The term ‘coming out’ has become universally associated with revelations about one’s sexuality, and in recent years one’s gender identity as well. But when you strip it down the core concept it is actually something everyone does in their daily lives on a constant basis, sometimes in large significant ways but often in rather small almost unnoticeable ones.
At its very basest root ‘coming out’ is the emerging of something which was previously concealed. The sun comes out in the morning as the planet rotates shifting new sections of the globe out into open exposure to the sun. Animals come out of their dwellings to search for food. Information comes out after it is investigated and reported.
The term took on a tone of personal status, and began its journey to the meaning it holds today, in the ‘debuting’ of young women from wealthy or aristocratic families when they reached adulthood declaring them as available to be courted and wed, most recognizably in the form of the debutante ball.
These fancy dress events began in the 1780’s as a way to deal with the ‘daughter problem’ created by the reformation which ended the practice of cloistering unwed upper class daughters in convents. The debutante ball moderated the courtship process, ensuring the girls were introduced to properly vetted prospects thus preventing an unsuitable marriage from damaging a family status. Essentially all the best parts of the Jane Austin novels.
Formal debutante balls made their way to the US in the 1920’s and continue today primarily in the South. Whether grand ceremonies or smaller family functions these events, which could in many ways be paralleled with the bar and bat mitzvahs of the Jewish faith, are referred to as ‘coming out’ parties as the guest of honor is viewed as having emerged from their families to become part of society.
Gay men borrowed the term ‘coming out’ with the same society-joining connotation but in reference to emerging into homosexual society specifically, identifying themselves to other gay men and declaring themselves to be available. The term ‘coming out’ in reference to sexuality was introduced to academia in the 1950’s but it didn’t take on a connotation of emerging from beneath an oppressive silence until the early 1970’s.
After the Stonewall Riots in 1969 the tone shifted from one of joining the homosexuality community into throwing off the crushing boot of societal discrimination broadening its reach to encompass all forms of sexual and gender queerness. This is also when the image of the ‘closet’ became attached commonly felt to be a reference to someone’s sexuality being a ‘skeleton’ in their closet.
As with all terms it is important to understand where they have come from, both to understand the potential ghosts they bring with them and also the shared concepts and experiences they represent. ‘Coming out’ is an act of changing our status with others by altering their perception of us. It could be something as banal as our preferences in pizza toppings to a crucial aspect of our core identity.
Before even considering issues of the potential reactions from others it is important to acknowledge change is difficult in and of itself, being different is difficult in and of itself. We are always most comfortable with what we know, with what is familiar, because if we know it when can predict it and are thus better able to stay safe.
The unknown is frightening because of its unpredictability and as a species fear does not bring out the best in us. ‘Difference’ is a form of unknown and can therefore be frightening. An unknown difference doubles down on that fear because it is an unknown we didn’t know existed. Coming out is an act of revealing an unknown difference.
We place a great deal of stake and dedication in our ‘knowing’ of the immediate world around us. Based in basic survival we feel a need to ‘know’ about our surroundings in order to stay safe. Hot things will burn us, icy roads will make our cars harder to steer, eating things we are allergic to will make us sick, and certain people are safe while others are dangerous.
A change to our assumed knowledge about the world around us can be jarring and unsettling. Even the most loving, open, positive, and supportive loved ones can still go through a period of disorientation and awkward adjustment when presented with an unanticipated change. Change is difficult, even incredibly welcome and immensely positive change.
Hurling rocket fuel on that fire, prominent and pervasive societal attitudes can have an enormous and potentially disastrous impact by taking the normal level of fear, mutating and intensely over-exaggerating it. The unknown warps from something which might merely be frightening into something guaranteed to descend any moment with fangs and claws and horrible, horrible death.
Fear does not tend to bring out the best in us as a species. There are plenty of those who would rather falsely inflate fear into terror thereby justifying lashing out and eradicating it rather than facing it in order to learn and understand. The initial fear of an unknown is natural. Lashing out destructively at any and all sources of fear not only gives fear complete control of our lives it gives fear complete ownership of all thoughts, feelings, decisions, choices, relationships, and meanings.
We make assumptions based on the information we have at hand and then treat those assumptions as our functioning knowledge, it is how we process information and the world around us. As more and more of our connections take virtual form as text on a screen we are only being presented with the tiniest fraction of information but our assumption based ‘knowledge building’ reflexes are already kicking in. While some people seem determined to post their entire lives online, the dissonance between projected online self and genuine self is a whole other discussion, others remain not much more than text and a profile icon.
We immediately start to form concrete images in our minds upon which we proceed to make decisions and further assumptions. The more ongoing our interactions the more information we gain and being able to connect over the phone or through face-time gives us more as well. But virtual interactions are always far more narrowed in scope, context, and content than direct interactions. A six hour face-time chat can be amazing but rarely gives us as much genuine fulsome information as a one hour road trip.
This is not an attack on the value or validity of virtual connections and relationships. They can be immensely powerful, genuine, and healthy. They are just far more vulnerable to unknowns. Direct face to face relationships are certainly vulnerable to them as well, virtual relationships are just inherently more vulnerable because of the opacity and anonymity.
We can find ourselves suddenly presented with brand new information about their age, height, geographical location, gender, religious persuasion, socio economic status, or any number of factors which might end up completely contradicting our existing assumptions, whether we formed them all on our own or with some misleading help. We don’t need to denigrate or demonize virtual relationships we just need to be all the more prepared larger amounts of previously unknown information.
So when being presented with a revelation of an unknown difference here are a couple of crucial considerations to keep in mind.
Just Because You Didn’t Know About It Doesn’t Mean It Didn’t Exist
We have a tendency to assume things spring into existence the moment we find out about them. We do understand people, places, and events existed before us but an offshoot of information being now instantly available is the subliminal assumption we already know everything there is, and anything new we learn has thus just hatched into existence.
Jeff Buckley was not the first person to record Hallelujah, Chris Pine was not the first Captain Kirk, the world has faced and survived pandemics before, and the personal revelation someone has just shared with you is not the first time they have felt or thought about it.
It is new to you, not them. There are certainly times when revelations happen very quick on the heels of someone’s inner realizations, currently more and more in the case of younger children sharing their growing understandings of themselves with their parents almost in the moment, which is outstanding. And in some cases revelations can happen in real-time in the course of deeply personal conversation and contemplation.
The amount of time between realization and revelation is a function of the perceived safety and acceptance the revelation is likely to receive. Realizing I was gay at age 11 in small town Ontario in the late 80’s put me in a very different place than the children of my friends’ who are now at the same age. I waited until my first year of university to come out to my parents, friends, and family. My friends’ children are now sharing their revelations with them within a month or two of realizing them.
Whether the realization occurred several years or just a few moments ago the difference was always there. And sometimes our realization of that difference can take us a fair amount of time to come to terms with ourselves. How many times have we heard the phrase “So, so-and-so is suddenly ______ now?” The simple truth is their difference was always there. The only thing sudden is that now you know about it.
Their Reasons For Revealing Or Not Revealing Were About Them, Not You
The decision to come out, or not, is a deeply personal one. There are a virtually infinite number of potential factors at play which all essentially boil down to considerations of safety. It could be physical safety, emotional safety, professional safety, and we as a species have a rather horrific track record for handling difference.
There are sometimes considerations which might outweigh the safety concerns, such as falling in love and not wanting to let the chance slip away or to wind up stuck living a life of silently restrained desperation. If someone is sharing their ‘unknown’ with you it is because they feel safe to do so or that it is crucial enough to be worth the risk.
It is important to note their sense of safety, or lack thereof, may not have anything to do specifically with you. For me personally I never felt the slightest doubt my parents would be anything but loving and supportive but I waited to tell them because I knew, for my own sanity, I wasn’t going to be able to be one version of myself at home and another outside of it. Being multiple versions of myself would have felt false and lead to me growing to resent one or all of them.
I regretted shutting them out in that way and the brief sting they felt at worrying I had not felt safe with them but they loved me and knew me and it didn’t take them long to understand when I laid it all out for them. They understood my reasons were about me not about them, because the decision to share that part of me was mine not theirs.
It’s Okay To Be Unsettled, Even A Scared
When presented with something you didn’t expect it is perfectly okay to be surprised, shocked, unsettled, and yes even scared by it. It is a natural reaction. It doesn’t make you a bad parent, a bad friend, or a bad person. It means you are human.
One of the most challenging things when coming out can be allowing room for the other person to work their way through their reactions. When we have opened ourselves up and revealed our difference we are at our most vulnerable and desperately needing reassurance, support, love, or at least clear signals of where others are going to end up with it.
Those messages are not always instantly clear. Sometimes they can’t be and the other person needs time to work it through. Sometimes we can help guide them through it, sometimes others can, and sometimes they just have to work through it themselves.
The key thing to remember is that it is okay to be shaken, the person sharing with you is quite possibly terrified. ‘Coming out’ is as much a change for us, and more, as the people we ‘come out’ to. Being startled or scared doesn’t make you a bad person.
Lashing out at someone who has trusted you and is at their most vulnerable because you would rather attack a fear than face it, regardless of who is front of you…..that is a choice to be harmful and the indication of your character is not so favorable.
What Is Being Asked For Is Acknowledgement, Not Approval
This final note is an important one for those on both sides of a ‘coming out’. We cannot demand anything from anyone else but their acknowledgement. We cannot force people to agree with us, we cannot demand they approve.
The most horrific atrocities in our history have occurred when people have reduced those they disagree with to ‘lesser’, to ‘less than human’ and therefore beneath consideration. If we are able to dehumanize our enemies we feel free to treat them with any cruelty we wish. The genocides in the Congo, terrorist attacks, slavery of entire races, concentration camps, inquisitions, the list is all too long and tragically continues to grow even today.
Disagreement is not the cause. Difference is not the cause. Fear is not even truly the cause. Surrendering to fear is. Allowing and enabling those who pathologically stoke irrational fears purely for their own power, and thereby surrendering to their fears, is.
Peace is not a world where no difference or disagreement exists. Peace occurs when difference is acknowledged, accepted, and understood as thoroughly as we can. It occurs when we understand discomfort is not harm and accept that discomfort is part of living because difference is a part of life. And it occurs when we can disagree, even permanently, in a way which does not require a ‘winner’ and ‘loser’.