell you how to accept the fact that you are gay. What a book can do is help you after you've accepted that fact, even if that acceptance comes laden with feelings of guilt, shame, and fear. The process of coming out is the process of dealing with those feelings, both in yourself and those around you, and building your self-esteem by standing by your declaration and seeking out those who will congratulate rather than condemn you for choosing not to live a lie.
Coming out will always be scary, but anyone coming out today is more fortunate than his predecessors. Gay people--real gay people, as opposed to the stereotypes foisted on the public in the past--are everywhere in our culture. A gay person does not have to look as far and wide for a "normal" gay role model as he did twenty years ago.
The first thing you have to do as a gay person is learn to screen out the noise, by which I mean, realize that a lot of people are going to denounce you as sinful, sick, or even evil. Yes, there are still people in this country so screwed up that they can't sleep at night for worry about what other people are doing in bed. Don't worry that they hate you; they can't really hate you when they don't even know you. People who want power have found that the best way to get it is to frighten people; frightened people naturally herd together for safety and look for a leader. Over the last century, power-hungry men have used black people, women who worked, immigrants, single mothers, Planned Parenthood, and all sorts of other groups as a means to frighten their sheep. But as the rest of the country becomes more tolerant, these shepherds are running out of people to hate. In fact, gay people are pretty much the last group left that it's okay to beat on. Always remember when you hear these bigoted individuals speak that it's not about you, it's about them and the tools they use to keep their power base. They want you to feel bad because that helps the people they are using feel better.
Part of screening out the noise is knowing what to expect. There are still popular myths about gay people that will be thrown in your face, and it's best to not only know what they are, but to be armed with responses. Here are the most typical ones:
Gay people are child molesters. Child molesters come in every stripe, but the fact of the matter is, most molestation is done by a relative of the child or a close family friend, and even then the perpetrators are quite often married with children. Rarely does a healthy, well-adjusted, out-of-the-closet gay man turn out to be a child molester. Part of the reason this myth is perpetuated is that gay men often refer to other gay men as "boys," as in, "I picked up this hot boy last week." This almost never refers to actual underage boys, and is instead a reflection of many gay men's obsession with youth. It's not unknown to hear a 40-year-old man telling a potential partner, "I want to be your boy." In no way does this parlance mean that actual boys are involved.
Gay men are lisping, mincing sissies. It doesn't help a poor gay boy out in the middle of nowhere when the only real gay people he sees (as opposed to TV characters) are the outrageous drag queens the far Right culls from footage of San Francisco's yearly Gay Pride parade. The fact of the matter is, most gay men wear drag maybe once a year, or maybe once in their lives, just to have what is in fact a very interesting experience. And some never do it at all. There is no doubt that some gay people are naturally more effeminate than others, but being gay in and of itself is not going to make you a sissy.
Gay people recruit unsuspecting young people into their ranks. This old chestnut is fading away; even the far Right knows how silly it sounds. You can no more "recruit" someone to change their sexuality than you could recruit them to change their natural eye color. The fact is, what the Right fears is that gay youth will be exposed to positive gay role models, which will make them more likely to accept their own sexuality. Keeping young gay people away from positive gay role models is crucial to the far Right's desire to keep young gay people as miserable and as far in the closet as possible.
If you're gay, you're going to end up with AIDS. This is the lowest scare tactic in the world. All gay men do not get HIV. Only gay men who engage in unsafe behavior get HIV. Sick as it is, it's almost as if it pleases some people to think their children and their friends' children will literally die of being gay. The worst part is this is one of those taunts that worms its way under your skin, and once you're out and a member of a gay community, it comes back to haunt you--a feeling of inevitability about catching HIV is a danger under the best of circumstances. As such, the people who say AIDS is inevitable are engaging in the most hurtful behavior possible; sadder still is that some of them actually believe what they say and think they're doing you a favor by warning you. But this is, plain and simple, a lie . The only person who can infect you with HIV is you, if you aren't safe.
Homosexuality can be "cured." This is the lie du jour. Recently, right-wing conservatives have paid huge sums of money to run full-page ads in newspapers around the country featuring testimony from "cured" homosexuals, who say that if gays and lesbians embrace Christ they can be converted to heterosexuality. But what these people are doing is not changing their sexuality, but suppressing it in order to please others. The whole point of the ads wasn't even to get gay people to try and convert; like everything the far Right does, it had political reasons behind it. Americans who have a difficult time with the issues around gay rights often wish, as we all do from time to time about sticky problems, that the issue would just go away. Thus, the far Right capitalizes on this by telling them the problem would go away if homosexuals would accept the "cure" for their "disease." If a sizable number of Americans can be deterred from acceptance of homosexuals and steered back toward resentment and anger, then the far Right will have won a battle in its war for temporal power. If anyone tries to pull this argument on you, just remind them that there's no need to cure something that's not a disease.
Coming out is a process that has changed dramatically; now you even see kids coming out on TV ("Rikki, I'm gay"). But that's like coming out to everyone in your life in a mass mailing. After you accept yourself, you need to come out in phases, starting with your friends, moving on to your family, and finally letting the world know. This is what therapists call "building ego strength." You start with the people who are going through the same changes and crises you are going through, and who will be the most sympathetic, then move on to your family, who may have a harder time with it but who, for the most part, will eventually accept it if not endorse it, and finally you will be ready to live openly in the world as a gay person. Each success prepares you for the next, bigger challenge. Each setback teaches you something you can use in your next coming out encounter. At the end of the process, you will be a stronger person, having not only forged an identity for yourself but having fought to have it accepted.
Coming Out to Friends
Each of your friends is going to react to the news in a different way, depending on their upbringing, their sexual insecurities, and their degree of perception and empathy. "I know you are," may be the second easiest thing you could hear from a friend, the easiest being, "So am I!"
"I know you are" may worry you; you might start thinking, am I such a flaming queen that everybody knows? Well, if you were, you wouldn't be worried about coming out, since everyone would already know--and some gay men adopt flaming mannerisms as a way of coming out without actually having to discuss the subject with friends and family. But a close and perceptive friend will have noticed things and figured it out for himself or herself--the fact that you've never had a girlfriend, or if that if you have, you've never been terribly physical with her; the way you talk just a little too much about or stare just a little too hard at that guy on the wrestling team; the way you freeze like a deer in the headlights when someone tells a gay joke....
The best thing about friends is they are usually sympathetic and are not likely to reject you. And the best way to start coming out is with your best friend, the person who has the most history and connection with you. Even if he or she has their problems grappling with the idea, to them you are probably still going to be a good friend first and a homosexual second. And if they can't handle the news and reject you, your friendship was built on sand; sooner or later something else would have come along to destroy the relationship.
Your straight female friends are the next group to talk to. Some of them may take it hard, especially any of them who might have a crush on you or whom you might have dated as a "beard." (See the glossary at the back of this book for explanations of new and unfamiliar terms.) They might feel you can be "converted" if you have good sex with a woman, or an ex-girlfriend might feel guilty, that she somehow failed and "drove you" into homosexuality--or she might be angry, feeling that you used her to cover your real sexuality. But, all in all, most women are happy to have a gay male friend, someone who can be both a confidante and a window into the world of men.
The stickiest situation is going to be with your straight male friends. They are the ones most likely to feel threatened and become upset. Why this is hasn't been fully figured out by even the best minds, but a lot of it has to do with their own still unresolved sexual identity issues. Homosexuality makes straight men uncomfortable because the idea of it threatens the world of the locker room, the barracks, or any other all-male enclave, often the only places where men feel they can relax and be themselves, show emotion, and let down their guard. If the whole messy arena of sex is suddenly introduced into these environments, it threatens to shatter an already fragile peace of mind.
Try and understand that prejudice is often fueled less by hate than fear, in this case fear of things not just outside themselves but potentially inside themselves, as well. Your straight male friends have probably taken it for granted that you were "one of them," and suddenly, in the eyes of the society they are so worried about fitting into, you are not. Could the same thing happen to them? They often feel like extraordinary measures need to be taken to make sure that doesn't happen, even if that means cutting a friend off.
Again, you never know--some straight guys have grown up with gay uncles or mom's gay best friend or some other kind of positive message at home about gay people, or they may be so comfortable with their own sexuality that you pose no threat. Moreover, many straight guys are learning that a lot of girls just love a guy who's man enough not to be scared of gays!
Coming Out to Your Family
Again, how easy or hard this is going to be will depend on your parents' experience with gay people. An accepted gay relative (as opposed to a tolerated relative), or a close gay family friend will make their path toward accepting your homosexuality a little smoother. I wish I could recall where I read the story of the young man who came out to his parents, who looked at each other, sighed, and said, "We thought you'd never figure it out." This is the least likely scenario, of course, but there couldn't possibly be an easier one.
Even if your parents are generally accepting of gay people, it's quite another thing for them to find that their own child is gay. It's like the movie, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner --black people are just like us, until one of them dates our daughter. I was lucky with my own parents; my father had worked in Army intelligence during World War II, before the gay purges of the McCarthy era, and a lot of the spies he worked with were gay; they would come over to visit him and cry on his shoulder about some paratrooper they were in love with. My mother's brother was an openly gay man living in San Francisco with his lover and we visited them all the time when I was growing up in the 1970s. (It was on his turntable that I discovered the joys of Abba and the Village People .) All the same, when I told my mother I was gay at the age of 21, she said, "Oh, I don't think you are." She knew that all my friends were gay, because I'd told her that they were. Nonetheless, denial is the most common response parents have to the news.
If your parents have a negative reaction to the news, remember that there are many factors at work, most of them societal in nature. They worry what the neighbors will say, what their own parents will say, that you will be unhappy as a member of a persecuted minority. They will wonder if they somehow failed as parents.
If you are still a minor or still dependent on your parents for support, before coming out to them you need to gauge just how volatile their reaction might be. If your father foams at the mouth at the dinner table every time gay people make it onto the news, you are not a coward if you keep your sexual identity a secret from them, at least until you are financially independent. There are plenty of homeless street kids who are there because their parents instantly disowned them and tossed them out of the house. This is an extremely rare reaction, especially today, but if you think there's a chance of it, hold off. If you are in a situation where you must tell them, say, before another boy's parents have the chance to call them and tell them what the two of you were found doing, try and have a fallback position, a place where you can crash for a few days until things cool down. The best option is a close relative or friend's house, or you can get in touch with a local gay/lesbian service agency and see what might be available. Such agencies are generally listed in the yellow pages and on Internet search engines under "Gay Hotline [your area]."
Most parents are going to have some difficulty with your news. This is why you need to build up confidence and ego strength by telling friends first. You might also wish to tell your brothers and sisters, or at least any of them you are close to, before telling your parents. Children are usually at least a little in league together against their parents, and your brother or sister might have a better idea about what your mom and dad's reaction will be, especially if they are older and have already confronted your parents with adult-type problems.
To be a fully healthy individual, you must tell your parents eventually, even if you have to wait until you are on your own. But there is no question that the sooner you can tell them without endangering yourself, the better. One of the worst things that can happen to you is to become a closeted gay man, unable to take the next step of coming out in the world, getting to be 30, then 40, then 50, concealing your sexuality, using indefinite pronouns, and avoiding long-term relationships, all because you are still afraid to tell your mother.
Coming Out in the World
Coming out in the world can be far easier emotionally and far harder physically than coming out to loved ones. The people you go to school with or work with or live around are acquaintances, and their opinion of you is never going to matter as much as that of your friends and family, so if they reject you, it's not going to hurt as much emotionally. However, these are also people who don't know much about you before they find out you're gay, and since they don't know your other qualities and have no reason to try and maintain a connection with you as your friends and family do, it is easier for them to reject you, even to hate you.
On the other hand, because they have no stake in you, it can also be easier for them to accept you, or at least regard the news of your homosexuality with apathy. You are stuck with your family for life, but a school or a job can be changed if things get too bad.
Coming out in high school can be painful or relatively painless. It all depends on geography, curriculum, and the state of sexual confusion of the young people around you. Coming out in an Iowa farm town or a predominantly African-American urban high school are experiences more alike than not--both environments are isolated from the wider world, with a predominantly conservative religious outlook and a prevailing macho attitude that will not tolerate queerness. It is necessary for you to come out fully in the world, but sometimes you have to know when to attack and when to retreat. As with a family situation where the news might get you thrown out on the street, don't feel the need to declare yourself in a school or other public situation where doing so might get you beaten up.
Coming out in college is a much easier task. Even the most backwater institution has a way of liberalizing the community it's in, and as the young people in it are exposed to a wider world, and to people not exactly like themselves, they become more tolerant. Moreover, you are going to meet a lot more gay people at college than you did in high school, not only because it's not as necessary to stay closeted any more, but because gay people are more likely than straight people to take avenues like college that promise an escape from the oppressive environment they've grown up in. Unless you're off to Oral Roberts University, you'll find that most college students pride themselves on open-mindedness. In your new environment, tolerance and acceptance are actually virtues, and intolerance and prejudice are actively denounced.
How well your coming out in the workplace will be received will vary wildly and unpredictably, all depending on the personal experiences (if any) of your co-workers and bosses with gay people. The best thing you can do is be good at your job; if you are respected for that when you break the news, it will smooth your path.
Unless you are one of those people immediately identifiable as gay, chances are that your co-workers are going to be mostly unaware of your sexuality until you fill them in. It will not be necessary to do as Scott Thompson did in the Kids In The Hall movie and lead a parade down the street, announcing "I'm Gay!" with the chorus echoing, "He's Gay!" Offices are boring places for the most part, and people make up for this by gossiping about other employees. Once a handful of people know you are gay, everyone will know.
In some work situations, it is not advisable to come out. Remember that you are a minority and there are few laws to protect you from discrimination. Even if there were, if a prejudiced boss wants to get rid of you, he or she will find a way to do it that will stand up in court. If you feel you are in a situation where making your sexuality public will get you canned, keep silent, but look for another job. Nothing will make you more miserable than spending the rest of your life in a job where the only way you can have your boyfriend's picture on your desk is to have him be one person in a group shot, where you will have to either bring a "beard" to the holiday parties or come alone, where Monday morning will always require you to make up a story about your weekend. That's not a healthy way to live.
When you find a work situation where you can come out, the best way to do this is to display no shame. If someone asks you what you did over the weekend, look them in the eye and say, "My boyfriend and I repainted our apartment," or whatever it was you actually did. Don't waffle and weasel around; if you are going to come out, just do it. If you declare it with no shame, it makes them wonder if maybe it's, well, you know, normal after all. If you blush and use indefinite pronouns, if you are ashamed, it will be easy for them to feel that you ought to be.
"Are You the Man or the Woman?"
When people tell their coming out stories, they have one thing in common--there is always an amusing (at least in retrospect) moment when someone to whom they have come out asks a question so ignorant it's nearly impossible to laugh. "Why do you want to be a girl?" is typical, as is the question that heads this section.
If at all possible, don't laugh. If they ask, they are genuinely curious and are not to blame for having been kept in the dark.
There is no easy way to explain how the dynamics of a gay relationship (especially the sexual dynamics) are different than those of a straight one. To say we are "no different" may be politically expedient, but untrue. We do have different options and conflicts in our relationships, and trying to explain that you can both be the man often leads you to discover even more roadblocks in the head of the person asking the question.
The number one question you will get will be a two parter: "Have you ever had sex with a woman? If not, how do you know you won't like it better?" Toss it back, gently, with a smile. "How do you know you might not like men (or women , if you're talking to one) better if you've never tried it?" In doing this, you will discover something the two of you have in common sexually: you both know what you want and don't want.
The details of coming out are different for everybody, but the journey is the same. We start by accepting ourselves, then ask acceptance of our loved ones, then of people we work and live with, and finally, fully comfortable with ourselves and having built a circle of people who love and respect us, we demand acceptance as our human and American right.
Self-acceptance, however, is not something that happens once. For the rest of your life, you are going to be under attack by people who wish you would simply cease to exist, if only because your unwillingness to be herded into a pen you don't belong in threatens their political agenda. These people are like a virus, always finding new ways to undermine your self-confidence and your position in the world. But if you have built that circle of people who love and respect you, you will have the strength to resist such attacks.
Of all the coming out stories ever written, Aaron Fricke's Reflections of a Rock Lobster is an enduring classic. The true story of a young man who decided to take his boyfriend to the high school prom, way back in 1979, is a great humorous entree to the world of coming out stories.
On a darker but still satisfying note, Alan Helms' Young Man From the Provinces tells the story of a man who had all a gay man could desire, externally at least, but who failed to achieve self-confidence until later in life. It's about building self-esteem on your own foundations and not someone else's.
Another good read is Paul Monette's National Book Award winning autobiography, Becoming a Man.
There's no better resource for anyone coming out to their parents than PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (libertynet.org/~pflag). They even have a downloadable brochure on doing it right.
San Francisco's LYRIC, Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center (thecity.sfsu.edu/~lyric) is one of the best places to go for help or information. No matter what your story, they have heard it before and can help.
To find out whether the laws of your state protect you on the job from anti-gay discrimination, start with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's home page (ngltf.org). This is a site that is not going to disappear, and that will have regular updates on the law.