It’s National Coming Out Day, the day when the collective force of a zillion closet doors being thrust open is enough to knock you off your feet.
Coming out is a milestone that every gay person feels obliged to pass – it’s the ritual that all of us have to go through on the ridiculously long path to being ‘the real you’.
The main issue I had with coming out is that I really didn’t want to – I was convinced my sexuality wasn’t anyone’s business but my own.
I was a late starter, getting to the grand old age of 24 before I was ready to admit to even myself that I was actually gay, and so to announce my sexuality felt unnatural and odd.
It was such a small part of who I was, I told myself. It didn’t define me at all; it was no more relevant to my life than the colour of my hair or my eyes, right?
These are the ridiculous things you say in your head when you’re on the cusp of changing everything for ever. You don’t realise how relevant it is to your life until you don’t have to keep it a secret any more.
Coming out to friends was interesting. Some had badgered me about it for years, only to be met by strenuous denials. I almost didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of being right all along, and dreaded the conspiratorial “I knew it!” I didn’t want to be a bright, shiny gay bauble for people to marvel over.
Something you should be prepared for when coming out is not just a bad reaction from parents or relatives, but that you may even find friends’ positive reactions distasteful. I found horrifying the idea that my newfound self-acceptance could become the most interesting and important thing about me.
I was tempted to push people away at this point; I realise now I should’ve been pleased that people were happy for me. “Oh we always knew” might leave a nasty taste in your mouth (not for the first time ho ho ho) but as clumsy as this reaction is, remember they are just trying to make you feel comfortable. Try not to resent them for it – but feel free to tell them it makes you uncomfortable. This is your day
For a while I played down my sexuality, not allowing myself to celebrate it. It was no big deal. Next question. I realise now that coming out doesn’t mean an end to the awkwardness – revealing all is just the first step to accepting who you are. And you end up coming out every day, over and over again.
Once I was out to friends, the inevitable next step was to tell my parents. They’re divorced, so I did this separately – in very different ways.
I told my father when I was drunk and in a terrible mood, my secret bursting out of me during a heated debate. Oh, and it was also his birthday. I know, I know. What a model son.
I spat it out angrily, but his reaction was far from furious; after momentary shock, he was understanding, gracious and happy I had confided in him. Despite this, I continued to do it all wrong, saying once again it was no big deal and that I didn’t want to talk about it, when all my dad wanted to do was be supportive. It takes a really long time to be comfortable in your own skin, but open up if you can.
Coming out can be an utterly selfish act – as you deal with your own emotions, you forget that the people you tell have feelings too. Learn from me: don’t come out in anger.
I told my mother soon after, one breakfast just after Christmas, after remarking that in the upcoming Absolutely Fabulous special, Edina would find out her son was gay.
I found myself blurting out: “What would you do if I were gay, Mum?”
My mother did not look up from the pan of boiling eggs she was hovering over.
“Why? Are you?”
There followed a brief discussion about the gay men Mum had known when she was younger – sadly, mostly with traumatic backgrounds and emotional issues, so not the best poster boys for my cause, if I’m honest, but that was my problem, not theirs – and once she’d had a think about it, she too was supportive, just like my dad.
My mother admitted she’d idly wondered if I was gay, so wasn’t entirely shocked, but as I hadn’t said anything, she didn’t want to risk upsetting me by asking outright.
One of my mum’s friends when I was growing up was a militant lesbian who was obsessed with outing me when I was about 13, before I’d ever even imagined a man’s body pressed against mine. I’m sure she meant well, but those who try to out others before they ready only serve to push them so far back in, branches of trees of Narnia scratch them.
Coming out can help set others’ minds at rest. My parents were, of course, concerned, but all I had to do was live my life and show them they had nothing to worry about. Now my sexuality is the thing I wanted it to be all along, just another part of my life. I was lucky. Not everyone is.
Did I need to come out to finally be at peace with myself? I think so. Coming out is difficult for many reasons; the fear of people’s reactions; the conflict with religious beliefs; the knowledge that there is still a huge amount of intolerance and hate out there to name just a few.
What coming out can sometimes do for you as an LGBTQ person is allows you to be at peace with yourself. The turmoil doesn’t vanish, but the internal struggles you’ve had for as long as you can remember can suddenly become less painful. Your friends’ and family’s reaction may surprise you – in a good way.
And if you’re not gay, bi, or trans, and if someone you know stares intently at you today and clears their throat, there’s a good chance they’re about to tell you that maybe they are – or maybe they have a peanut stuck in their throat and are unable to speak, silently willing you to decode their desperate glaring. Before you put on your best understanding face, check their airways just in case.
I’d encourage anybody who finds themselves as a coming-out confidante to react calmly, positively and maybe save the celebratory air punches and that you “knew it all along” for later. Be prepared to fight their corner, as not everyone is going to react as well as you. Make sure the voice of acceptance shouts the loudest.
So why the big fuss about National Coming Out Day, when you can make the big announcement any day of the year? Well, if you do it today, you know you won’t be doing it alone. Most of us need motivation for a lot of things.
You may tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow, or the next day, but they’re just like any other day, full of trivial things to help you put it off until later.
But if it’s not the right time for you to take the plunge, don’t. Coming out should be a personal thing; you’re doing it for you, not them.
But when you’re ready, do come on out – the water’s lovely.
Earlier versions of this post have appeared elsewhere.