That’s a good question and it might even be one of the questions Elio is asking himself at the end of the gay love story that is now a film, Call Me By Your Name.
(Caution: this post contains spoilers for both the film and the book of Call Me By Your Name. If you haven’t seen the film yet you might want to do that before you read the rest of this article about coming out with courage.)
Anyone who has met me knows how passionate I am about gay literature and how much I enjoy films with LGBTQ+ themes. In providing therapy for gay men, I often find myself making suggestions for viewing gay films or books. I’ve read both the book by André Aciman and seen the film directed by Luca Guadagnino and I recently posted enthusiastically about them on my Patreon for gay fiction. Aside from simply being yet another story to make our lives more visible, what I appreciated about this film was the way it portrayed courage, being authentic and coming out.
Elio (actor Timothée Chalamet) at 17 is realising he is in love with Oliver who is 24 but comes across as more mature, somewhat arrogant and decisive, but restrained emotionally (played by 30-something Armie Hammer). Oliver seems at first disinterested in anything but intellectual engagement. But as young Elio takes more risks in declaring his desire, Oliver literally embraces these advances (the film contains kissing and some sex scenes but the book presents their romance much more erotically). Who doesn’t want, at least once in life, the experience of falling in love? But how do we find the courage to take steps into the unknown, perhaps risking rejection, so that our love might be acknowledged and possibly reciprocated?
Who doesn’t want, at least once in life, the experience of falling in love? But how do we find the courage to take steps into the unknown, perhaps risking rejection, so that our love might be acknowledged and possibly reciprocated?
Chalamet’s Elio is infatuated, Hammer’s Oliver more dispassionate and then ambiguous. He might be bisexual. He might be afraid. We don’t really know because he doesn’t want to risk showing himself (the end of the book projects us forward twenty years to give us a better idea of what was really happening for Oliver at the time, but I’ll leave that for you to discover).
If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter, says Elio.
What things that matter? replies Oliver.
You know what things.
Both Elio and Oliver feel somewhat constrained by assumed cultural and family expectations (they are both Jewish) but their hesitancy in pursuing the relationship is different. For Elio this is a coming of age. His lack of experience due to his age induces passivity even though he knows he is experiencing one of those things that matter. Oliver who, despite dancing with abandon to the Psychodelic Furs song Love My Way, won’t allow himself to step into anything more enduring than a summer romance with Elio, chooses instead to marry a girlfriend he has not even mentioned and embarks on a different life course altogether. Is it bisexuality or is it fear?
It can often feel harder for men with established lives to find the courage to come out or face the things that matter. Shame about being gay can hold men back from living authentic lives. The fear of HIV for those who grew up in the 80s still has some men trapped in unhappy celibacy. Coming out in midlife presents particular challenges. But the common experience here is living with authenticity and being true to yourself.
Authenticity, Courage and Therapy for Coming Out
One of the most tender scenes in the film is the monologue at the end by Elio’s father. Let me say one more thing, says Mr Perlman. It will clear the air. I may have come close, but I never had what you had. Something always held me back or stood in the way.
Let me say one more thing. It will clear the air. I may have come close, but I never had what you had. Something always held me back or stood in the way.
Was Mr Perlman, Elio’s father, also gay? Here the story resounds with David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of Cranes, another father coming out to a gay son.
Authenticity takes courage. And it can also take work. We might feel uncomfortable, not know what to do and be reluctant to take the steps to change our lives. But the rewards of taking these steps and making change are waiting: freedom, growth, energy and the opportunity to find a gay relationship, just to give a few examples. Remember our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once, says Mr Perlman.
Counselling and therapy for gay men can help them find their courage. If you would like to have a conversation about authenticity, coming out to family or courage, contact me now and together we can work through the next steps forward.