Why “we all knew!” is the worst thing to say when somebody comes out

Read: How not to react when somebody comes out

Coming out – you never stop doing it, really. First you have to come out to yourself, which can take years and is, arguably, the hardest one of all. Then, if you’re fine with what you now know, you start to tell others. It’s an ongoing process that varies wildly in delivery – it can be a huge announcement, or merely a knowing look. Sometimes, all you have to do to let people know is say which Bowie track is your favourite – there’s always a tell if you peer closely enough.

For most of us, the biggest of all coming-outs is that first one, usually to family or friends. Once you’ve dealt with what an ‘80s tabloid might call demons but we now know to be feelings, it’s time to set yourself on the path to true happiness – or so you believe – and be the person you were always meant to be.

It’s a big deal. You can’t guess the reaction – even from the people you love and trust the most. But there comes a point where you simply must come out because if you don’t, you are living a lie and, for most of us, that simply isn’t appealing. The day has to come.

Today was that day for Conservative MP  and cabinet minister David Mundell. We can assume at the age of 53, he’s had plenty of time to think long and hard about whether to do this. In his statement, Mundell, who is the Scottish Secretary and has three children, talked of a “New Year, new start” and “one of the most important decisions of my life”. His statement was dignified and hopeful, with Mundell paying tribute to “the many people, young and old, who are doing this every day, uncertain of the reaction”.

The reaction to Mundell’s own coming-out was largely positive, but if there’s ointment out in the open, so must a fly crash into it. Today’s bothersome insect was the Mirror’s Kevin Maguire, who ‘congratulated’ Mundell with this gem:

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Probably the worst thing you can say, apart from “I disown you”, to someone who’s just told you they’re gay is that you already knew, or “everybody knew”. Even if it is meant good-naturedly, to reassure, it still stings, because the act of coming out is revealing what you assume to be a secret – and who wants to be the one telling someone what they already know? 

As a gay person coming out, we have to own that moment. It’s ours. We have wrestled with feelings, had sleepless nights and acted out this day again and again in our heads, dreaming up endless scenarios, with dozens of different endings. We’ve almost told you a thousand times, but backed out at the last minute. You, however, with your “We all knew!” have taken the script out of our hands – you are editing it, tearing out pages. But we didn’t ask you to. This is our story.

We’re not being dramatic or wanting all the attention. In most cases, we want to say our piece, then go about our business, starting out anew. Many of us will want to talk about it, tell you what it means to us, but when you jump straight in and say it was obvious to everyone anyway, you’re taking control of our feelings. You’ve immediately made this about you, not us.

Being told that your gayness – or bisexuality, or intention to transition – was an open secret makes you feel like a failure. We’ve done it all wrong. What we thought we were hiding was actually in plain sight. For many of us we’ve been trying to “pass” as straight before coming out to you. For gay men, it might mean trying not to act girly; for gay women, trying to be less butch. That we didn’t have anyone fooled, a fact you can’t wait to tell us, makes us feel small, like it was all a waste of time – a joke we weren’t let in on, until it became clear we were, in fact, the punchline.

This isn’t about getting professionally offended or being a special snowflake. We are telling you that we’re gay because we trust you; we’re sharing this special moment with you. We have fought and we have struggled and we have denied, all without saying a word, but here we are in front of you, and this is your time to shine.

Watch Mick Carter in EastEnders very skilfully – yet honestly – coax his son out of the closet.

We see this moment as life-changing, but your “We already knew!” has belittled us, embarrassed us. Instead of looking to the future, we wonder what we did ‘wrong’ in the past, how we gave it away. How long have you known? Have you been talking about it a lot? Did you tell others? Did you laugh? Did you place bets? Did you try to entice me out of the closet with your other gay friends (happened to me btw)?

“We all knew” makes our coming-out less about the journey we took to get here, and more about how you feel about it – it makes your reaction, and your perceived coolness with our situation, the most important thing.

You all knew? Great. But do you know what you’re doing? You’re strutting on to our stage, grabbing our microphone and singing, loudly and off-key, all over the first song we ever wrote.

Just for today, get back to your supporting role. You can have centre-stage back tomorrow.

More like this:
National Coming Out Day: How not to react
Coming out isn’t a one-off event – you’ll do it day after day for ever
Sam Stanley’s coming out is a victory for us all
Gay marriage, fatherhood and my very own ridiculous, personal dilemma

Image: Flickr

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10 thoughts on “Why “we all knew!” is the worst thing to say when somebody comes out”

  1. This article is so wrong-headed (but well intentioned). Sometimes they always knew and they were giving us space to be ourselves and be honest. We should be celebrating that, not moaning about it.

    1. There was one VIP that I HAD to come out to eventually, but they gave me the time and space to figure things out in my own time. It was actually a huge relief to find that when we did finally have the talk, we were both on the same page. We both agreed that it took awhile to connect all the dots, and that was okay. I can’t remember a time when I DIDN’T have the feeling that at the very least, things just didn’t add up. Eventually I did figure out what was happening, and was grateful to have my friend with me when it mattered. We get on even better than ever before, so I have no worries there… Also, in my case it was understood that there was no condescending tone to the conversation, so when it was the right time, we worked on the things we had to do together as a well managed team…

  2. This is a bitter and unpleasant article. Sure, people know but they don’t want to force things so they let us come out in our own time. And thank god for that. I’m glad folks let me come out slowly,and be more accepting, because, you know, they knew.

    Sorry of this is a repeat posting but it didn’t seem to post before…..

      1. I said what I had to say above, but I completely agree with you on this key point- I feel much the same about my blog…

  3. I had a mixed bag of reactions from friends and family when I came out. When people said that to me I took a big sigh of relief because I didn’t really have to explain myself. They had their hunches and life continued on as normal after. As the years have gone on since my coming out I can totally see your point in this article. It’s something some of us struggle to do for so long and we don’t want the moment taken away from us. All I’m trying to say is, great post!

  4. I have to disagree somewhat. The example used of Kevin Maguire is definitely out of order and completely insensitive. Taking the mickey out of someone like that in public is shameful.

    That said, I can’t say that every variation of “I always knew!” is bad; this is especially so for the ones which are said in private. Most of the time it is the other person’s way of telling you that they have never cared about your sexuality and have remained your friend even though they suspected you were gay. Yes, it makes for less shock factor but the intention is what is important.

    Sometimes in coming out, gay men and women are so consumed by their own anxieties that they forget how awkward a coming out can be for the other parties involved. Sexuality is often a very personal topic for people and having someone surprise you with a coming out leaves you caught off guard. You want to be supportive without being too sappy and making it even more uncomfortable and so you say the first thing that comes to you head. As long the response is positive and accepting, I don’t think anyone should get hung up over exactly how people reply to a coming out.

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