Just as an individual gay man’s life course can be diverse and nontraditional in its milestones, the gay man’s identity itself is changing across his life and throughout different contexts. Galatzer-Levy and Cohler (2002) underscore the idea that a person’s identity is “dynamic.” In their eyes, there exists “the possibility of continuing change in identity across the life course. This view of identity … is profoundly salient to the study of sexual orientation” (p. 264). While it can be easy to explain identity as an ever-constant entity, in reality this is an oversimplification of a person’s very subtle and refined experiences of maintaining and negotiating an identity within a society.
Though it is understood that a gay identity – or any identity, for that matter – can and should be viewed as dynamic, it is also understood that possessing a gay identity requires first and foremost an announcement of this identity to the person’s larger social world, which is of course what we refer to as coming out. After all, “[i]t is only through the process of coming out … that acceptance into gay culture occurs, and with this new cultural frame of reference, a new set of symbolic meanings, rituals, and social interactions” which exist independently from the larger hegemonic culture (Cohler & Hammack, 2007, p. 52). Once the gay male in question has come out, this particular facet of his identity is given much weight and may be the most salient of all his identities for a time (Kertzner, 2001). Indeed, it may be reasoned that the years up until the middle twenties serve as a cornerstone for creating an identity (Drasin, Beals, Elliott, Lever, Klein, & Schuster, 2008). This interacts with the supposed median age for coming out as gay, estimated by some to be nineteen years old (Grierson & Smith, 2005). Cohler and Hammack (2007) speculate that this may occur due to the fact that the American cultural landscape is such that it “privileges identity development as a fundamental process of the life course” (p. 48). That is, identity development may be central to the life course perspective as we know it, but it may indeed be a Western bias centering on individuation of the self.
Once a gay man has come out, the dynamic process of his gay identity requires negotiation in every context throughout his life. As Galatzer-Levy and Cohler (2002) put it: “It is said that one never stops coming out. In each business or personal situation, gay and lesbian people are always confronted anew with the question of whether to ‘tell’ and whether telling in that situation is warranted” (p. 280). Gay identity maintenance requires a savvy understanding of the context at hand, including the pros and cons of being out in each specific context, but it also involves a “freedom to choose” which implies agency residing within the individual (Clarke, 2007, p. 71). The process of gay identity maintenance involves a gay man’s usage of an internal locus of control within which to chart his life course.
Sociohistorical contexts have helped to pave a different life course for modern gay males than for those in older cohorts. As well as the influence of the gay rights movement mentioned earlier, gay males of today are navigating a post-HIV/AIDS world (Grierson & Smith, 2005). These factors may interrelate to shift forward the “milestones such as coming out to oneself, coming out to others, and same-gender sexual debut” (Grov, Bimbi, Nanín, & Parsons, 2006, p. 115). In turn, technological advances may push these milestones forward, as online communication and the internet can serve as forums with which to discover a gay identity and negotiate it in interactions with others, all within the anonymity and safety of the online world (Galatzer-Levy & Cohler, 2002). Clearly, gay boys and men today are growing up in a completely different world than the cohorts of gay males before them did.
This research study seeks to explore the ways in which young gay men navigate their social worlds after initially coming out. Specifically, how do gay men negotiate the coming out process and how does this affect their being out in subsequent contexts throughout the life course? Cohler and Hammack (2007) explicitly highlight the rationale for increased research in this area: “there remains very limited recognition of the significance of a life-course perspective in the study of sexual identity either in youth or adulthood” (p. 55). I am curious as to how the facilitation of a gay identity impacts future social experiences of gay men as they decide to be out in a certain context and to which degree, or gain a social reward and ‘pass’ as straight. I am interested in the social dimensions of living that are specific to gay men. The life course perspective seems to be a fitting lens through which to explore these experiences.
This study used a sample of five men who self-identify as gay. These men are all in their twenties, the youngest being 24 years old and the oldest being 29 years old. Each of these men was selected as I know them personally. Four of these men are of American nationality, and one is of Dutch nationality. Three of the men identify ethnically as white or Caucasian, one identifies as Mexican-Filipino, and one identifies as Latin/Latino. Every one of these men has attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, at one point in his educational trajectory. All have received bachelor’s degrees, one has completed an MBA, and three out of the five are currently attending post-graduate educational institutions. Four of the men currently live in Florida, and one resides in New York. Two of the participants are actually in relationships with two other participants, although I made it a point to interview each man separately.
The interviews were semi-structured in format, and interviews ranged from about thirty minutes to one hour in length. Interviews were conducted in my home, the participant’s home, or via Skype. All participants agreed to be audio-recorded during the interview, and all were given pseudonyms in order to uphold confidentiality. Interviews were transcribed and investigated to search for themes that emerged. Memos were completed immediately following each interview so as to create an audit trail.
Throughout the interviews, a number of themes emerged from the participants’ experiences of initially coming out and then navigating their social worlds throughout their individual life courses. Each specific theme will now be elaborated on in depth.