Deciding whether to come out as LGBT to friends and family is an intensely personal decision. However, it may be a light at the end of a dark tunnel of denial, fear and shame, as it was for Don't Tell My Mother! performers, who will share their stories Friday to benefit the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
The Advocate fired off a couple of emails to performers Lance Bass, Jill Sobule, Dan Bucatinsky, and Nikki Levy to get their best advice on coming out. When trapped in the closet, sometimes all it takes is knowing someone else stepped out and survived and thrived afterward.
Lance Bass is best known for being in the 1990s boy band *NSYNC with Justin Timberlake, but he was closeted at the time. He came out in 2006 on the cover of People and hasn't looked back since. Born as James Lance Bass in Mississippi, he shared his experience as a closeted superstar in his biography, Out of Sync, a move that garnered him an award from the Human Rights Campaign. He married Michael Turchin in 2014.
When did you know you were not straight? It was in kindergarten when I was 5. I had a little crush on a boy named Chad. When the teacher would divide us up into teams, I always fought to be on his.
What impact has coming out had on your life personally? Coming out shows the true colors of your friends and family. I was shocked at how many of my friends were brainwashed into thinking gay people were less than. On the other hand, so many other people in my life showed me such unwavering love and support. Ultimately, coming out allowed me to be the happiest and best version of myself.
What impact has it had on your life publicly? Coming out has completely changed my public persona from my days in *NSYNC. When I was in the closet nobody really knew much about me. I was seen as the shy introvert of the group and I really had no public identity away from my bandmates. Since I've come out, the world has finally been able to see the outgoing side of me that my friends and family have known for years.
On a completely different note, I Ironically get called "fag" less often after coming out. I think when I was "straight" the douche bags thought I was a threat to their ladies. LOL.
Have you ever talked to others about their coming-out process? All the time! The best advice I can give anyone is to just start by telling that one person you trust. A friend. A family member. Someone that can have your back no matter what. Once you actually say the words out loud to someone it really gets the ball rolling. The relief starts then.
What prevented you from coming out earlier than you did? So many fears. My religion. My family. My career. I didn't want to destroy my best friends' lives and career just because I happen to like boys and the world doesn't know how to handle it.
Who did you come out to first and what was the experience like? What tips can you give to those whose friends or family are coming out to them? The first person I came out to was the first guy I kissed. He was in the closet too, so we both felt safe. Neither of us would go around talking about it. I think the worst thing someone can do in response to someone coming out is getting mad at them for lying. I lost several friends because I "lied to them this whole time." People need to understand that coming out is a very personal and unique event in a person's life and that there is no right or wrong way to do it.
Is there anything that surprises you about your life after coming out versus before? I was surprised at how positive most people handled my coming-out. It could have been an easy joke. Most took the high road and vocalized how it's not a big deal anymore. It lowered my anxiety a lot.
Are there any negative aspects to coming out? The positives greatly outweigh the negatives. But in my case, my current career came to a halt. To the industry, being gay did not fit into any project I was working on. This business is still very homophobic.
How out are you? Do you come out to strangers? Do you practice PDA if so? I'm as out as it comes -- I mean, I married my husband, Michael, on an E! wedding special, for crying out loud. I love a little PDA, but I still have the instincts to look around at who is watching when I grab my husband's hand. It's going to take a while to get that internal fear out of me, but every day that anxiety becomes less and less.
Does internalized (or external) homophobia still impact you? If so, how? Of course it does. When I see ignorant people talk about LGBT people it drives me crazy because I know everything they're saying is brainwashed garbage. At the end of the day, I feel sorry for those people. Somebody taught them to think that way, and consequently they're missing out on so much good in life.
Jill Sobule kissed a girl long before Katy Perry did it, releasing an indie single in 1995 called "I Kissed a Girl." At the time the song was considered somewhat scandalous, and despite her desire to kiss a girl on camera, she was not allowed to in her music video. Since then Sobule has continued kissing girls and releasing albums with no regret.
When did you know you were not straight? Well, I always knew I was ... different, but in my day, there weren't really any role models -- minus Miss Hathaway from TheBeverly Hillbillies and Miss Newbee, my sixth-grade, Jackie Gleason look-alike P.E. teacher. And they were not very sexy. I think it was in ninth grade when my friend Meg and I snuck into a movie theater that showed the soft-focused, soft-porn French movie Emmanuelle. It was the first time I saw two women kiss (and more). Meg and I commented on how "gross" that was, but I still, to this day, think about that scene. It was five years later that I had my own real-life, kiss. By the way, I saw that movie kiss again recently on the internets. What a hysterically bad movie.
What impact has coming out had on your life personally? Well, coming out wasn't as easy 30 years ago. There was no L Word, Will & Grace, Transparent, or either version of "I Kissed a Girl." There were no support groups. It was fucking scary. However, I did feel like a pioneer, even though I wasn't really. There was also something kind of sexy about it still being so taboo. I felt like an artist and a bit of a rebel. That did not really answer the question. How about this? If I hadn't been queer, I probably wouldn't have been a songwriter, an artist, or self-declared weirdo. Thank God (maybe) for all that adolescent misery.
What impact has it had on your life publicly? Well, when I came out with my "I Kissed a Girl" in 1995, the label didn't know how to deal with it. They chickened out. They didn't let me kiss a girl, like we planned, in the video. They promoted it as more of a novelty song. I also maybe chickened out and wasn't as fierce as I could have been. Then again, I didn't want to be solely known as that "lesbian or bisexual" singer. Okay, for anyone younger than 25, I had a song called, "I Kissed a Girl" eons ago.
Have you ever talked to others about their coming-out process, what did you advise them? Oh, after that song came out, I got so many emails from young and older folk asking for advice. I told them how I was actually so grateful that I was ... different. And I told them the story of my parents, who were not crazy about the whole gay thing at first. But given a little time, they were all "don't' mess with our bisexual -- or whatever she is -- daughter."
What prevented you from coming out earlier than you did? Well, again, it was along time ago. There were no support groups or any positive role models in Denver back in the day.
Who did you come out to first and what was the experience like? What tips can you give to those whose friends or family are coming out to them? Well, it was during my third year abroad program in Spain. Somehow it turned out practically all the foreign exchange students ended up "experimenting." I think it helped that we were so far away from our family and familiar surroundings. We could all be someone new, even if it was temporarily. The first person I kind of told was a fellow student named Ivanita Hopper. We ended up doing that experimenting thing. Ivanita Hopper -- what a great name. When I got back home to the States, I told a few of my friends. I was petrified. Their response: "Jill, you are such an artist." I think I picked cool friends even back then.
Is there anything that surprises you about your life after coming out versus before? To be honest, no one ever was an asshole to me about it, at least to my face. I never lost a friend.
Are there any negative aspects to coming out, if so what are they? Hmm, nowadays? I guess there are those who live in more oppressive environments. I do feel like my friends and I live in a lefty West Coast bubble where we assume everyone thinks just like us. Obviously, that isn't true, as Donald Trump is the a Republican nominee. I don't always believe you have to come out to everyone. My pal is fine not telling her slightly racist, homophobic 93-year-old grandmother.
How out are you? Do you come out to strangers? Do you practice PDA if so? To tell you the truth, I don't talk about it that much, as it is just a normal part of my life. In the same way, I don't go to gay bars much, as "the gays" can go everywhere. But when I hear someone say something vile and homophobic, that's when I can turn super duper gay.
Does internalized (or external) homophobia still impact you? If so, how? What have you found to be a helpful way for coping with it? I'm sure I'm still affected by all those early years of shame and feeling like I was a monster. But, again ... thank misery. It has made me who I am today. And I think more for the better.
Dan Bucatinsky is an out actor, writer, and producer who is best known for his Emmy Award-winning role as James Novak, a gay journalist, on the TV show Scandal. In real life, Bucatinsky married Don Roos in 2008, and the pair have two children together.
When did you know you were not straight? I used to play naked monkey with a neighbor boy when I was 6. But I didn't know that was "not straight." I think I knew the first time I actually kissed a guy -- senior year in college -- and got weak in the knees. I thought, Oh. I get it.
What impact has coming out had on your life personally? It's led me on a path of becoming more connected with my authentic self. Not just sexually but also all parts of my character and identity. It's made me feel more courageous and resilient.
What impact has it had on your life publicly? I don't fear what people will think about me as much anymore. I'm an open book. I've written a book (that's very candid) about my journey as a gay dad. I play gay characters on television. I feel it has allowed me to be myself in public, rather than trying to be a version of myself.
Have you ever talked to others about their coming-out process, what did you advise them? I have always advocated for people to come out if they feel ready to do it. It's quite personal and should never be something that one is forced to do. I am opposed to being "outed" by others.
What prevented you from coming out earlier than you did? Fear and some misguided hope that it may not be true.
Who did you come out to first and what was the experience like? What tips can you give to those whose friends or family are coming out to them? I came out to my parents at 25. I told them I was "bi" as a way of softening the blow, I guess. I hoped they'd read between the lines, but they didn't. And a year later they were like "OK, we've met some of the boys ... where are the girls?" I had to come out all over again. I think it's best to be direct and confident and clear. Always best.
Is there anything that surprises you about your life after coming out versus before? I felt less afraid. Of everything. I used to have these fears -- about being robbed or attacked, my apartment being broken into. All of it was related to keeping up this facade that felt very difficult. It was hard work to keep the walls up. Huge weight was lifted after coming out. It felt the same way after I came out as an actor and no longer tried to hide who I was professionally.
Are there any negative aspects to coming out? If so, what are they? I think it's easy to be labeled after coming out. It becomes the only thing people think about when they see you. It's only one of dozens of traits, characteristics, qualities, aspects of ourselves with which we're born and yet it somehow has a highlighter on it after coming out. People see you, and you can't help but think they are only imagining what you do in bed when they meet you. It's one of the things we need to continue to educate people about.
How out are you? Do you come out to strangers? Do you practice PDA if so? My husband hates PDA, so, no, we don't usually do that. I come out to anyone who makes an assumption about me that I'm straight. "What's your wife's name?" I get asked. "I have a husband; his name is Don." But I don't offer it up if it's not relevant to the situation. Because why would anyone do that? "Do you prefer the window or the aisle, sir?" "I am gay." Nope. No point in that. I make the decision to come out based on who I'm with and how it will best serve the interaction or bring me closer to someone I'd like to know better.
Does internalized (or external) homophobia still impact you? If so, how? What have you found to be a helpful way for coping with it? You get in front of particular people who bring back memories of childhood. The guys who used to tease or bully, and you want to clam up. Or question our worth. It's hardest to be out in front of people you know have the greatest prejudice against you. It actually takes the most courage, then, to push through it. But worse is when you feel self-hate and it's tied to your sexual orientation. Usually an old feeling or memory from childhood that is weighing on us. Often is tied to the ingrained misogyny that exists in our culture. When a man has a quality that is perceived as "female" or "girly," it is scorned. But I love women. And I sometimes have to remind myself that embracing my feminine qualities is part of honoring all that is wonderful about women. And we're lucky to have that as part of our identities. Those are moments we have to remember that the whole of who we are is beautiful and being gay is a part of it. Not all of it, but without it we wouldn't be who we are.
Nikki Levy is a TV executive and performer and the founder of Don't Tell My Mother!, a live comedy event, YouTube series, and podcast in which performers share true stories they'd never want their moms to know. Levy's upcoming show will feature singers Lance Bass and Jill Sobule, actor Dan Bucatinsky, and Ru Paul's Drag Race contestant Willam Belli. The show will benefit the Los Angeles LGBT Center, with all proceeds donated to the Center's Youth Center, providing housing, education, and support to homeless LGBT youth, and Women's Network.
When did you know you were not straight? I bad a huge crush on Stephie S. in eighth grade. I didn't know it was a crush, though. I thought I just wanted to get really close to her, like, hold her. All the time. Every day and second. I looked down her shirt while we were playing War on her bedroom floor. She caught my eye and I thought Oh, f---. I didn't think straight girls wanted to look down the shirts of their best friends. I didn't know I was gay, but I know I shouldn't be looking at her boobs. But they were great boobs! OMG so great!
What impact has coming out had on your life personally? It's everything. I say I'm a "Jewish New York lesbian writer," not in that order. Being gay informs all my work. Growing up as an outsider made me look at life from a different perspective. I believe the best comedy comes from our greatest pain. While knowing I was different was painful (to say the least), looking back, I can talk about the most ridiculous, funny stories of being the outcast, the weirdo, the little gay kid who collected flashlights. Yes, I collected flashlights. Ding! Ding! Ding!
What impact has it had on your life publicly? I run scripted programming at DreamWorksTV, which means I make movies and TV for a living. I've always been out about my sexuality. I think having that "outsider" perspective is a leg up in this industry! It's why we're great storytellers, we're the underdogs! I'm wearing a shirt to work today that says "I'm the Rainbow Sheep in My Family." To work, people! Being "in" is too much work and Mama don't have the time for that. I've had fans of the show and podcast in other states email me that it's good to have an openly gay woman talk about her childhood struggles. Childhood sucked -- G-d it was awful! But it allows me to hear people's stories now (no matter how painful and tragic) and help them find the comedy in them. That's the gift.
What prevented you from coming out earlier than you did? I came out to my mom when I was 17. I said, "Mom, I like girls." She said "No, you don't. You're just really close to Grandma Levy and have a bad relationship with Daddy." I came out early, but it was an ongoing process. I came out to my mom about six times (as liking girls, as bi, then gay, then back to dating men, then gay again). I want to say to everyone that coming out is a process. It's OK to date the opposite gender once you have come out or sleep with people of the opposite sex. It's OK to experiment and change your mind and change it again. I certainly did.
Who did you come out to first and what was the experience like? What tips can you give to those whose friends or family are coming out to them? What shouldn't someone do? Any strange stories about what people said to you? My mom didn't think I was gay because I look so "girly." I've actually gotten more feminine as I've gotten older. For so long I tried to look "more butch." I want to tell girls who look "feminine," whatever that means, that it has no bearing on your sexuality. It's OK to love push-up bras, tight jeans, long hair, and girls!
Is there anything that surprises you about your life after coming out versus before? I didn't know I could be so happy. I was a very depressed kid. My whole life. Being gay certainly had a lot to do with that. I just never knew life could be so good. Also, antidepressants rule. I recommend them to those in need.
Are there any negative aspects to coming out? If so, what are they? None.
How out are you? Do you come out to strangers? Do you practice PDA if so? All about PDA! Refer again to "rainbow sheep" shirt.
Anything else you would like to add? I started Don't Tell My Mother! five years ago. Our audience is super queer and I think queer peoplem, as I mentioned, have this great unique perspective since we're all outsiders. The show on Friday, October 14, is the coming-out show and our five-year anniversary. Anyone who needs help coming out can email me. I'm accessible. Nikkil@awesomenesstv.com