Most people see coming out as a single event. With National Coming Out Day on October 11 and many out characters on TV, the misconception goes that coming out amounts to one tense talk, then voila! It’s done!
Not quite. We come out again and again to new people and new communities, and as we grow and change, we often find ourselves coming out in new and different ways. Sadly, many of us return to the closet or accept de facto closets for work or relationships.
Keep coming out — now and forever — because our outness matters. The fact is, your sexuality or gender identity was never only your business. Horrible people with power and influence have made it their business too. Your outness sends ripples through the world around you, helping people you may never meet and challenging ideologies you may never be directly affected by. Everyone who can come out must come out.
For those just starting and those who’ve been out for years, here’s a list of ways you can be more out in your everyday life.
It’s time to take a good look at the people you spend time with. Friends are family, especially for us. As you come out, some friends may reject you, and in turn you may want to reject them too. Some friends may make small, passing comments that you might be tempted to permit — don’t.
Not everyone will pass the test of your truth, and your outness will determine the people you want in your life and reveal those you don’t. If you lose people, that’s OK. Better friends are coming.
In the closet, we fear everything associated with queerness — including, of course, other queers. The desire to distance yourself from them may not vanish after you come out. In fact, it may get stronger.
Internalized homophobia — self-shaming, self-hatred — leads many gay men and many other queer people to re-create their closets long after they’re “out” by shunning others, particularly those they consider “flamboyant,” “extreme,” “slutty,” or simply different.
Remember this: Someone taught you shame. No one is born with negative feelings about being gay or painful images associated with being trans. The world gives us that — parents, teachers, and media give us that — and it’s your job to cut through all those messages and all that miseducation to see the truth. You don’t have to fear gay bars or feel shame for promiscuity or avoid feminine men, and if you do, it’s because you’re still giving those who taught you shame some control over your life. Be free of them.
You need others. This doesn’t mean you must spend every weekend in gay bars (unless you want to). Have a group of gay gaming buddies or queer film fans, or join a queer sports team. For more information on how to be comfortable around others, read my slideshow "14 Ways to Defeat Your Fears of Being Gay."
Pride is one giant PR campaign with a simple message: We are here. Today, that message is commandeered by large corporations with impressive marketing teams for profit, and that makes many of us justifiably uncomfortable. Yes, you should be wary about where you spend your money this Pride season (businesses that do not support our community throughout the year should not be patronized). That said, the fact that our public display of outness draws such commercial interest speaks to how powerful Pride’s social impact has been. We have made a better world for people to come out in.
That’s important, especially when there are many parts of the world where queer people are criminalized — and worse. Violence and isolation are still daily realities for many of us. That’s why Pride is big and loud and unapologetic — so that someone, somewhere, gets the message that we exist.
Clothes can be freeing, but they can also be constraining. Our culture mandates what clothes are acceptable for what genders and what clothes are not. Luckily, queer people have been challenging, disobeying, and rewriting these rules for more than a hundred years (or longer, depending on which queer historian you ask).
No one should wear clothing they don't feel comfortable in, but it’s healthy (and fun!) to experiment outside the gender binary. If you don’t know where to start, start small: Paint your nails, buy a unicorn T-shirt, or try out some high heels.
These days, many of us find others online. Many healthy, beautiful, and vital relationships between queer people have formed via sites like Tumblr and on apps like Grindr.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use these sites and apps for sex, if that’s what you’re looking for. Sex is important, and you should chase it if you want it. Don’t worry, you’re free to do what you want. You may find is that while chasing sex, you stumble on to great, loyal friends. And while making friends, you discover really awesome sex partners. That’s the beauty of our world.
Speaking of apps, the dating/hookup app Tinder recently released a study in which one in three queer adults said that due to a more accepting culture, they felt there was little to no need to have a formal and official coming-out — rather, they felt they could simply be themselves from the start. That, my friend, is progress.
We are increasingly living in a world in which you don’t have to hide the person (or people) you love from friends, family members, or coworkers. Keep it casual. If you don’t make a big deal about your relationship, it’s likely that no one you tell will either.
If you want my personal recommendations, start with these: Dancer From the Dance by Andrew Holleran, Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee, And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts, Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf, and the newly published The Stonewall Reader, edited by the New York Public Library with a foreword by activist Edmund White.
If none of these seem interesting, you can find an LGBTQ section at nearly every bookstore now. Or go online! If you’re not a fan of erotica, AIDS history, nonfiction, or memoir, don’t worry, there are great queer mystery books and bizarre gay science fiction stories in the world. Go find them.
The most popular one certainly is the HRC “equal sign” bumper sticker, and you obviously won’t have to look hard for a rainbow. You can also find the transgender flag, the bisexual flag, the leather/BDSM flag, the gay bear flag, and others.
From pink triangles to ACT UP New York’s “Silence = Death” slogan, our symbols have so much power.
Yes, there are homophobic and transphobic bosses and coworkers in the world, but you should still come out. Why? Because, thanks to the people who came out before you, we have more resources, laws, and support than ever before to protect us in these circumstances. There is more work to be done, and that work starts with being out.
If you wait for the perfect moment, you will wait forever. Plan a day. Schedule a time to talk to them, and have a plan and a person of support on speed dial in case the conversation goes poorly.
After the talk, give them time. Take a few days before you reach out, or wait for them to reach out to you. Remember: You had years to develop your own comfort with who you are. They deserve some time too. (Keep in mind that they are your parents, so the likelihood that they already know — or at least suspect — what you tell them is pretty high.)
Don’t go back in the closet on holidays when you visit your elderly grandparents because “they lived in a different time.” (There were out and proud queer people during — and well before — their time.) Outness at its best is all or nothing — otherwise your truth is piecemeal and fractured. Let everyone know.
There is one place you should be comfortable being out, and that’s at home. I hope you have already discussed your identity with your roommate, but if you haven’t, you must do so as soon as possible. You need a home, a place where you can sashay and experiment and feel safe. If your roommate isn’t comfortable around queer people, it’s time to move.
There’s no better way to celebrate your outness than to bring someone special home. If this is your first time doing so, have a plan and check in with each other frequently to make sure you both are doing OK. Schedule time to get away from your family if you’re planning a multiple-day stay, just so you can decompress.
Your HIV is your business. No one has to know your medical information except you and your doctor. That said, coming out about my status was the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life.
You will be a source of hope, information, and support to HIV-positive people you’ve never met and will never meet. You will be a text message someone needs at 2 a.m. when they feel broken. You will have phone calls with people who just got the news. They will look to you.
Go to a kink event, like the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco or IML in Chicago. (If you do, a brush-up on the hanky code might do you some good.) I’m still discovering what I like, and the more I grow, the more I want to share my kinks with the world.
You can find forums, websites, and communities who share your interests. That starts with being open to at least a few people about what you like and what kinds of sex you are interested in.
In an ideal world, I would never have to explain my sexuality, kinkiness, or HIV to anyone. I would also never have to dispel ugly myths about sex work or clear up misconceptions about gay men. But that’s not the world we live in.
Sometimes you have to be an ambassador. When you’re out, you will find yourself talking to someone who knows nothing about us. If they’re willing to listen, you should be able to speak about us. If you don’t know what to say, practice.
In the shower, car, or wherever you can talk aloud to yourself, pretend you’re having a long talk with your parents or chatting with old classmates at a high school reunion. Scary, right? Pretend you’re a guest lecturer explaining your experience to a classroom. How will you answer insensitive (and offensive) questions? How will you teach?
This revolution was televised — and more. It was shared, uploaded, emailed, and saved. Gay rights and AIDS happened amid some of the greatest technological breakthroughs of our time. As we marched, first for celebration and then for survival, the world was getting smaller, and the most brilliant activists leveraged the power of media to make statements.
Over the last decade, social media influencers have been powerful in moving the needle for equality. Every person is an influencer within their own networks, and having a rainbow profile pic or posting a photo with a partner has been a way for many of us to be more out with families, childhood friends, college buddies, and people we don’t talk to very much.
That said, many people now have darker views of social media, particularly in a world of fake news and Trump. There certainly are worrying scenarios one can imagine with Facebook recording the buying habits, political leanings, and relationships of more than 2.7 billion people; therefore I encourage you to use your judgment.
The most progressive person still “others” someone. It’s human nature to define tribes and avoid those outside of them, and any lingering stigmas and private prejudices deserve your critique. You will never be able to fully celebrate being out until you start tackling all the ways you may be shaming yourself and rejecting others.
If doing something on this list would threaten your safety, don’t do it. Instead, do everything you can to get out of whatever family, town, or country you’re in. If you are financially dependent on your parents and think they might disown you (or worse) if you come out, wait and have a backup plan — a person of support you can call — in case they find out.
The only acceptable reason for staying in the closet is if you live in a place where coming out is dangerous. Dozens of countries still imprison LGBTQ people and nine still threaten the death penalty.
If you live in a place where you are able to come out, the world is waiting for you. I promise that every step out of the closet will make your life better and better, and you will get stronger and stronger. And when you don’t feel strong, just remember that we are here.