Friday, 12 October 2012

National Coming Out Day part 2

It is now National Coming Out Day UK (one day later, don’t ask me why) and after much umming and ahhing, I’m deciding to share my own coming Out story.

It’s not that it’s a big secret, I’ve alluded to it in passing before, after all. My reluctance stems from the tone of the day – everyone is so happy and so celebratory and bouncing and sharing happy stories and tales of how much they are loved. I am reluctant to play the Debbie-downer since my story isn’t a very positive one.

But, after thinking and talking about this, I think it’s necessary to be the Downer because we need to remember that Coming out is serious, it can and does have a cost, it is risky and it isn’t all love and acceptance. In particular, we need to address this message of duty we’re seeing. That all GBLT people SHOULD come out, have a duty to come out, that they’re betraying us by not coming out etc etc. This has spread to such a degree that we have inordinate straight people in various fields encouraging, demanding and even shaming GBLT people into coming out. We have an idea now that being closeted is cowardly or failing. This is a terrible burden to put on people and we need to remember the cost and the risk of this. We also have a lot of people dismissing GBLT people’s coming out as casual or unimportant – or even ascribing an ulterior motive, like the homophobe who thought Anderson Cooper came out “for ratings”.

And the importance of the moment. It is becoming rather nastily common for straight, cis people to announce they are “coming out” about things which have nothing to do with being GBLT. I have seen people coming out as allies (ugh, no), coming out as Tories (ye gods) coming out as Geeks – and any number of other gross appropriations. I think recognising the risk and the fear may be part of countering this disrespect and casual dismissal and usage of such a powerful moment.

So, my story. I came out at age 14. I knew many many years before hand but I also knew from the constant contempt, shaming and homophobic language that my family was not going to be a welcoming place. I kept my mouth shut. I couldn’t risk alienating my family, not just because I was a financially dependent teenager. I come from a culture of intense family ties. I grew up with people I called cousins whose only relation to me was the same great-grandfather or even great-great-grandfather. Our family reunions have attendance in the hundreds. And everyone is in everyone’s pocket, knows everyone’s news, everyone’s business, is in and out of everyone’s houses, constantly doing each other favours, sharing property, sharing insights, sharing opportunities, sharing gossip, sharing lives. I grew up with a list of dozens of phone numbers to aunt this and uncle that who, should anything ever ever happen, I knew I could call and they would be there within the hour. And the expectation that I would do the same for them. We didn’t have Christmas Card lists, we had Christmas card books. Family Was Important. All important.

But I had a friend. I had never not known him, we grew up together, we went to nursery and primary school together, our mothers were friends when we were both in nappies. I was sure I could trust him. I was wrong. When I told him, he hit me – cracking my jaw and kicking me while I was down – and we never spoke again. He did tell many other people though, leading to a… difficult school life that I’ve already mentioned.

I didn’t come out to anyone again until college. I didn’t have the strength to come out to my parents until university and even then it was less a case of coming out and more a matter of not trying to hide. It quickly entered the familial realm of something We Do Not Talk About But Is Known and it certainly didn’t change their behaviour or language. It wasn’t until meeting, living with and having a relationship with Beloved (in that order) that I started to have Those Talks with my family and we all stopped playing the “room mate” game or the “pronoun” game or any of the other joyful silences and avoidances. And I felt capable of doing that BECAUSE I had Beloved, because I knew if they dropped me entirely I would have someone there for me.

Beloved’s coming out story is less dramatic but pretty soul destroying, he’s pretty bitter about it and regrets how he went about it and rather wishes he just said “screw it I’m gay” and didn’t back down. He came out as gay when he was 16 to his parents, having come out to his sisters beforehand to support on one side and a great big “do I care? Do I look bothered?” on the other.

His parents promptly Lost Their Shit. I don’t mean got angry or threatened to throw him out; no, they panicked. Seriously panicked. Beloved talks about legitimately thinking he’d have to call an ambulance because his dad looked like he was having a heart attack. So Beloved recanted (I am bemused they believed him taking it back but it just goes to show people will believe anything if they want to believe it). Over the months he tried again, to similar reaction and eventually tried telling them he was bi, heavily implying that women were still an option, maybe even the most likely.

They freaked, but after breathing into a paper bag, a stiff brandy and a couple of slaps they could deal with that, kinda sorta. Any boys beloved was with could be dismissed as “temporary” because there would be a girl in the future! Praise her sacred oestrogen, she would save their boy! From here Beloved began to wean them on gayness – working slowly from “women most likely” through to “possibly a man but probably woman” until he was securely “most likely a man, woman on the outside” and “yeah, man. No way no how will you ever have a daughter in law. Deal with it.” The freak out was split into several minor freak outs over the period of couple of years during which Beloved’s parents tried to desperately push him towards women.

His parents have since complained at him for lying and it’s one of the few times I’ve seen him lose his near non-existent temper with them. He says he was given a choice of lying about who he was or watching them have a stroke and how did they remotely think it was ok to act like that to a damn 16 year old? It was a couple of months before we spoke to them after that – he sent in The Sisters.

Beloved’s sisters helped a lot in picking up his pieces and in cajoling. Mocking, bludgeoning and shaming their parents (something they still do to this day).

These are out stories. And they’re not very happy. It wasn’t easy coming out the first time. It wasn’t easy coming out the second time either, or staying out of the closet, or being out at work – we’ve both got work place horror stories and anyone reading my blog knows how much my work place, while being very awesome in many ways (awesome secretary, the music, the fancy dress, the pirate talk, the snark, sarcasm and the provocative use of ice cubes) is also not a gay-friendly space. And it’s immensely better than my last place of employment.

It’s not always easy. It’s not always the best time and, sometimes, it’s not just difficult, it’d down-right dangerous. No-one should feel the need to come out before they are ready to do so – and only they can know their circumstances and whether it’s safe or not.

Let us celebrate those who come out. Let us recognise what a powerful experience it is. Let us welcome those who come out. Let it be clear that we’re ready to support and help those who want to come out. Let us acknowledge the evil of the closet and what prejudice has done to us and our society. But let’s also stop this pushing people to come out – it’s not fair, it’s not sensible and it’s not right.