Coming out, copping out, or just coping?
Another year’s National Coming Out Day has come and gone, and I am reminded that another year has passed and, like it or not, I am still gay. I’ve been aware of this fact every day of my life since I was about 13, but this yearly day of openness and hope gives one leave to reflect on how sexuality plays a part in one’s life.
People often ask me questions like, “When did you come out?” or “What made you choose to come out?” leading me to believe that many people chalk coming out to be as clean and straightforward as changing one’s Facebook information to read “Male, interested in men.” It’s not that simple; that’s barely scratching the surface. Coming out is twisted, messy and certainly does not happen in the click of a mouse. On the contrary, its a journey that lasts a lifetime, and it is not always a smooth one.
Many people act very surprised when I explain that although I was out of the closet in high school, and certainly am even more so in college, I have never discussed my sexuality with any family members. In fact, when I recently told a friend that I was starting OPEN, a coming-out group on campus, her first reaction was to snort and say, “You? How could you start a coming-out group if you’re not even out to your parents?” I tried not to take her rash criticism as an insult, and my answer was that it’s complicated.
It is complicated. In high school I was lucky enough to make a fresh start at a school where everyone was new, and no one knew each other. The problem is that our lives don’t always have room for fresh starts when we need them, and some people who have known us our whole lives are unwilling to accept change.
Some college students like to make the claim that they are adults, and in some ways they are. However, when a college student is at the mercy of his parents’ purse strings, the parents retain a large degree of control, especially when the cost of college tuition is $50,000 a year. You may scoff at me, but I have friends who have been denied college tuition from their parents after coming out; worse yet, some have been denounced, beaten and all but excommunicated from the family. I want to say this again: I know different people from different backgrounds and different parts of the country whose parents wouldn’t pay for college because their child was gay, and these people do not all come from rural villages or backwoods cabins like some of you might imagine. The year is 2009, and this is real.
Some people say that they understand my hesitance to come out to my family; some say that my parents must have figured it out already, and some say I am ridiculous, selfish or both for not telling. I guess I am selfish. I’m selfish about getting a college education and moving forward with my life. I’m selfish about feeling safe and comfortable, even at the expense of being open. Of course, this is not without its consequences. I know that I can never feel like I am being honest with my parents without being open about sexuality, because sexuality is such a big part of my life. I’m not ashamed of who I am, but with family, I have to put my sexuality away and pretend it isn’t there. No, I don’t have to, but I choose to.
Every time I come home to visit, my grandmother asks me if I have a girlfriend. I say no, and I try to imply that I’m just not interested in dating. The full truth is that I will never have a girlfriend and I’m not interested in dating girls. My older cousins will ask me more neutral questions like “Are you seeing someone special?” and I just say that I am having fun but not being serious. I feel like they understand what I’m going through, somehow, but they are just waiting for me to say it. Whatever the case, I know that I am hiding from my family, and it is hurting me, as it may be hurting them as well.
My friend later apologized and told me that I would be good to head a coming-out group on campus because I am comfortable with myself and I weigh my decisions carefully. I want to agree with her, and I hope I can help others feel comfortable with themselves and make good choices. With that said, I would never tell someone to come out if the timing or the situation is not right; the effects it can have on one’s life can and should be freeing and life-affirming, but if done wrong, they can be horrifying and life-shattering instead. That’s why I say to be careful with your life and be selfish too; you don’t always have control over what other people know, but it’s important to take care of yourself first. In the meantime, take control of yourself and enjoy being who you are; if you don’t do that, then you will never be happy.
Brian is the founder of OPEN, Wash. U.’s student-run coming-out group, and is a sophomore in Arts & Sciences. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.