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New Year, Newly

New Year, Newly


It's a new year with a new president -- and a better reason than ever to join your gay brothers and sisters on the other side of the closet door.

It's a brand new year, and if you're like many people, you're over 2008. If it's because in 2009 you're planning to end your days of living in the closet, then I have some advice for you. This advice isn't just for people who are closeted but for friends of yours who may need your help as you take this huge step forward.

My experience living in the closet comes from doing it at a military academy for four years -- the United States Air Force Academy, where being gay was not only not acceptable, Christian, moral, or tolerable, it was against the law -- and still is. That my sexuality was against the law didn't make things any easier -- much like anyone who lives in a household or holds down a job where being found out as gay would mean immediate expulsion from that environment, either by policy or by peer pressure.

This year coming out of the closet takes on added meaning. We are in the middle of a time when true leadership is creating a safer environment for us all. Barack Obama's initiatives to end the ban on the open service of gay people in our U.S. armed forces, along with his promise to allow our community the same civil rights as those offered to heterosexual people (even if he isn't yet pushing for civil unions to be called "marriage"), sends a clear message to the nation. It means our leadership, at the highest level, is watching out for us.

Proposition 8 and the religio-socio-economic and political war that ensued over it showed us that leadership could emerge not just from above but from within our community. We banded together to make a statement, make headlines, and demonstrate to every American that we find a condescending and right-bashing form of legislation completely unacceptable.

I heard firsthand accounts of fights breaking out on lawns of public buildings where sign posters from each side of the Prop. 8 battle became physical over their convictions on this issue.

What we've learned is twofold: Going public with your sexuality can and will eventually be met with adverse consequences, sometimes extreme, and that coming out of the closet and being a visible part of your community is more important than ever. As in all civil rights cases of the past, the win ultimately comes down to a point of unstoppable momentum.

It's time to ask yourself if you're going to be part of that momentum or if you're going to sit out.

If you choose the former, before running full speed ahead, stop to consider a few things -- for a minute.

The first thing to consider when you're thinking about coming out of the closet is your safety and general well-being. Just as a society has a hierarchy of needs (food, water, and shelter), so does your coming-out process.

When you come darting out of that closet, are you going to put yourself in a situation where you might end up homeless, penniless, or without food? If so, you need to take a few important steps. If you're dependent on others for the basic needs of life, find a person or move to a house with people who will not allow your basic needs to go unmet should the people you come out to decide that you're not even worth providing for because you're gay. If this sounds unthinkable, believe me, it's not. I've counseled hundreds of youths -- and well-established adults -- in this very situation, and in most cases it could have been prevented by thinking of these things ahead of time.

If you have a job and are financially independent, some of these worries go away. However, many people have great jobs but still live with someone who will demand that the newly uncloseted person leave the home. Always have a backup plan.

The next level to consider in our coming out of the closet hierarchy of needs is sex! Well, not just sex, even though I have your attention now, but the relationship surrounding it. If you're already in one, make sure you're hitched up with someone who is not only OK and comfortable with your plan to become a straight shooter (anti-pun intended) but who will support you through it by understanding the challenges you're both about to face. Many coming-out stories end with the expense of a comfy relationship that was based on living life the old way, lying to everyone around. If your partner isn't ready for you come out, while you can't live in the closet anymore, it's time to sit down with him or her and decide what's best. If you can't come to an agreement, then you have a tough decision to make. Should you decide to ditch your partner for the sake of coming out, believe me, you're a little mermaid now with "a whole new world" and you're going to be singing soon enough, much to your old partner's dismay.

Although I doubt that Abraham Maslow ever envisioned his "social hierarchy of needs" to be applied to the coming-out of gay people, it's working quite well for me, so I'm going to continue with it! Next on our list (after our food, safety, and companionship needs are met) is self-esteem and the respect of, and for, others. If you're going to come out, you must be mentally prepared to be treated differently by some people. Just by telling someone you're gay, you've placed yourself in a minority group that has been discriminated against for centuries. You may not be invited to dinners, parties, outings, or other social events by certain people. You may be fired from your job or pressured to leave. You may find that family members not only treat you differently but stop speaking to you altogether.

When these things happen, you have two choices.

One is to become bitter and to hate these people for what you perceive as their hating you. This usually fosters more negativity and even less understanding between you and whoever may force this unpleasantness on you. The better choice in most cases is to attempt to resolve the conflict.

Why should you though? You're gay and everyone should accept it, right?

No -- I wouldn't take that attitude. Remember when I said that coming out requires courage? This is where the courage comes into play -- letting go of your ego. Granted, don't put yourself into a bad situation where your safety may be compromised, but do try to resolve the conflict by having a personal conversation with whoever you suspect is treating your differently. In that conversation the best approach is to be honest with the person about how you feel or how you have felt since you came out of the closet. Explain to them the struggle that your life was when you were hiding and lying to everyone. Usually the goodness of humanity surfaces in a person and they will apologize or at least thank you for opening up to them. You've not only made your relationship with that person stronger, but you've changed a person's opinion on the gay experience, even if just a little.

Before we move on to the last level of needs, I'd like to address the coming-out situations that I call "Hail Marys." Forgive me, Father, but even though I'm a product of Catholic school, I mean "Hail Mary" in the long-desperate-throw sense. A Hail Mary would be any coming-out situation that is going to involve, on a grand scale, many more people than just yourself and a partner. For instance, a military coming-out, clergy coming-out, celebrity coming-out, and being married with a family and coming out of that. If you're in any of these situations, there are many other steps that you must take to prepare for the fall-out of coming out.

If you're in the military, please write an e-mail to the folks at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network before you turn your combat boots in for Jimmy Choos. If you're in the clergy, a celebrity, or in any other high-profile public position, please talk to a public relatons firm that deals in crisis PR. Its people will have insight and ideas you might never think of on your own. Should your Hail Mary be coming out to your heterosexual husband or wife -- possibly with kids -- then my advice is to seek out a professional marriage and family counselor before you do anything. Also, strongly consider telling a lawyer first as well! Do not attempt this alone. My counseling experience in these situations tells me to repeat, do not attempt this alone!

Now for our final level on our coming out hierarchy of needs. I'm talking about the values of morality and problem solving.

After coming out, you will most likely hear (or have your ears more tuned to) the rantings of those who oppose what they call "the homosexual lifestyle." Remember what we just recently saw with the opposition to our demands for marriage equality: After coming out you will be in the group they will call immoral, deviant, and much harsher words than those. These words will often come from people who consider themselves to be "the moral majority" or from members of churches that, aside from spreading fear and hate for their gay brothers and sisters, otherwise promote love and friendship.

The highest level you can achieve in your coming-out is to get involved to promote the ideals of love, friendship, and acceptance for gay people from everyone. Courage rears its beautiful head again here because standing up for what you believe in takes conviction and, oftentimes, fearlessness. I'm not going to go so far as to say it's your duty to become an activist, but give it some serious thought. Being an activist doesn't necessarily mean marching at the rally or joining the gay pride parade. Activism is just as important and just as strong in a five-line note to your congressperson, in starting a gay-straight alliance at your school or university, or asking your place of business if it's OK to form a support group for gay employees who have an extra challenge in gaining acceptance from others in the workplace. Activism can also be as simple as voting your good old gay conscience at the polls.

Good luck in 2009 to my friends who are holding the skeleton keys to that closet door and who can see the light shining from under the space by the floor. There is no right or wrong way to come out, only your way, but I hope these helpful hints will make your coming-out party that much more victorious.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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