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Joseph Winn MSW, LICSW, CST-S

Coming Out

“Burst down those closet doors once and for all, and stand up and start to fight.”

- Harvey Milk

Coming Out

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals who keep their sexual orientation a secret are often referred to as “closeted”. When a person decides to share their sexual orientation with others, it is commonly referred to as “coming out”.

Why do gay and lesbian people come out?

Coming out is often an integral part of developing a healthy gay or lesbian identity. Remaining in the closet means that you choose to hide who you are from those around you. It means lying about your relationships, pretending to be someone you are not, and keeping a large part of your identity secret from loved ones. This hiding can be very painful and is incredibly damaging to one’s overall psychological health. Coming out is strongly related to developing a positive gay or lesbian identity, better mental health and higher self-esteem.

Why is coming out difficult? 

Coming out can be difficult because there are stereotypes and unwarranted prejudice against gay and lesbian people. Many conservative communities and religious groups teach that being gay, lesbian or bisexual is a sign of mental illness, immorality and deserving of punishment and ostracism. Many of these groups have successfully utilized stereotypes and misconceptions about gay and lesbian people to lobby for prevention of equality in civil and federal rights for gay and lesbian people.

Challenging these stereotypes can be very difficult, especially if the individual does not have access to a supportive community or positive gay and lesbian role models. Many people remain in the closet because they fear, sometimes realistically, that they will be rejected by their loved ones and are at risk for physical violence.

What contributes to a healthy coming out experience?

The first, and in my opinion most important aspect of a healthy coming out experience, is recognizing that coming out is an act of self-love. Accessing emotional support from trusted friends and family, making positive contacts with other gay and lesbian people and accessing information about the hidden history of gay and lesbian people can assist in the development of a healthier gay and lesbian identity in the long run.

Some Common myths about gay and lesbian people.

Myth: Gay and lesbian people, particularly gay men and bisexuals, are promiscuous.

Reality: What IS promiscuity? Definfing this term requires some base line that all people can agree on and, since that definition does not exist at this point, we may be discussing apples and oranges! However, if we are discussing the idea that some people enjoy sexual relationships with many different people that we have to agree that some gay and lesbian people, just like some heterosexual people, enjoy multiple partners, and some are not.

Myth: In same-sex relationships, one partner is the “man” and the other partner is the “woman”.

Reality: The basis for this myth has two main components, both of which are rooted in sexist ideas and belifes.

1. The first assumption that this myth makes is that gay and lesbian relationships are “modeled” on heterosexual relationships that encompass stereotypical gender dynamics. This means that one partner must be more “assertive” while the other is “passive”. Essentially, this myth asks the question, who is the more “powerful” member in the relationship.

2. The second assumption of this myth is that gender dynamics are synonymous with sex and sexuality. Oftentime, when people ask who is the man, the hidden question being asked is, quite frankly, “who fucks who”. Meaning, who is the “active”, (read dominant = male) and who is the “receptive”, (read passive = female) partner. When this question is asked of lesbian couples the question being addressed is “who is the butch and who is the femme”. Sexuality has nothing to do with gender and power unless the intent of the question is to make sexuality about gender and power.

Myth: Same-sex relationships are unhealthy and abnormal because gay and lesbian people are not capable of “true” love and commitment.

Reality: Gay and lesbian people are just as capable of long-term committed relationships as heterosexual people. Dr. John Gottman Ph.D., an internationally recognized researcher of couples dynamics and a practicing clinical psychologist, is quoted as saying; "Gay and lesbian couples are a lot more mature, more considerate in trying to improve a relationship and have a greater awareness of equality in a relationship than straight couples. I think that in 200 years heterosexual relationships will be where gay and lesbian relationships are today." Clearly, gay and lesbian people can, and do, form long-term successful and loving relationships.

Myth: Same-sex relationships usually consist of an older gay person who has taken advantage of a younger person who is questioning or confused about their identity.

Reality: This is one of the more virulent myths, portraying gay and lesbian people as predatory child molesters. It is NOT true. Same-sex relationships, as in heterosexual relationships, are consensual and occur between consenting adults. Sometimes people of different ages and generations, regardless of sexual orientation, fall in love and form relationships. 

Myth: Gay and lesbian people could be cured by being sexual with a member of the opposite sex.

Reality: There are no cures for homosexuality because homosexuality is not an illness. Some gay and lesbian people have had satisfying heterosexual experiences in their lifetime. Some gay and lesbian people are comfortable being sexually active with heterosexual people as well. Some gay men and lesbians have never had sex with a member of the opposite sex because they are not attracted to them. 

Myth: Homosexuality is not “natural”— that is, it does not exist in nature, proving that homosexuality is an illness.

Reality: Research has found that homosexuality is almost universal among animals and is especially frequent among highly developed species. There has been evidence of homosexuality in all-human cultures throughout history.

Myth: Same sex experiences in adolescence determining whether a person will be gay or lesbian as an adult.

Reality: If this statement were true, then the percentage of gay and lesbian people in the population would be far greater than the estimated 10%. Many children and adolescents have homosexual experiences in childhood as part of the exploration of their sexuality.

Myth: Gay and lesbian people have made a conscious decision not to be heterosexual.

Reality: Researchers continue to disagree on the specific origins of homosexuality, as an aside - the origins of heterosexuality also remain unknown. The decision is not whether one is homosexual or heterosexual, but whether one is going to acknowledge the existence of one's homosexual feelings and behaviors. Coming out is a complex and difficult process. It may take a long time for many gay or lesbian people to accept their homosexuality is valid and acceptable. Those who struggle with a gay or lesbian identity may struggle with a great deal of anxiety, pain, and anger as they begin challenging damaging societal messages about homosexuality and asserting their right to have, explore and incorporate their sexuality into their lives.

Homophobia.

Homophobia means “fear of the same”, as in fear of homosexuality. Homophobia also translates into a fear of intimate relationships, even those that are not sexual in nature, between members of the same sex. Homophobia also manifests in hatred, becoming an attitude of repulsion and disgust towards gay and lesbian people. Homophobia is heavily influenced by the belief that homosexuality is morally wrong. This moralizing component of homophobia serves to strip away the humanity of gay and lesbian people and allows the homophobic individual, and culture, to view gay and lesbian people as disgusting, sick and shameful; deserving of violence and contempt.

What is heterosexism?

Heterosexism is both an attitude and a social system of organized beliefs. As an attitude, heterosexism is the belief that any sexual orientation other than heterosexual is inferior. In this way, heterosexism is similar to sexism, racism misogyny and anti-Semitism; as all of these forms of hatred organize experience along a continuum of “better than” and “less than” thinking, feeling and acting. Heterosexism as a social system is the driving force behind cultural attitudes that exclude gay and lesbian people from serving in the military and refusal to allow same-sex couples the same rights as their heterosexual peers. Heterosexism is also seen in the lack of positive images of gay and lesbian people in the media.

HETEROSEXUALITY QUESTIONNAIRE

(Attributed to Martin Rochlin, Ph.D., January 1977)

Gay and lesbian people are constantly forced to deal with homophobic assumptions and misinformation. This questionnaire is an invitation for heterosexual people to think about how they would feel and respond if they had to address the assumptions that their heterosexuality was a form of illness.

1. What do you think has caused you to be heterosexual?

2. When and how did you first decide you were a heterosexual?

3. Is it possible your heterosexuality stems from a neurotic fear of people of the same sex?

4. If you've never slept with a person of the same sex, how do you know you wouldn't prefer it?

5. Isn't it possible your heterosexuality is just a phase you may grow out of?

6. Isn't it possible that all you need is a good gay lover?

7. If heterosexuality is normal, why are a disproportionate number of mental patients heterosexual?

8. To whom have you disclosed your heterosexual tendencies? How did they react?

9. Why do heterosexuals place so much emphasis on sex? Why are they so promiscuous?

10. Do heterosexuals hate and/or distrust others of their own sex? Is that what makes them heterosexual?

11. If you were to have children, would you want them to be heterosexual knowing the problems they'd face?

12. Your heterosexuality doesn't offend me as long as you don't try to force it on me. Why do you feel compelled to seduce others into your        sexual orientation?

13. The great majority of child molesters are heterosexuals. Do you really consider it safe to expose your children to heterosexual teachers?

14. Why do you insist on being so obvious, and making a public spectacle of your heterosexuality? Can't you just be who you are and keep it quiet?

15. How can you ever hope to become a whole person if you limit yourself to a compulsive, exclusively heterosexual lifestyle, and remain unwilling to explore and develop your homosexual potential?

16. Heterosexuals are noted for assigning themselves and each other to narrowly restricted, stereotyped sex-roles. Why do you cling to such unhealthy role playing?

17. Even with all the societal support marriage receives, the divorce rate is spiraling. Why are there so few stable relationships among heterosexuals?

18. How could the human race survive if everyone were heterosexual like you, considering the menace of overpopulation?

19. There seem to be very few happy heterosexuals. Techniques have been developed that could help you change if you really wanted to. Have you considered trying psychotherapy or even aversion therapy?

21. Could you really trust a heterosexual therapist/counselor to be objective and unbiased? Don't you fear he/she might be inclined to influence you in the direction of his/her own preferences?

22. How can you enjoy a full, satisfying sexual experience or deep emotional rapport with a person of the opposite sex when the differences are so vast? How can a man understand what pleases a woman, or vice-versa?

Resources:  

Barrett, D., C. & Pollack, L. M. (2005). Whose Gay Community? Social Class, Sexual Self-Expression, and Gay Community Involvement. The Sociological Quarterly. 46 437-456.

Downs, A. (2012). The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing up in a Straight Man's World. (2nd Edition). Philadelphia, PA: De Capo Press. 

Hames-Garcia, M. & Javier, Martinez, E. (Eds.). (2011). Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hayes, J. G. (2002). This Thing Called Courage: South Boston Stories. Binghamton, NY: The Hawthorn Press. 

Hemphill, E. (Ed.). (2007). Brother to Brother: New Writings by Gay Black Men. Washington, DC: Redbone Press.

Seidman, S., Meeks, C., & Traschen, F. (2004). Beyond the closet: The Changing Social Meaning of Homosexuality in The United States. In, Kimmell, M., S. & Plante, R., F. (Eds.). Sexualities: identities, Behaviors, and Society. (pp. 184-199). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Savage, D., & Miller, T. (Ed.). (2011).

Savage, D., & Miller, T. (Ed.). (2011). It Get's Better: Coming out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living. New York, NY: Dutton Press. 

Sycamore, M., B. (Ed.). (2004). That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation. Berkley, CA: Soft Skull Press.