L interviewed her close friends on their experiences of coming out. “Straight Outta Narnia” appears in Boshemia Magazine: Issue 01 from June 2017. The ages of the interviewees have been updated to reflect the year which has lapsed between the original publication of this symposium. All other details remain unaltered. Photography by Sharon McCutcheon.
Somebody recently said to me:
“I don’t mind people being gay, but they should just keep it to themselves and do it privately. I don’t feel like they need to go around telling everyone about it”.
It’s such an iconic symbol of gayness in modern society; it’s an integral part of the experience of existing as an openly non-straight individual in a heteronormative world. LGBTQIA charity Stonewall says “coming out is not necessarily a one-off event – lesbian, gay, bi and trans people may have to come out many times during their lives”. Coming out to oneself; coming out to friends and family; coming out to workmates; coming out to strangers in the street as you hold hands with your same-sex partner.
Coming out and being out is typically a very personal process; it can be hugely difficult and challenging, or easy and natural. I was lucky enough to have these individuals be willing and comfortable enough to open up to me and share their experiences.
Q / 25 / pansexual.
I’m only out to certain people; my parents don’t accept me being in a heterosexual relationship, let alone a homosexual relationship. I’m not actually in a relationship though – cry everytime. I don’t really know how long I’ve been out for. I just kind of decided “eyyy fuck it!”, so I didn’t really have a coming out ‘thing’. A lot of people actually assumed that I was bisexual in my first year of university and then I realised “shit, I am!”. At that point my mindset was basically “I am out, I have decided to be out” – and that was it. It was especially the case when introducing myself to new people at uni.
I actually went to an all-girls’ school and if you were even a little bit not-straight you were accused of doing it for attention. My best friend and I would look at each other and be like “pfft yeah I mean everyone’s sexuality is on a spectrum, right?? Like it’s not just black and white?? Yeah? Yeah!!” – we could both tell that we were both completely bisexual. “Yeah, sure, you know – spectrum”.
So I guess I properly ~came out~ to one of my best friends in my second year of uni. We were commenting on how many gays there were in our drama society that year, and we were like, counting, and then I just said “oh, and me! Because I’m bisexual! – I think”, and she was like “yeah! But really though?”
For me, coming out was much more about coming out to myself than to other people. It took a while, because I kept questioning “um, is this normal? Yeah, surely it’s normal! Sexuality’s a spectrum”. Then it just got to a point of: how long can I continue claiming that I “just admire feminine beauty” before it’s just “yeah, I wanna have sex with them”? It’s a very fine line!
Eileen / 25 / queer.
I am drawn to the word “queer”. I am drawn to it by its inclusivity, its fluidity. It doesn’t deny anyone on the margins, and doesn’t narrow its definition. I am drawn to it too for the power in its reclamation. The word is imbued with rebellion and a long history of its own. Yet Queer also offers a beautiful newness. I have embraced it, and still learning how.
I am out in certain circles, but haven’t come out as much in America. It feels different here. I didn’t feel this same urgency to come out when I lived abroad. In Europe in 2013 and 2014 in my early twenties, for the first time in my life I felt I could be myself, removed from the context I grew up (rural Appalachian America). I was living with other young people and making art, and in that world I built for myself, I came to know me. I existed as myself and my identity was clear to others. Living in America, I have not felt at home in my queerness in the same way that I did in Europe. There I moved through the world differently, and I am still ascertaining whether that is a boundary of my own design or if it is a cultural one.
It will be a year this summer since I first came out. I came out in waves; a series of beautiful and painful epiphanies forged this identity over hard-fought years. But the tragedy of last summer’s Orlando massacre was a catalyst that I could not ignore. It broke me, and it was time to write about it.
“I stayed in from the Pride celebrations yesterday, while my friends danced and wore beautiful rainbows painted on their cheeks. I thought to myself, “I am not ready.” To many, my queerness is erased by my heteronormative relationship. I have had the luxury of living as a queer woman without fear, during an era of relative acceptance. That fearlessness has been stripped away from me, maybe from all of us this morning.”
This letter above spurred a variety of reactions, from outpouring of love from family, to hateful emails and phone calls and confrontations from formerly close friends and loved ones. I was lucky that the first time I experienced this hate was as a young adult, relatively comfortable and secure in my identity; in my youth, I would not have weathered this as well.
L / 24 / queer.
Coming out has been a very long and interesting journey. I was first in love with another girl aged 14, although it only struck me for exactly what it was a mere year or so ago. At the time I just thought it was the most intense feeling of friendship I had ever had.
I’m very newly out. I came out very impromptu and unplanned at one of mine & Q’s soirées back in February, after a not inconsiderable number of cocktails. It just felt right, comfortable and natural. I was surrounded by some of my closest friends, in my own home, feeling fuzzy and warm from the alcohol and from the general good vibes that only come from spending time in top-notch company. I felt safe. I felt nurtured. I felt empowered and confident. These were definitely the right people to come out to in the first instance, the group being 90% gay themselves; I was met with a cacophony of “YAAAS” and “woo gurl!!!!” and hugs and kisses and dancing, and some obligatory Madonna.
At the time I declared myself bisexual, though I think in reality I’m still flitting around trying to find which word fits best and feels most comfortable.
This wonderful group of LGBTQIA humans that I surround myself with empowered me and gave me the strength and comfort to mentally explore and accept realms of my sexuality which had before gone unaddressed and suppressed. I’m still trying to figure it out and pin it down, but I am happier and freer than I have ever been.
Alex / 24 / gay.
I have been fully out as a gay man for 8 years now – I was 15 years old when I came out. In the lead-up to me coming out I was absolutely terrified. The first thing I did was come out to my best friend; she knew for about two months before anyone else. That then sort of gave me the confidence to come out properly.
This was back in the time of MSN. Remember those little ‘personal messages’ you’d have on your profile? The way I came out was that I wrote “just want everyone to know: I’m gay” in there, over a weekend when everyone was online. The next morning I went downstairs and told my mum, and then she helped me tell the rest of my family.
My family were all pretty cool with it. There were some people in school who started ignoring me because I came out although, interestingly, they’ve actually come out since school, so I think it was probably to “protect” themselves. Overall it was a pretty positive experience. My ex-girlfriend at the time even said to me, “if anyone gives you any shit, I’m there for you”.
One shitty thing that did happen was that there were some guys in my PE class who started saying to other guys, “oh, are you in a PE class with Alex? Because I would feel really uncomfortable getting changed with him”, which then obviously egged other people on to think that way. I ended up having to get changed in the PE teacher’s office. Luckily he was really supportive, but I really wish he had just let me out of having to do PE!
That said, my experience was generally positive. I had expected it to be awful; I expected my family to hate me; I expected people to stop talking to me. When I knew I wanted to come out that fear was a big part of the experience. It really wasn’t like that at all. Most people were like “we love you anyway, regardless of who you are”. Despite that, it seemed unfair to me that I had to do it at all (and every time I have to come out to a new person it feels that way) when no one else had to. Overall I was much happier, though; I had so much more confidence and self worth. I was finally being me.
Emily / 23 / bisexual.
I’ve been out to myself and my significant other for almost a year now, and only recently to friends. I’m only out to certain people – namely my partner, close friends and, to some extent, my family. I explicitly told my mum. I assume she then told my dad. My brother knew anyway.
I would probably describe my ‘coming out’ as drunk. The first time I’ve told people has been when I’ve been drunk, which kind of sums it up for me really. I needed that sort of emotional enabler, I guess, to open up and be vulnerable. I felt a lot of guilt around it – I feel like I’ve known for a very long time but just not accepted it.
With my S.O. coming out wasn’t so hard. He’s very accepting and supportive. For some reason when it came to telling friends I really built it up in my head and worried about it for ages, but turned out to be absolutely no big deal. It was the same telling my mum, which is odd because – classic stereotype – she’s been doing women’s rugby for 15 years and probably has more gay friends than straight. I don’t know why I thought she would be weird about it.
Any conflict around coming out has been from myself. It’s easier for me to “hide” it as such because I’m in a heterosexual relationship, so I’ve only really told people when it’s come up. My sexuality is not often questioned or challenged because of my hetero-presenting relationship. Even though the people I’ve told have been 100% accepting, I still have this weird aversion to being totally open about it. There’s this niggle in my mind of “is it necessary, should I tell them?”. Nobody wants to be judged, and unfortunately when you go against the status quo being judged is inevitable. I dunno. I’m working on that.
L: So let’s discuss that quote: “I don’t mind people being gay, but they should just keep it to themselves and do it privately. I don’t feel like they need to go around telling everyone about it”. What are your reactions to that?
Q: Well if straight people can be straight publicly then why can’t gay people be gay publicly?
Emily: I feel like that idea comes from the point of view that everything is about them and revolves around them when actually very little does. Almost every example of modern mainstream media features a ‘boy meets girl’ scenario, even when it doesn’t make sense for there to be one. The most recent series of Doctor Who features an openly lesbian companion called Bill, and it’s really tastefully done; she’s visible, but she doesn’t talk about it constantly and it’s not her only characteristic. This tiny gesture of visibility has prompted complaints from viewers about lesbianism being “forced in their faces”. Funny – every previous Who companion (not to mention the majority of lead characters in any mainstream media) has been almost entirely defined by heteronormative romance and they have no issue with that. Remind me again whose sexuality is being forced in whose faces?
L: I very much feel that people who hold that opinion are incredibly naïve, or maybe just ignorant of the impact of that expression. That “concealed” point of view oppresses, stigmatises and silences LGBTQIA individuals just as much as outright homophobia whilst trying to moonlight as acceptance and tolerance. It literally censors an integral part of a person’s identity. Like, imagine if your straight co-worker tried talking to you about her husband and you turned around to her and said “I don’t want to hear about your straight relationship Sharon, keep it private. We don’t all need to know about it”. How ridiculous does that scenario seem? Why should it be any different for LGBTQIA individuals?
Q – It’s a shame, to put it lightly, that people have to come out at all because everybody is just assumed straight. We don’t have equality so it is a big deal: coming out is against general societal norms. I was actually having a conversation with a bunch of people about the point of pride, it’s not just “woo yeah we’re gay we’re great” – well, that’s a part of it – but it’s about being proud to be out in a world that’s telling us not to be. It’s community and solidarity. So maybe in a hundred years or so people can just be out but at the moment the assumption is that everyone is a straight cis person unless you correct them.
Alex: Heteronormative society and the fact that the “default” is straight has actually sort of created the need for LGBTQIA people to come out and correct others, which is ironic given how much some straight people complain about it. Shut up and let us be fabulous.
Eileen: Yeah dudes, I wish there wasn’t a proverbial closet to begin with. I can’t wait until the day we don’t have to come out anymore. I think it’s why I don’t feel the need to tell everyone I am close with; it is exhausting. To constantly advocate for oneself and to have uncomfortable conversations; in the past I felt it easier to simply not say anything at all, but I do challenge myself to not slip into the easy facade of heteronormativity; I dwelled for too long within myself, and I am challenging myself not to hide.
Emily: I personally didn’t feel the need to “tell everyone”, but that’s just my specific journey; others may feel they need or want to tell everyone as part of their acceptance process. Equally to people feeling empowered to come out, nobody should feel pressured to do so. The process of coming out and what ‘coming out’ even means is a very individual and personal experience. It can just be coming out to yourself.
Alex: I agree. I think if it’s safe and you feel comfortable doing it then it can be a great, positive experience. For me I know it gave me a lot of confidence and maybe that would be the same for other people.
L: Yeah for me it just made me feel comfortable in my day-to-day life, even though most of the people I interact with have no idea. It just made me feel more at home and more natural in my own skin.
Alex: Yeah, accepting who you are essentially.
Q: Which is important.
Eileen: I cannot stress the importance of safety enough in this scenario. In our current political climate of erasure of the truth, and in institutional attempts to roll back civil rights reform, it is important to come out ONLY if you feel safe and ready.
L: Definitely. A friend recently pointed out to me that when your sexuality is visible you don’t just come out once, you come out on a daily basis to everyone you interact with. As a queer woman in a heteronormative relationship my sexuality isn’t immediately visible at the present moment, whereas for you, Alex, being in a same-sex relationship means that if you’re even just out and about somewhere with Tom acting coupley you’re coming out to all the people around you. It’s not just that you come out once and that’s it. I had never thought of that before.
Alex: Yeah, that’s the whole thing about safety; you’ve got to be sure it’s the right environment. There are some times where you might feel unsafe and you really don’t know how somebody is going to react, like “this person could be a massive homophobe”. Then I have to sort of, “dial back” the gay.
Emily: It’s bullshit to have to censor yourself to make homophobes comfortable for your own safety. Like sure, they can have that opinion, but it’s very close-minded. People like that are stopping that conversation from happening and not allowing themselves any room or opportunity for seeking learning – and it’s not our duty to educate.
E: It’s so true. If we can be brave, and we can be vocal, queer youth will have more people to look to for example, and we can be more visible. I wish that my younger self had had these cultural references, the role models of queer women around me; my journey wouldn’t have taken nearly so long to find home with myself.
Q: Agreed. Visibility is gr9 and I would encourage it wholeheartedly where it is safe to do so.
E: It all comes back to visibility for me – we have always been here, we just didn’t have the platform, the internet, and the ephemeral quality of our digital culture – an environment that has made it feel safer to gush, to express, to come out, to find community with others. I recognize fully the gravity that my ability to “come out” on the internet, on social media, was built on the backs of Stonewall riots, of marches, of people like me dying just because they were the first to fight for us. The stakes are different now. It was easier for me, much easier.
Q: Okay like, don’t tell anyone – she says, on an interview – but I used to watch Glee.
Alex makes an excited squee and claps his hands in glee (pardon the pun).
Q: I mean at first it was hate-watching, I used to stay up late and live-blog how bad the episodes were. But the sheer amount of queer visibility in that really did help.
Alex: yeah, I agree. It did. I really related to Kurt.
Q: yeah you did 😉
L: I have never watched Glee. I really should!
Q: DON’T, no, no don’t, it’s not good.
Alex: (whispers) do it!
L: This is like having an angel and a devil on my shoulders!
Q: I am always the devil.
L: Are there any other stories, comments or anecdotes you would like to share?
E: So I find that my identity as a queer woman is consistently challenged by others, and “erased” because of my seemingly heteronormative relationships. Some folks really take issue that I use the word queer to describe myself, to the point I used to receive threatening and hateful messages about it online and in person, because I do not perform my identity in simply observed or culturally signified ways. An incredibly unfortunate irony of the LGBTQIA community is its occasional ability to reject. But I don’t feel I have to defend myself, prove myself, or consistently “out” myself in order to seem “queer enough” to others. I am enough for me.
Alex: I guess my thing was that before I came out, because I was quite effeminate as well as being gay, I thought that my attraction to men meant that I wanted to be a woman. I think that’s why coming out and being able to be like “this is me, I’m a guy who likes guys” was an important thing because there was that aspect of just knowing yourself, what you are, and what that means. That was really difficult for me – coming to terms with that. We’re so bombarded by this binary “man likes woman” thing that I thought “oh this must mean I want to be a woman”, when I really didn’t.
Emily: Coming out is very specific to the individual. For me it’s been about only telling those closest to me, and nobody else unless I have to or it’s relevant. Until I really thought about it I had never considered what I would “label” myself as before. I would say to anybody who has come to a realisation about their sexuality: you don’t have to tell everyone – or anyone – but having that small support network, if it’s available, really helps. Don’t be ashamed.
L: Any last comments?
Alex: Gay is good.
Q: Gay is good, gay is life.