What It’s Like To Come Out As Gay

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Simon echoes these cautious sentiments after he realized he was gay at twenty-one: “I was in school, and didn’t have a real job that I could really support myself, and I hadn’t built the life that I wanted to lead yet.” While Carlos’s fear stems from physical or financial consequences of engaging in the milestone of coming out, there is no denying that Simon doesn’t share that fear too. However, Simon’s fear of reaching this milestone during that particular point in his life course also speaks to the understanding that if he does acquire this new identity as gay, a veritable stigmatized minority status, this new label could actually detract from his scholarly reputation and successes: “[I]f there was any struggle in dental school, I didn’t want [my parents] to be like, ‘Well of course you’re only struggling because you’re gay.’” Through Simon’s thought process regarding whether he should disclose his sexual orientation identity or not at this particular point in his life course, he sees that he is adopting a stigmatized identity in the eyes of his family and, to a larger extent, his culture. Thus, he decides to hold off on this milestone in order to build up his reputation as a successful son and a successful student.

Mario and George situate the college experience within their respective life courses within a more positive light. These experiences are viewed as freeing and opening up their minds to new perspectives, as contrasted with their previous strict religious and conservative home contexts in which they felt restricted to some degree. In this new, unthreatening, welcoming context, these young men can engage in the individuation process that sometimes goes hand-in-hand with the acquiring and facilitation of a gay identity. Interestingly, Mario feels comfortable when he leaves the physical location where he grew up, while George feels comfortable when he enters that same physical location – Miami. Mario describes his college experience as such: “I was allowed to completely be whoever I wanted to be. So I really liked that. I mean, I felt really free.” George’s college experience is viewed similarly: “I think that just really being outside of [town where he grew up] was what made me see that I don’t have to live there for the rest of my life … I can go beyond that and be happy.” Again, this theme speaks to the personal agency and internal locus of control that situates participants within their specific circumstances, and thus, their life courses.

Gay Is Not All I Am

The primacy of the sexual identity as a gay man does not show up in every context. My participants were clear about that. Furthermore, participants were adamant in pointing out that their sexual identity is simply one facet of the rest of their complex identities, ever-changing in scope, size, and importance throughout contexts and throughout the life course. Since all of my participants had come out as gay relatively late as situated within their specific life courses, I was honestly surprised that the primacy of this identity was not as salient as perhaps some research has stated that it may be. This goes to show that these men have begun the sophisticated process, which will undoubtedly continue throughout the life course, of negotiating every one of their aspects of identity in different social interactions or contexts.

Mario is quick to point out that his gay identity is not all-encompassing to his master identity as a fellow human being: “[I]t’s not all I am. It’s an enormous part of who I am … but it has no bearing on, you know, how I do something very mundane or being with casual acquaintances and stuff.” George says, quite eloquently: “your sexuality really has nothing to do with your character.” Carlos gives a nuanced response, integrating the milestone of coming out within the larger framework he has for himself as authentic and genuine within his supportive context of working, going to school, and living in New York City: “I don’t even consider it being out, I’m just myself.” This theme ties into what Simon spoke about earlier regarding his fear of being seen as one facet of his identity. These men are astute to point out that I, as a straight person, perhaps have a bias toward illuminating the gay identity through every context of their lives, when in reality this identity may have no salience and no relation to many things that they do within and throughout their life courses.

Coming Out To One Group Influencing Another Group

This theme involves the way the milestone of coming out to others may be prioritized by group based on reactions assumed or suspected. The coming out experience to a particular group may shift a gay man’s life course away from that group or, indeed, closer toward that group, depending of course on the reaction actually given to the identity disclosure.

George elaborates on why he came out to his dad last of all people in his life: “I had no idea how [coming out to my dad] was gonna go. And I didn’t want that to scar my experience with sharing it with other people who were close to me who I figured would be okay with that.” Support is central to his reasoning: “[I] had the backing of all the people in front of him.” Carlos gives a more explicit reason for his delay in his identity disclosure to his parents: “They were the last to find out, because of the religious thing.” These men identified a supportive network with which to surround themselves during the coming out process, and saved disclosure to the seemingly least supportive people for last.

This theme also reflects the opposite type of experience – what I like to think of as a ‘domino effect’ of acceptance of the gay man’s sexual orientation identity. Once the first person is told, the others fall into place. Simon says, “Once you tell one, it’s a lot easier to tell the others, so it progressively became not a big deal.” It seems that it was the most difficult for Simon to come out to the first person, but since the first person he told gave him a welcoming and accepting response, it became gradually easier to tell other valued people in his life, as he had this supportive experience to back him up. Hans has a different take on his coming out experience with the groups of people in his life. Speaking about the reasoning he gave for coming out to his father, he says, “I had already come out to my friends, so this was almost like a formality.” It seems that, at least in Hans’s case, the primary group that he shared his identity disclosure with was the most central to his support network, and the disclosures that came after that were not as important or central to him per se.

Forward- or Backward-Thinking

The final theme describes how participants imagine the ways in which their experiences or developmental turning points may have been different if they were situated differently within their life course. This theme also covers how participants define differences in local cultures as accepting or not accepting of being gay, and imagine themselves situated differently within these social or physical locations. There is a lot of speculation as to how a gay man’s life would have turned out if particular variables were changed in one way or another.

Talking to me about how he is no longer as bothered as he used to be about people’s sometimes hostile opinions about sexuality or sexual orientation, George tells me, “Let’s backtrack five years. It’s probably something that would’ve hurt me more than what it does now. I think because now I have a great support system.” George identifies that five years ago, when he was 19 years old and just going through the process of coming out, he didn’t surround himself with as supportive relationships as he currently does. These relationships act as a buffer against the intolerant sociocultural climate that so often is a reality for gay men.

Mario speaks to this harsh social climate and the buffers that exist presently, but laments that they did not exist when he was younger and could have used them: “It’s good that people today have a sort of source where they can turn to, because I didn’t have that source when I was ten years old, and that was very sad.” In a similar vein, Mario recognizes that kids these days are coming out at earlier ages. He speculates the repercussions that could have come to him if he had come out earlier: “[M]y parents threatened [to kick me out of the house]. I wonder what would’ve happened if I was fifteen years old and I had just fuckin’ come out.” The developmental milestone of coming out, situated for Mario at 15 versus 19, could have wholly changed his life course.

Both Mario and George recognize that the larger sociocultural climate is changing, hopefully in their favor and in the way toward increased tolerance and acceptance of varied sexual orientation identities. They also point out that the factor of developmental age, and the milestones inherent to it which are experienced at differing ages, is so crucial to the life course. Again, George imagines himself to be situated differently to the experience of growing up gay, in a younger cohort and an earlier stage of his life course: “[L]et’s say I was in sixth grade nowadays, I would say there are many more models on TV about what it’s like to be gay and not be one extreme or the other.” More diverse models of gay identity – not solely stereotypes – could have been beneficial to George and helped him pave the way to developing his own gay identity (especially at such a young age), but alas, he did not have this experience and thus had to figure it out for himself.

Physical location, even within the larger sociocultural context, can prove to be an asset or a liability when discussing attitudes toward gay identity, which can set the scene for coming out. George explains, “[I]t probably would’ve been quite different if I had grown up in New York City or something like that, ‘cause [where I grew up] is very conservative.” The physical locations within which these men grew up played some part in determining their life courses.

While the surrounding sociocultural context may be changing in that it may be more accepting of younger gay males coming out, Mario brings up an intriguing point that some push for coming out earlier in the life course may indeed have some root within the gay community. It is clear that he voices some mixed feelings for this forward push:

They say you should never force somebody to come out, but I feel like the gay society almost does … and maybe that is kind of shaping a lot of people’s coming out processes. And in the grand scheme of shaping who they are. Because when you experience certain things at earlier stages of your life than most people might have … it’s gonna affect you differently. I don’t know if I would’ve turned out the same way as I am today had I come out much earlier. I don’t think so.

Conclusion

This research illustrates the diversity of experiences that affect gay men after the developmental milestone of their initial coming out disclosure is reached. In a variety of social dimensions, these men have to navigate the waters of acceptance and openness, tolerance and hush-hush conversation, blatant intolerance and hostility, or a combination of these at any given moment without notice or warning. These men illuminate their experiences of toning their gay identities down, pumping them up, or excluding them altogether as dependent on the social context. Coming out is the first step in negotiating a gay identity within society, but, as acknowledged earlier, it is a process that continues throughout the life course.

Furthermore, these participants’ experiences shine light on the complicated situation of coming out and being out. While perhaps the sociocultural context is slowly becoming more accepting of gay identity disclosure, it is worth wondering what effects young gay males may feel if the future climate changes so much that they only come out because they are ‘supposed to’, not that they genuinely feel ready to disclose at that specific point within the life course.

References

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Cohler, B. J., & Hammack, P. L. (2007). The psychological world of the gay teenager: Social change, narrative, and “normality”. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36, 47-59.
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