Coming Out: The Only Chance

GUEST COMMENTARY

I was recently talking to graduate student friend who, as it happens, is also a recovering alcoholic and also gay. I had come out slowly and painfully over a three-year period after college. By that time I had been combating my loneliness with heavy drinking for so long that I had become an addict. As a result, even after I accepted my homosexuality, I continued to drink heavily for another six years, wrecking my performance in law school and making me even more miserable. My friend came out only after law school, at age 30 but in other ways his story was essentially the same.

We both agreed that we had learned a great deal from being alcoholics. It was small consolation, of course, but we had seen and experienced things that would otherwise have been unavailable to us. However, our conversation changed when we turned to discussing our coming out. Neither of us could think of a single compensation for the years of delay and wracking uncertainty. It was, as my friend said, "a complete waste, a desert, filled with obsession, loneliness and guilty."

Every gay man and woman has heard and told the same story. We date whatever happiness we have, and whatever possibilities we have for happiness, from when we first began to accept ourselves as belonging in the world as we are, and not as others wanted us to be. It's been said many times, but only because gay people still have to learn it one by one: coming out is the beginning and the pre-condition of self-respect, of self-confidence and of emotional participation in life.

So I am writing to urge all of you who are gay or lesbian or not yet out to take the opportunity of BGLAD days, or any opportunity, to do something to affirm your sexuality. Go to a BGLSA dance or to a gay bar in Boston. (They don't card.) Stay just five minutes, if that's all you can handle. Or visit Glad Day, the large and excellent bookstore at 673 Boylston St. in Boston, on the second floor. Though you will probably be scared to death at first, you cannot imagine how exhilarating it is to see other gay men and women enjoying themselves without fear or apology. Or tell someone you're gay--a roommate, a friend, a tutor, a therapist or the people at Contact (495-8111, 7-12 pm), who won't even ask your name. Again, it is impossible for you to imagine the weight that lifts from your life the first time you actually manage to say to someone out loud, "I think I'm gay."

I know the objections. "My friends will reject me, it will kill my parents, my career will be ruined. I have nothing in common with other gay people." Every gay person has been prevented from coming out by these same fears. Yet once you're out, you will see what a tangle of misperceptions and misunderstandings they are based on. From where you stand now, you simply don't know what you're talking about.

First, other people are not going to let their lives be ruined by the fact that you're gay. It's true that people don't like to rearrange their mental universe, and no one likes surprises, so some may initially back off a little. One or two friends may be freaked out and reject you because they are struggling with their own homosexuality. But rejection is pretty rare, even from other closeted gay people, who will much more likely be watching carefully to see how you do.

It is far, far more likely that the people you tell will be extremely supportive, and they will be appalled at the suffering you've undergone. It's a great feeling to discover that your friendships were never conditioned on your being heterosexual, though of course if you don't come out you'll never know. Moreover, once you've actually announced yourself, you'll be surprised at how your feelings towards anyone who can't handle the news change from fear to anger and contempt, and you will wonder with embarrassment how you could ever have depended on their approval.

Parents can be tougher. Some will try to martyr themselves over your homosexuality, and most will pressure you to go back into the closet or to "go for help." They usually believe they are acting out of concern for your happiness. But the concern often masks an even greater fear that they may have "caused" your gayness. That may lead them to assume a spurious responsibility for straightening you out, or at the very least to pressure you into solving everyone's "problem" by having you deny it again. This is tiresome and painful, and almost nothing you say will make a difference, but eventually they will adjust. The rate of suicide among gay teens is appalling, but there are no records of suicides by parents of gays. And once you and they have worked through all this, you may find that your relations with your parents are better than most people's.

Besides, the cruelest irony about your fear of hurting others by coming out is that most of your friends and almost certainly your parents already know. This is not because an essence of homosexuality has started oozing through your pores. It's because at some point, sometimes very early in life, a part of you has started sending out signals that you are "different:" These signals can be unintentional, like your protesting against fag jokes. In any event, they represent a healthy refusal by some part of you to believe that your human worth is conditioned on your being heterosexual. It is the part of you which believes, rightly, that the deal you've been offered, by which no one else will mention your homosexuality if you don't, is a very bad deal indeed. Even if your parents are not consciously aware that you're gay, don't kid yourself. It has certainly crossed their minds. That is why, as any out gay person will tell you, people often at first appear surprised when you come out to them but then always say, "I've suspected for a long time." You've been telling them for a long time, preparing the way, and hoping they'd do the rest of the work for you.

As for your fears that you don't know any gay people "like you," or that your hopes for a decent career will be ruined, they are nonsense. You, like everyone else, has been fed a steady diet of assertions and innuendo that homosexuals are perverted, disgusting, unlovable and, well, "queer." No wonder you spend all your energy differentiating yourself from any you happen to recognize! In fact, the gay people you recognize are the ones who want to be recognized. They broadcast their homosexuality through subtle and not-so-subtle, intentional and not-so-intentional clues, either to meet other gay people or to say "Fuck You" to the straight world, or both. This may make you uncomfortable at first, but at least recognize the courage and aggressiveness behind it. The rest of us who can "pass" tend to do so for a long time, fearfully, and at an unspeakably high emotional cost to ourselves.

Your possibilities for a rewarding life and career are about the same as anyone else's, though you are not in a very good position to know it. After all, most gay Harvard students have not come out, practically none of them have careers, and Cambridge is not a very "out" city, so you have little to go on but stereotypes. Yet gay people live openly and without second thoughts in practically every city of any size in the United States, certainly including Boston. Moreover, the professions are increasingly filled with openly gay people, even in the upper echelons. I won't say that discrimination has vanished, but things are changing faster than you are likely to know. In major New York law firms, for example, there are many openly gay partners, and among associates openness is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Being gay is perhaps no advantage, though it does expand your perspective on the world. More importantly, however, if you are homosexual, there are unending and far greater disadvantages to denying it. It might be nice to enjoy (or to continue to enjoy) all the unearned advantages of straight white heterosexual WASP men. But if the absence of such advantages is cause for regret, at least it's a condition that's widely shared. No, coming out is not easy at first, but your life can't really begin until you start. So get going. You have no other chance.

John T. Patterson is a resident tutor in Mather House.

I am writing to urge all of you who are gay or lesbian to do something to affirm your sexuality.

The cruelest irony about your fear of coming out is that your friends and family probably already know.