When you see the words ‘Coming Out’, what do you think about? These days it usually refers to coming out of the closet, an expression that has been around since the early 1970s suggesting an alternative to isolation, invisibility and shame at having something to hide for those who don’t fit the ‘norms’ of heterosexuality.
People are always talking about the importance of coming out, as if men who are gay or bi or otherwise attracted to other men have some kind of obligation to their peers and society in general to declare their sexual orientation. It also implies sexuality is something innate that can be researched and known and labelled.
This seems to me a tough expectation. Not only are you marked out as different to the norm, you are expected to fully understand your sexuality, embrace it and proclaim it to the world, or at least those close to you.
“Mom, Dad, I’ve got something to tell you… I’m gay.”
By the way, that has to be said with some kind of American accent, because it was the default script accompanying Hollywood portrayals of coming out in the 80s and 90s. If you have no idea what I mean, take a look at when Jack McPhee comes out to his dad in the 2nd season of Dawson’s Creek or the films Doing Time on Maple Drive, Edge of Seventeen or Torch Song Trilogy.
These coming out scenes were always accompanied by high drama (great for the movies), the adoption of an angry or apologetic tone (but what is there to apologise for?) and lots of opportunities for regret and resolution (which also makes gripping television). The treatment of the plot has changed since then, with parents now being depicted as more sensitive and accepting, but the script hasn’t changed much. It often remains an emotional blurt. You can see what I mean in the coming out to parents scenes with Kurt and Burt in Glee (season 1 episode 4) and Marshall and Max in the ‘You Becoming You’ episode of United States of Tara (season 2 episode 4).
Life is Not a TV Scene: Understanding Sexuality Takes Time
Taking this approach when discussing sexuality assumes that coming out for most guys is one pivotal moment, like a tv scene.
Or that everyone comes from kind of family that has such frank conversations.
Think of how long it took you to come to terms with your sexuality. Did you first have to understand it before you accepted it? Maybe you are still in a process of understanding it. What turns us on and how we experience our bodies isn’t something that remains static. For example, some men start off identifying as bisexual and then use other descriptions. But even if you do have more self-acceptance and understanding of your own sexuality than you had previously, did it happen overnight or over time? For most people, making sense of sexuality is something that takes time. Some even describe it as a journey.
Parents and family members often need time to ‘process’ or understand an announcement about their son’s sexuality before they can accept it. Many myths about homosexuality and bisexuality prevail. Same sex love is not so visible in popular culture. Your parents might not understand immediately, it might take some time or even some research. So the ‘announcement’ approach to coming out offers a heap of false promises. If you go into a conversation with an agenda to get acceptance or an expectation of understanding in one scene, you risk derailing their process.
In any case, once cherished descriptions of sexual orientation are starting to break down and becoming more sophisticated. The simple order of straight / gay / bisexual is becoming obsolete. The language people are using to describe sexuality has taken on more nuances to reflect the reality of sexual diversity. These changes happen over generations and often the point of reference for parents is in a different era to that of their children. Misunderstandings can occur because those in conversation are drawing on different models of sexuality, or on ignorance or false information. And believe it or not, sometimes such conversations have parents considering their own sexuality. The assumption that your parent is completely comfortable with her / his own sexuality might require revisiting. There is a famous gay novel with this theme called ‘The Lost Language of Cranes‘ in which a son’s announcement triggers his father to also come out.
There is also a version on film available…
Are you Seeking Your Parent’s Approval to Live Your Own Life?
So if you happen to end up in a conversation with your parents about sexuality, how might you proceed?
Any dialogue requires us to be ‘present’ in the moment, open to listening and hearing what the other has to say, also means listening out for their emotions without jumping into a reaction. At these times, it can help to feel relaxed. How comfortable do you feel with your body? In what ways do you manage your emotions? We can soak up stress from those around us so there is a benefit in remaining calm when the other person is experiencing a stress response. My suggestion to someone who wants to prepare for such a conversation is to learn a meditation practice and breathing techniques to give you more control.
And being comfortable with your sexuality can require some exploration. This raises another point. Do you know why you want your parents to understand and accept your sexuality? Consider this: for some men, the motivation is they are looking for a parent’s approval or permission to move forward.
But do you really need their permission for this?
Aren’t you already an adult with the right and capacity to make decisions about how you enjoy your own body and with whom you are intimate?
Why are you relying on your parent’s blessing or approval to live a life that is true to yourself?
Will it necessarily make any difference if you tell your mother or father about your homo or bisexuality? Some guys assume it will and then discover, having had some conversations about it with a parent, that the same challenges around appreciating their own body, or negotiating pleasure with someone else, remain. For others, a discussion with a parent can help because it is through telling stories that we make sense of our lives. Having an audience to our story can help, particularly if we are stuck in trying to make sense of it on our own, but only if the audience is in a position to listen.
Coming In: Invitations to Homosocial Culture
I believe sexuality is something to be enjoyed, cherished and even celebrated. It is an aspect of being human. It doesn’t require a label or a particular association with others. Yet others can validate and acknowledge it and even enhance the experience of it.
There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well,
All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.
– from ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ by Walt Whitman 1819-1892
According to research by historian George Chauncey, prior to the second world war, Coming Out had a completely different meaning, particularly in New York City. Back then, gay and bisexual people had different ways of describing themselves and their social worlds. Far from isolated, invisible or ashamed, there is evidence that, in the early part of the 1900s there existed thriving societies of same sex culture. The term ‘coming out’ in those times involved a play on the upper-class tradition of debutantes being introduced or coming out into society. It was more a case of coming-into these homosocial environments where individuals were celebrating their lives and their relationships. Chauncey has documented these societies in his book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. Instead of an expectation on gay or bi men to declare themselves, coming out previously meant an invitation to participate, experience and enjoy sexuality with others.
I first came across the term ‘Coming-In’ while researching community work at an annual international summer camp for men who love men in Sweden. At Sweden’s GayCamp, which welcomes all men regardless of sexual orientation, the aim is the creation of a homosocial society for a week where participants can have freedom from the heteronorm. There is no obligation to ‘come out’ but instead a welcoming atmosphere where attendees are invited into same sex culture and activities including the possibility to tell their stories to an interested audience. This is an opportunity to hang out with and be acknowledged by other men with diverse experiences of loving men. I will be writing more about GayCamp on this blog and look forward to presenting my research into inclusion and belonging practices at the 1st International Conference of Men and Masculinities in Izmir, Turkey, later this year.
Living a life true to yourself instead of the life others might expect of you takes courage. It doesn’t require a proclamation but letting go of hesitancy and inviting others into your world can help. People don’t always understand you at first because they might need time and your understanding. Are you ready to offer it to them?
The following clip comes from Season 4 of the US tv series ‘Ugly Betty’.