I told a coming out story a couple of years ago:
Earlier this week I had conversation with a younger gay man about process and growing up and knowing things now that I didn’t then. That led me to a regular reminder about process.
(And here I must confess that I think I gathered these next thoughts from a book, but that I have no recollection what that book is. Google ‘five stages of coming out’ and you will find many books, sites, theses, and articles that share similar ideas.) (I am also using the words ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ in broad contexts.)
Years ago, when I was finally comfortable in my own skin and ready to help others through the roughness of ‘coming out’ in the later 1990s, I postulated (to a college student who needed a safe place to share his story) that coming out is a process.
And like Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief, coming out happens in stages. Also like the stages of grief, coming out stages are not necessarily linear.
- Acting Out
Self-awareness is simple: I am different. I like boys. (Whatever that latter statement actually means.) This is the stage when physical awakenings are manifest toward others of the same sex. Emotional and social awakenings and attractions are present as well.
Acting out is that place where urges are acted upon. This is often a secretive stage, at least initially. These unspoken urges are shame-inducing; acting out is often in the dark, both literally and metaphorically.
Self-acceptance means coming to terms with ones own sexual orientation. This may still be a very private place, and is not necessarily tied with telling others, or any kind of public or semi-public coming out.
The problem, at least when I was a younger man, is that society did not (and perhaps in many places still does not) allow the same teenage courtship rituals that straight people experience. Straight couples can date publicly; can double-date; can hold hands in public; can engage in PDA in public; can find a significantly larger number of willing courtship partners within normal social groups (church, school, clubs, and so on). Straight couples never have to ‘come out’ to parents and friends. They just are.
Gays and lesbians cannot engage in these same courtship rituals . . .
. . . and that often leads to furtive, secretive Acting Out long before Self-Acceptance, and sometimes even before Self-Awareness. I know people, for instance, who were ‘experimenting’ with same-sex activity long before they could ever self-acknowledge physical and emotional attraction to the same sex. I know others who were completely self-aware long before they ever found a willing partner for the Acting Out scenario.
These three stages are a jumble, and that jumble is personal . . . and it relates to place and time and upbringing and local social mores and family structures (and strictures), among many other variables. We can also double-back and repeat a stage, or live in two stages at the same time.
I myself, for instance, grew up a closeted Baptist preacher’s kid, scared to hell of being found out, unable to give a word to the feelings inside, but still finding ways to act out before burying the desires deep inside during college. It took a near-marriage to a woman in 1983 for me to finally acknowledge and own up to any sense of self-awareness. And then I led a hermetic existence in Willow Springs for a year.
Self-acceptance was a few more years in the making.
Proclamation in my hierarchy is the act of giving up the need to know who else knows. For me, the closet door started to pop open in 1985 when I had a gay roommate for a while. It then shut again because of my employment and church relationships, and finally came open in 1988. But ‘open’ is a relative term, because I was guarded and limited those to whom I said “I’m gay.” I lost friends along the way. I mourned them at first, and their reactions led me to examine whether proclamation was worth then cost.
Then I started building what I now know as a ‘family of choice.’
Back the to story. My parents learned in 1990; my sisters, several years later. I started my master’s degree in earnest in 1991, and that’s when I gave up trying to control the flow of information. I had by then left the Southern Baptist church, embraced a much less absolute world view, and moved far to the left on the political spectrum. This all happened during approximately the same period in my life.
So many gay men I know start with “I think I’m bi.” They then move at some point, usually quite soon, to “I’m gay, but don’t tell anyone else.” This is all part of the movement toward full embrace of the proclamation mindset, which ultimately culminates in “I am who I am, and I don’t care who knows, nor does this aspect of who I am define me in my total humanity.”
Nurturing is the final stage, and it is simply that place where one is now self-actualized enough that nurturing of others — helping others reach their own place of nurturing, and helping them through the fog of the first three stages — is part and parcel of life.
I was in my mid-30s when I think I finally settled in the nurturer place.
And then I finished my doctorate, and took a big step back when I went to work in 1999 for a private college in Kentucky, and found myself again in the I’m-not-quite-to-Proclamation place. During that difficult eleven months in Kentucky, I resolved never ever again to work or live in a place where I could be a Nurturer. This year marks the 20th year of fulfilling that promise to myself.
During the last 20-plus years, I have sat with so many others who needed to cry, to talk, to find answers, to understand. I have counseled and been a shoulder for unnumbered college students (and some high school kids who needed to talk) and others in my circle of influence and acquaintance. Just this week a college student said to me “You seem wise, and I think your office is safe place to talk about my life.” I am so happy to be a nurturer . . . and thankful for the insurance and finances along the way that helped me pay for the therapy sessions necessary to get to this point!
So it’s not a coming out story per se, but rather thoughts on coming out, and an oblique tale of one Baptist preacher’s kid’s journey to today.
For those on the journey: find a nurturer. Live in the muddle, and know that it gets better. If things are truly rough and dark thoughts are clouding your mind, look to The Trevor Project.
We are ALL on the journey, and we need to hold each other close. I have enriched my own circle of love and happiness over the last year as new acquaintances have come into my life. Some of these folks are fast becoming friends. As I get older, I am understanding more of how my lonely years have led to longing for more connection now.
The HRC website provides these words about National Coming Out Day:
Today we mark the 31st anniversary of National Coming Out Day!
Thirty-one years ago, on the anniversary of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, we first observed National Coming Out Day as a reminder that one of our most basic tools is the power of coming out. One out of every two Americans has someone close to them who is gay or lesbian. For transgender people, that number is only one in 10.
Coming out – whether it is as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer – STILL MATTERS. When people know someone who is LGBTQ, they are far more likely to support equality under the law. Beyond that, our stories can be powerful to each other.
I hope that this bit of my own story can be helpful to someone this day.