Warning: The following is not a traditional coming out story.
It has been roughly five years since I came out of the closet. A lot has changed in those five years, both for me personally and for the world around me. When I came out, I made a list of all the things I wouldn’t be able to do: get married, join the military, visit my partner in a hospital, give blood, adopt. I could get fired from my job in most states, including the one I grew up in. I could get thrown out of my home.
Things have changed since then. DADT was repealed, DOMA’s been struck down, the Ninth Circuit is striking down states’ same-sex marriage bans left and right; adoption laws are still wonky, but at least hospitals that receive federal funding (which is most of them) allow same-sex couples to visit their loved ones and make end of life decisions.*
By all accounts, life is better for most—not all, but most—lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in America. Even transgendered individuals, who for so long had been thrown under a bus by the “LGB” equality movement, are slowly finding recognition and acceptance.**
I mean, the blood ban on men who have sex with men is still in place, but who cares about that? Saving lives? Pshaw.
A lot has changed in the last five years. One thing that hasn’t changed: people are still coming out.
Today, October 11th, 2014, is the 26th Annual National Coming Out Day. HuffPost describes Naitonal Coming Out Day as “a time for both celebration and contemplation” for queer folks and their allies. They describe today as an opportunity to engage in conversation about identity, as well as a time to encourage others to be honest about who they are.
I’ll leave that last one to Sara Bareilles:
This song is now stuck in your head. You’re welcome.
It’s been five years since I started telling people I was gay. Five years. That should be enough time for me to have gained some perspective on the whole coming out thing.
I’ve heard people talk about how coming out was “liberating” for them. I don’t understand that. On one hand, yes—absolutely yes—opening up about who you’re attracted to makes life so, so much easier.***
But I wouldn’t use the word “liberating.”
I’ve heard a lot of talk about the “coming out process”—the confusion, the hiding, the anxiety, the decision, the preparation, the moment, the aftermath. I’ve heard people talk about why they came out and how their loved ones responded. I’ve heard people describe their coming out experience as “visceral,” which I think is a way more accurate word than “liberating.”
Liberating, for me, is like that scene at the end of Aladdin, where the genie is suddenly free of his shackles. It’s like that moment in a fancy wedding when doves are released. It’s a sudden moment of exhilaration: a surge of adrenaline, a feeling of weightlessness and joy.
For me, coming out wasn’t like that. What I remember most from that period wasn’t joy: it was anxiousness. If anything, after I started telling people I liked dudes, I felt more anxious than when I was keeping my identity a secret. What if they’re only pretending to be okay with it? What if they’re secretly judging me? I got over it, but it took a while.
There was no “releasing the doves” moment.
I don’t remember my coming out experience fondly. I was lucky in that everyone I told accepted me with open arms. But inside? I was a wreck. See, even when people react positively, just getting to that point takes an awful lot of courage.
How does it feel to come out?
Imagine that a rabid wolverine lives in your chest. Just go with it.
That wolverine has been sleeping for years, which made it pretty easy for you to ignore that it was there. Sure, every now and then it would stir—like when you had to change out in the locker room for the first time—but over the years, you got very good at pretending it didn’t exist.
Then one day, you find yourself in a situation that you never expected. Maybe you fell in love for the first time, or you find yourself in the middle of a conversation about gay rights, one that’s forcing you to take a side, even though talking about homosexuality is the last thing you ever wanted to do. Either way, after that moment, the wolverine starts waking up. Suddenly you can’t ignore it anymore.
The wolverine starts clawing at your stomach. It pokes and prods, making you feel like you’re about to throw up. Then it starts scratching at your ribcage, slowly, patiently, but with growing fervor. It’s getting impatient: it wants out.
Meanwhile, this tempest is raging on in your head. After years and years of denial—”I’m not like that!” “it’s only a phase!”—your mind surges with thoughts and emotions you buried away. Your first thought is “I can’t.” I can’t tell anyone. I have to keep this a secret.
Your second thought is denial: I ignored these feelings for a really long time. If I keep ignoring them, maybe they’ll go away.
Then, if you’re like me, you grieve.
I can never have that life I’d dreamed about now.
Hopefully, eventually, you’ll realize that this is a lie. Your dreams haven’t died; they just need to be adjusted a bit. Instead of a husband, wife, and a white picket fence, maybe it’ll be two husbands, or two wives, or you’ll realize that you can live your dream all by yourself.
But in that moment, you have to let go.
Please note that I am not linking to a certain award-winning song from a certain animated movie, which was made by a certain corporation, which is most often associated with a certain cartoon mouse
You decide to confess. You have to tell someone. The wolverine relaxes—for a moment.
Time passes. Maybe a day, maybe a month, maybe even years go by before you’re ready. Eventually though, you just say, “fuck it” and you start to tell people your secret. And in that moment, that pesky wolverine makes itself known.
Your heart pounds like you’ve just run a marathon. Your palms sweat like a seventh grader at their first junior high dance. An invisible monkey plays bongos on your head. All the while, the wolverine claws through your stomach. It hurts like hell, and you just want it to stop. As the words “I’m gay” pour from your mouth, sounding awkward and wrong when you say them out loud, it feels like a part of you is dying.
In a way, it is. You’re not keeping secrets anymore.
Everyone experiences this part differently. Some people felt like a weight had been lifted off their proverbial shoulders. For me, I felt a mix of anxiety, fear, regret, pride, embarrassment, nausea, exhaustion, and relief. More than anything, I was glad that it was over.
Until the next time. Because unless you out yourself to the entire world on national television (hi, Jodi Foster) or post your coming out video on YouTube (hi, teenagers with way more courage than I had at your age), you have to keep doing it again and again.
Fortunately, it does get easier. After a while, you can even joke about it:
On the whole, my coming out experience was messy and painful, involving way too many internal organs. It was downright unpleasant.
And no, I’m not giving up on that wolverine metaphor. It was that uncomfortable.
My coming out experience wasn’t fun, but at the same time, it was something I needed to do. Five years ago, my life was just starting to come into focus. I’d just transferred to a new school. I’d started writing regularly, hoping to eventually make a career out of it.**** I was living in the dorms, meeting lots of new people, and making some amazing friends. Best of all, I was living true to myself. How many people can say that?
A lot has changed in the past five years. For the most part, I live more openly now than I ever could have imagined back then. I don’t talk about coming out much anymore (to borrow a phrase from my friend Kevin, it’s kind of making a big deal about something that really isn’t). Most days I don’t even think about it.
But today is special. It’s an anniversary of some sort, and a national occasion to boot.
Coming out wasn’t fun. But if I had to go back in time, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
UPDATE 10/28: I forgot to mention one very important thing about coming out. After it was over, after I’d gotten the words out, I no longer felt like I had a wolverine trying to claw its way out of my chest. So that’s good. Not quite “liberating,” but it’ll do.
For advice on how to come out to your family and friends, visit one of the following websites:
For more tongue-in-cheek advice, check out either of the Gay Women Channel’s coming out videos:
***And by “easier,” I mean in the sense that openness and honesty are way less stressful than lying, hiding, and constantly monitoring yourself for Freudian
peni slips—I meant slips. “Freudian slips.” Yessir. That’s the ticket.