The Question: To Come Out, or Not to Come Out
Published: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 18, 2012 14:10
For many in the LGBT community, the route to coming out and living openly is long and complicated. The process often begins when a person is quite young, and it quickly prompts varying levels of introspection, doubt, and shame in his/her still-developing pre-or-mid-pubescent brain. After an initial series of realizations, a given young person will almost certainly face both internal and external pressure to tell others about his/her personal discovery. These two admissions – to oneself and then to others – are, of course, the two basic components of the much-hyped modern coming out process.
As a 19-going-on-20 year old student at Smith College in 2012, I am fortunate to be old enough and environmentally-supported enough that I can write an article like this, with my full name proudly attached, and have neither personal shame nor outward fear of negative consequences. Like many LGBT people, though, I didn’t enjoy that same feeling of security when I was young and deeply closeted. My journey toward coming out began when I was in early elementary school and kicked into high gear around my 13th birthday, when I first used the words, “I’m gay” in an angsty diary entry that I promptly tore to shreds and discretely threw away on my street’s trash night.
In the years immediately following that initial admission, I managed to tell my older brother, my parents, a small handful of peers and two trusted faculty members at my high school. And instead of feeling relief at the act of sharing an otherwise bottled-up secret, I felt embarrassed about who I was and what I was saying to my chosen confidants. In addition to shame, I felt a slew of other negative emotions ranging from guilt to grief. Emotionally, at that point, I didn’t think it could get any worse.
During the fall of my senior year, the principal of my high school stood before my class during an assembly and shared that homophobia had infiltrated the school by means of anti-gay graffiti in a number of bathrooms around campus. We were told that the writings in question were being removed and then warned that the person responsible needed to stop. I did my best to wear a face that screamed “I’m not gay or anything so, like, why would this matter to me?” and tried to get back into the routine of the day, although I listened closely to what my peers were – and were not – saying about the incidents.
Immediately, I sensed widespread ambivalence among my friends and classmates. For my part, then, I felt let down: I had hoped that others would step up and speak on behalf of those of us who could not then speak for ourselves; instead, my peers seemed silent on the subject. At the end of that first day, I complained to one of my best friends, who already knew I was gay, that these were the kinds of moments that made me wish I could be out to the entire school community. I already knew, in that moment, that the simple act of coming out – especially to a person (or group of people) who already knows or loves you – is often the most powerful agent for change in existence. And then, over the course of several hours, I made the connection that I could be that agent for change.
So, despite my own heaps of shame and self-consciousness, a series of lengthy conversations with encouraging friends led me to the conclusion that I needed to come out to my schoolmates in order to put a face on an otherwise largely-invisible campus community. With their help, I settled on the idea of giving a speech – to the whole school, all at once, so that my words couldn’t be twisted or misunderstood and so that I could appeal directly, person-to-person, with all those whose opinions I so feared.
On October 22, 2009 – immediately after National Coming Out Day, three years ago this week – although I had become quite sure that I was about to be thrown into social exile and emotional distress, I stood behind a podium and, amid five minutes of other words I literally can’t remember saying, said the words “I’m gay” to nearly everyone I knew and respected at that time in my life. Throughout my speech, the packed space was entirely silent. I finished, completely red in the face, and began a slow walk back to my seat, fully convinced that life as I’d known it had ended. I was mortified.
And then, suddenly, the room burst into standing applause. The kind of applause that overpowers a space and drowns out dissenting voices. The kind that is fierce and passionate, awe-inspiring and nerve-calming, seemingly interminable and unstoppable. The kind that makes a nervous, self-conscious teenage girl feel sure that she just experienced the most simultaneously terrifying and gratifying moment of her life to date, and that knowingly inducing said moment was the right choice.
In the weeks and months after my speech, I heard a huge number of stories from both peers and faculty, LGBT people and straight allies, those who had heard me directly and those who heard from their children or spouses. A number of people confided in me their own still-hidden sexual orientations, while many others simply shared stories of their same-sex parents or gay grandchildren or advocate-friends. Despite the age, occupation, perspective, or sexual orientation of the people with whom I talked in those weeks, there was one common, perpetual thread: the fact that someone spoke on the issue from inside the school community, thereby allowing her to draw on personal connections and already-shared experiences, was the most important component of the speech’s success. We are social animals, so words from strangers are simply not as effective at breaking down barriers.