The Closet

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Coming out of the closet is a big deal and is often characterized by anxiety. What was once intensely private is now open and public. With just a few words, coming out can forever alter many relationships; coming out can cost someone their job, friends, or family. Despite how big an event coming out is there is no written ritual or ceremony for how to do it. It can be spontaneous or preplanned, but one of the most common ways to come out is gather up people who are close and then say “I’m gay.” We tend to think of this even as some kind of revealing, but with all the background concerns going on, I don’t think people are actually informing anyone when they come out. I don’t think “I am gay” is a statement, I think it’s a tacit question: “I’m gay, will you accept me?”

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A natural approach to alleviate the difficulty of coming out is to try to create safe places and get straight allies to help. A good example of this outreach are the letters of acceptance family members have written and have gone viral over social media. I think this approach is laudable, but insufficient. So long as people who come out treat coming out as a huge life event—one that is told in hushed voices—then the very act of coming out supports the long term issues that make it difficult to come out in the first place. In short, the current way most people come out reflects two different desires: (1) the desire to admit to being LGBT and (2) the desire for it to not be a big deal. But so long as we treat being gay, or lesbian, or whatever else we come out about as something to admit, we directly interfere with not making it a big deal. We admit things we are not proud of or secretly ashamed of. I’m not sure how many people feel overtly ashamed of coming out, but I do imagine that most instances of coming out is prefaced by anxiety because there is this uncertainty as to whether or not the friendship can continue or the family remain intact. If we are truly trying to make coming out of the closet easier, we need to focus on why anything is admitted in the first place; we need to be concerned that there is a closet in the first place.

Kurt

Being out is sometimes contextual: someone can be out to her friends, but not her family, her family, but not her coworkers. Public knowledge in one context might have different consequences than the same public knowledge in another. Being out in to family might mean acceptance; being out in the workplace might mean finding a new job. So there are many times when public knowledge, or lack thereof, about sexual orientation is fairly important. Further, the occasion for that making certain facts public can also be relevant: going to a school dance, going on a date, or bringing someone home for the holidays. So what makes this kind of public knowledge different than coming out of the closet? In some sense these events are when sexual orientation is relevant and not that big of a deal. Talking about, or informing, others about sexual orientation in these contexts, and others like them, starts a very slow change in how we think about sexual orientation. Being a member of the LGBT community is no longer something we have to confess or admit, but rather simply just another part of identity that comes out in the right way.

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We thank returning guest blogger, Kurt Blankschaen, for contributing this post to Gay-Straight Relationships.

Already Out? Thank Your Straight Friends

“I’ve been out for years, so how am I supposed to participate in National Coming Out Day?” asked one of my gay friends. My reply: “Thank your straight friends.”

No, really. Thank your straight friends.

One of the great things about National Coming Out Day is that it sets aside a day for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender to publicly affirm their sexuality. It’s a day of celebration and cathartic release for these individuals. However, the individuals who celebrate are mostly LGBT individuals who have recently come out or who are in the process of coming out. Other LGBT individuals may feel differently about this holiday. In my experience, I have encountered lesbian women and gay men who brush this holiday off because 1) they are already out, and 2) they don’t feel the need to reaffirm their sexuality. Although there is really no changing how gay man and women feel about issue, National Coming Out Day should be more than just affirming your sexual identity. Specifically, Coming Out Day should also be a day where we show our sincerest gratitude and appreciation for those who supported us and accepted us from the very beginning: our straight friends.

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Taking a step back from my usual blog posts, I want to emphasize the important role that gay-supportive men and women (a.k.a. allies) have played in helping young gay men and lesbian women make their transition. Without the unconditional, loving support from our straight friends, there would probably not be a National Coming Out Day. At least in my personal experience, my straight friends were my foundation when I was coming out. I hardly knew any gay people at the time, so I had to rely solely on the support of my straight friends. Reflecting back 5 years ago (seems like only yesterday), not only did my straight friends accept me for who I was, they also provided me with a sense of belonging. That is, even though I thought the words, “I am gay”, automatically isolated me and made me different, they reassured me that nothing had changed. I was still their friend, and I was still Eric. These simple actions taken by my straight friends made all the difference, and their support has ultimately shaped who I have become today.  To me, that is definitely worth celebrating.

Therefore, in honor of today, I say will say this: Celebrate your sexual identity, but also celebrate the straight friends that have supported you.

3 Ways Women Help Gays Come Out

For most gay men, coming out is one of the most important and pivotal events in their young lives. Even though this event can be particularly stressful and challenging, gay men may look to women in particular to assist them through this process. Here’s how women can help:

1. Keeping a secret. Even before a gay man comes to terms with his sexual orientation, a female friend is usually the first person to “know”.  Similar to a mother in this respect, women are pretty good at noticing certain patterns in a man that do not line up with the stereotypical straight male. Because female friends have this hunch early on, they might be more mindful of the topics that they discuss with their closeted gay friend. Rarely are female friends motivated to “out” their gay friend without their friend’s consent. Genuine female friends allow gay men the time and the space that they need in order to make their cathartic transition.

“Matt probably is gay, but he hadn’t told me. That’s the hard thing: there’s a difference between knowing and ready to embrace it. That’s why I think ‘outing’ is a terrible thing. I don’t think it’s constructive, and it could damage the relationship. I mean if you’re in private and the question comes up you can ask, but I never felt the need to.” (Cathie in Straight Women, Gay Men: Absolutely Fabulous Friendships)1

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2. Creating a safe space. When young gay men discover that they like boys, their gut instinct is usually to tell their female friends before anybody else. Gay men know and are somewhat confident that their female friends will be the ones to accept them for who they are regardless of their sexual preference. Also, if gay men notice that their female friends are non-judgmental, accepting, and supportive towards other gay men who are “out,” they may be more willing to come out themselves.

3. Being proponents. On average, women’s attitudes towards gay men are much more positive than straight men’s attitudes2. Not only that, but straight women seem to prioritize helping their gay friends through the coming out process.  Some women may be passive, sympathetic observers for their gay friends, but others may actively support their gay friends through their transition. However, this is not to say that women “force” their gay friends out of the closet; rather, many women encourage their gay friends to be who they are. If gay men know they have a supportive friend and ally through their transition, they may be more willing to come to terms with their sexuality and make friends with other LGBT individuals.

References:

1. Hopcke, R. H. & Rafaty, L. (1999). Straight women, gay men: Absolutely fabulous friendships. Berkeley, California: Wildcat Canyon Press.

2. Herek, G. M. (1988). Heterosexuals’ attitudes towards lesbians and gay men: Correlates and gender differences. Journal of Sex Research, 25, 451-477.