It is 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. If someone stares intently at you and clears their throat, or puts their latte to one side with the biggest case of ‘serious-face’ you’ve ever seen, there’s a good chance they’re about to tell you they’re gay – or they have a peanut stuck in their throat and are unable to speak, silently willing you to decode their desperate stare. Before you put on your best understanding face, check their airways just in case.
Coming out is that 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 it as I languished in my walk-in wardrobe of denial is that I was convinced my sexuality wasn’t anyone’s business but my own. I was a late starter, notching up 24 years on Earth before I was ready to admit to 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 things you say in your head when you’re on the cusp of changing everything for ever.
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. I found horrifying the idea that my newfound self-acceptance could become the most interesting and important thing about me. For a while I played down my homosexuality, 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.
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. 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. 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 and may want to talk through them with you. Learn from me: don’t come out in anger.
I told my mother soon after, one breakfast just after Christmas, 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, all drug addicts and emotional wrecks, so not the best poster boys for my cause – 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. Coming out can help set others’ minds at rest too, clearly. My parents were, of course, concerned, but it was my responsibility to 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. My blog, by the way, isn’t anonymous because I’m uncomfortable with being gay – far from it. I only remain incognito so that any guy I have dated, and subsequently written about, will remain unaware he has been the subject of any of my posts.
What coming out does for you as a gay person is allow you to be comfortable in your own skin. 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.
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, once the dust has settled. It’s great that you’re there for them, but this isn’t really about you. Not today. Be prepared to fight your gay friend’s corner, because 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? At least if you do it today, you know you won’t be doing it alone. Most of us need motivation to do any number of mundane tasks, let alone this ‘life event’. 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.
*National Coming Out Day is usually celebrated on October 12 in the UK, and October 11 everywhere else. Just to be different.