“If you don’t want people to see you in a totally different way, this has to be no bigger deal for you than you want it to be for them.” That was what I told myself in the days leading up to coming out, just before I turned 21, in Augist 2006. And it wasn’t only untrue; it was the biggest mistake I made during my whole coming-out process. There were two flaws. First, it was a big deal for me, and second, I wanted it to be recognized as a big deal for the people around me as well. I know it sounds self-absorbed, but I yearned for any chance to assert my homosexuality, and even though I told myself the opposite, I would have loved it if they had started listening to every word I said through a gay perspective, or looking for a gay subtext to my taste in music or movies. Without exception, they were great to me. But because I had told myself to downplay the impulse to flash my newfound gayness, I was not quite satisfied still.
It turned out I was my own biggest obstacle to being comfortable with being gay and out. I was brimming with pride, but it was not the kind of pride that would lead me to march in parades. There simply was a disconnect between what I felt on the insider and what I was comfortable letting out. Even though coming out was a huge personal relief, it didn’t immediately take away all of the questions I had had while working up the courage to present the new me to the world. For example, it actually took a while, even after I was out, for me to come to terms with the fact that it was now perfectly natural for me to feel attracted to other guys. This freedom to be honest with myself in fact felt so new to me, that I was somewhat intimidated by the prospect of a guy I liked actually being gay.
I don’t know exactly why I was so afraid people would view me differently now that they knew I was gay, but it probably had something to do with a certain lack of self-confidence, combined with a general discomfort with talking about private matters. Thus, one part of me kept repeating the mantra that there was nothing to see here, while the other was aching for any chance to talk about being gay, or any acknowledgement that people even knew. Most of the time, I ended up trying to mend the two competing messages. I would try to steer discussions toward gay topics, or leave not particularly subtle hints that I was attracted to someone, or things like that. But then, if the people I was talking to actually proceeded to ask whether I found a guy attractive, or anything else even remotely gay-related, I would immediately back off the topic, laugh it off, or even worse, say I didn’t want to talk about it. I couldn’t blame them if they didn’t ever raise similar questions again.
That said, in the beginning there was a specific purpose to these forced conversations; they were outings in disguise. In may ways, social networking sites have made it remarkably easy to ease out of the closet without having to declare your sexuality and disclose your personal life one-on-one to people you aren’t all that close to. Now you just check the ‘Men’ box where it says ‘Interested in’ on your Facebook profile. But in the short term that creates a new challenge: Unlike when you come out to someone face to face, you can’t really be sure whether your Facebook friends know you’re gay or not. The same self-absorbed (and, in cases where I suspected a guy I was talking to was gay himself, self-interested) need to letting people know of my self-realization was now extended to a lot more people. It wasn’t pretty (“As you know, I’m gay…”, “I wouldn’t know, I’m not that into girls…”, “He’s a good-looking guy…” etc.), but I felt like I needed to do it. When my dad asked me when I came out to him if there were anybody I wanted his help breaking the news to I declined, because I wanted to have complete control over who knew, and what they thought of it. Then Facebook was opened to users outside the US, and my playbook had to be torn up.
There were other paradoxes too, of course. Remember when I told you how my sister’s reaction to my coming out had made me feel a little small, even though she meant well? I don’t know what I expected to get out of this ache to talk about my recent self-discovery, but I suspect one of the things I wanted was for somebody to say that they had been able to tell all along. That I somewhow exuded gayness. In a weird way, I guess that would have confirmed my professed (if false) belief that suddenly identifying as gay would not have changed me in any way, since other people had known before I realized it myself. But what happened when my sister said just that, that she had suspected I was gay for years, opening precisely the conversation I had wanted? (She actually told, way back in the day, when she caught me dancing gayly, and supposedly privately, to N*Sync’s Bye Bye Bye, that she’d be surprised if I didn’t turn out gay. The part of me that knew she was right was the one most fervently insisting she was joking.) It was mine for the taking, but I didn’t seize it, for the same reason I would set up other conversations only to back out. When I had that conversation with my sister later, I finally understood how unfair my dissatisfaction with her reaction really was. Considering that many readers who didn’t get universal support and love from their friends and family after coming out probably would see this as a pretty petty concern, who was I to hold it against her that she, a wonderfully warm and open-minded person, didn’t think her brother being gay was as big a deal as I did? It was her natural way of showing support, and I should have recognized that.
When I read Jeffrey Escoffier’s essay collection American Homo (1998), one of the first things that struck me was that I would have loved to read its introduction back when I struggled with assessing how being gay was going to change me. Escoffier points to three phases of homosexual emancipation that happens after a person has come to self-identity as gay. The first two phases in particular, could have been helpful to me at the time. The first phase, writes Escoffier, concerns our need to “recreate our autobiographies.” For somebody to tell me that it was perfectly normal to feel that this was a life-changing insight, and one that would give a new backdrop to most of my life thus far, could have spared me lots of agony over trying to down-gay or discipline hints of homosexuality in my past. And likewise, in Escoffier’s second phase,
we “discover” ourselves and begin to learn the social skills that enable us to share our desires (…) and build fragile solidarities with others. In the course of our trajectory, which is one of stigma and self-hatred, we strive to act as though we are “real” members of society. We say to ourselves, “I want recognition and acceptance of my difference.”
Sure, Escoffier goes on from there to make a case for why life is too complicated for homos to necessarily want to assimilate easily into the roles of “real members of society”, but for me as a newly out gay man, it’s the final mantra that counts. I already had the acceptance, but I needed for someone to recognize it as a big deal, and to confirm my feeling that I was going through something important. I eventually got there anyway, of course, but Escoffier’s words could have provided me with a nice shortcut.
When people are asked at various points in life whether they would have done anything differently if they had the chance to do it again, the impulse is to say “no”, either because you think your life is in the hands of some higher authority, or simply because you’ve come to terms with life as it happened. But I think you could be fairly satisfied with the road you took, and still wish you could’ve done some things done. I’m sure that if I hadn’t held myself back in the belief that people would look at me differently if I acknowledged that coming was important to me, I would discovered that I was strong enough to take when they did. And I’m sure the conversations would have been much more interesting.
Why shouldn’t you shout it shout it from the rooftops? The alternative is to make yourself less interesting than you really are.