Several of my participants underscore the intimate notion inherent to coming out to another. This sensitive information is only given to people who have a close relationship to the gay man. Coming out to someone implies that there is enough trust and comfort within the relationship that this type of self-disclosure is seemingly warranted or desired in order to strengthen the relationship. If this relationship doesn’t exist in the first place, the idea of coming out is viewed as absurd, out of the question, or bizarre. Simon, who is 24 years old, white, and in graduate school, humorously likens the process of coming out to a distant family member to a more mundane chore: “Like I’m not gonna call my aunt if I buy a new car and say, ‘Oh, guess what? I bought a new car.’ If they happen to see it at Christmas, they happen to see my new car at Christmas.” Simon doesn’t go out of his way to share this personal information with the distant people in his life, but it is implied that he doesn’t hide this information, either.
Many of the participants alluded to this theme in our interviews. George, a 24-year-old white male in graduate school and working full-time, explains, “it’s not something that I’m gonna go up and shake somebody’s hand and say, ‘I’m gay’.” Later, he mentions that his gay identity is “not something that I just openly am babbling about.” Carlos, 24 years old, in graduate school, and Mexican-Filipino, is more explicit when he explains that he “didn’t feel the need to come out to [his late grandfather].” Simon, again, utilizes humor to shine a light on the sometimes ludicrous nature of gay identity maintenance within certain contexts: “I don’t go out and, you know, shout out my personal life to my professors … Just like I’m not gonna go tell the cashier at Publix, ‘Oh, I’m gay!’” These experiences highlight that within some contexts inherent to the life course, such as family, work, school, or simply existing in a social world, a person’s sexuality or sexual orientation identity is neither relevant for the conversation to transpire nor appropriate to the intimacy delegated by the relationship.
George explains the reasoning for this privacy as pertaining to his general demeanor in all aspects of his life: “I feel like personally I’m somebody who is not an open book to begin with.” Perhaps this is the case, although perhaps too this type of explanation acts as a rationalization and a safe method for a gay man’s survival within an oppressive heterosexist patriarchal culture. If a gay man is careful about who he lets into his social circle and to what extent, he ensures that the people surrounding him are safe resources for him to engage more intimately with, open up to, and let his guard down – the guard that, to some extent, he must wear in most, if not all, contexts of his life.
However, Mario, a 29-year-old Latino who works full-time, has a different take on this issue, highlighting to me that the most oppressive characteristic of it all entails feeling that you cannot come out or aren’t out in a particular context, therefore you cannot be genuine or open. He explains to me quite vividly, “When you’re not out, people have power over you. They hold it over you like a sword.” In this way, it is almost as if everyone around the gay man already knows of his gay identity, but these people use this knowledge to their own advantage and in a threatening way. Though Mario may not care enough about these people to the extent that he wants to intimately and personally come out to them, he does want to reclaim the power that is rightly his that has been manipulated from him. It seems that this distinction has to do with the variable of personal agency or internal locus of control. It is within a gay man’s control whether to come out, to what extent, or not, to people in his life, but if that control is taken away, so is the power inherent within the act of coming out. It is only in coming out that this process can be negotiated.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Somewhat related to the first theme is the theme of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ This theme differs from the previous theme in that some participants explicitly mentioned this phrase in their explanations of specific social contexts, usually work or family. A characteristic of this theme entails that a gay man perceives or picks up on that his sexual orientation identity is tolerated within the specific context, but it is not accepted per se. In this way, his sexual orientation has been acknowledged as a fact (or in some cases opinion), but that is the extent to which the ‘issue’ is brought up. George says that one side of his family is far less accepting of his sexuality than the other: “I think with them, it’s more of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality. Like, ‘we’re okay with it, but we just don’t need to talk about it’ sort of thing.” Similarly, Hans, who is 26, white, and works full-time, expresses the same sentiment about his work environment, citing as a reason Florida’s somewhat conservative makeup of citizens: “I think that a lot of people have enough sensibility to … not go in there and ask that question or go into detail about their private life. It’s kind of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ type mentality.”
It is interesting that the phrase ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ gets thrown around so casually, considering the fact that it represents a particularly appalling and oppressive policy of – up until recently – the United States military. However, I can see that it provides for a gay man a useful working understanding of how to navigate the heteronormative features of our sociohistorical environs. Hans goes on to divulge the sophisticated ways that he picks up on coworkers’ acceptance of his sexual identity as integrated within the other aspects of his identity, where he can truly be himself. He speaks of an experience with a female coworker where he became more comfortable with himself through gauging her reactions to his comments:
Like, I had this girl the other day, we were talking about concerts, and how she wants to go to concerts, and I said, ‘Oh yeah, I love concerts too. I just booked tickets for Cher.’ And then she said, ‘Oh, wow, I’d love to go see Cher.’ And then I told her that I had been to one of Tina Turner’s concerts, and I’m a huge fan of Tina Turner, and she started laughing and she said, ‘Oh my God! I’ve got all these rainbows firing at me right now!’
While Hans did not explicitly come out to his coworker, he subtly estimated her comfort level toward him being himself in conversation with her, and was able to accurately feel out that she seemed approving.
Mario describes the atmosphere peculiar to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ that exists within his family context, but doesn’t name it specifically. Moreover, he explains that this strained atmosphere has hindered the relationship between his sisters and himself. Now, his sisters have repealed their local policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ They are suddenly asking him to open up to them, whereas for so much of his life this subject was off the proverbial table. Vividly, he says, “You can’t expect to beat a dog for a point of time and expect it not to bite. You know, it’s the same thing! How do you change a lifetime of conditioning?” It seems that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ alters relationships in a way that makes them more difficult to repair, even after the policy is repealed.
While several of the participants literally used the phrase ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ to describe certain situations in which the extent to which they were out became ambiguous, I wonder how much this type of description will play out through their life courses. As the United States military has recently repealed this policy, this phrase was popular for many years of my participants’ lives to describe a certain way of living or succeeding in a specific context. As the sociocultural tides continue to change, I wonder if this phrase will take on a derogatory tone or will fade away from vernacular usage altogether throughout my participants’ life courses.
Closeted Until College
This theme deals specifically with each participant’s life course, as every one of them explained to me that, for various reasons, they did not decide to officially come out until they were out of their parents’ homes, in college, or financially independent. Though much literature supports the idea that gay males are coming out earlier and earlier due to supportive contexts, I did not experience this type of conversation with my participants. This may be viewed as particular to the life courses of my participants, due to their families’ involvements with strict religious or spiritual beliefs and/or upbringing in rural or conservative areas. This could also be seen as a cohort effect in which my participants’ parents have more traditional or conservative views. More generally, this theme speaks to the stereotype of sexual experimentation that is allowed or emphasized to be expressed in college, a much freer environment than that of the home of parents or family.
Carlos, who grew up in a strict religious and conservative family, expresses quite honestly the feelings he felt after he came to the realization that he was gay when he was twenty years old: “I felt scared … as to what my parents would do if they ever found out, if they would cut me off financially or disown me.” The physical effects of passing through the milestone of coming out at that point in Carlos’s life course are quite severe and may actually outweigh the intrapsychic pain he may have been feeling being in the closet.