In the last 10 years coming out has shifted from a personal option of something you can do to an obligation of something you need to do. In many ways this might seen like a great thing as more and more people are choosing to come out of the closet, making our voices and the community stronger than ever. But sadly, it has also put immense pressure on those for whom coming out might be dangerous or threatening to their own wellbeing. It seems like mainstream culture is starting to catch up with the acceptance of homosexuality with tv shows like “Glee” giving the impression of the NYC gay dream or the happy loving “Modern Family” , but it is important that we are continuously sensitive to everyone in the community and view coming out as an option that is only decided on by a case by case basis.
Put simply, this wide stretching umbrella movement of universal busting out of the closet is leaving a large portion of gay men out of the discussion which is not only wrong but unfair, especially to gay youth for whom coming can lead to family neglect, homelessness, bullying, and depression. The glamour that America has placed on being “out and proud” overlooks these at-risk teens who are financially dependent on their families thus placing them in a less than ideal position to reveal their sexual identities.
The Hard Truth
This ever-growing problem is highlighted in a 2011 study performed by the Williams Institute at UCLA in which researchers found that nearly 40% of all homeless youth in the US identify as LGBTQ. Nearly half of those surveyed reported leaving home because of rejection due to their sexual orientation or identity. The number two reason for being kicked out was for their sexual orientation while abuse relating to coming out ranked in at number three. With few options, many of these teens are forced into unstable living situations, bouncing between transitional housing and temporary shelters with no foreseeable endpoint. [UCLA] Instead of teaching the importance of timing and situational decision making, the modern one-sided view of coming out as an essential action for young homosexual men is punishing America’s gay youth in the wrong direction and leaving them on the streets.
The importance of timing and context also applies to a less obvious demographic – adults. Even in a state of financial stability, timing and circumstances are an absolutely essential variable to take into consideration when deciding to come out. The most common example of this is in the workplace. As comfortable and out as you may be, the sad truth is that in the United States there are still 29 states where anyone can be legally fired for being gay [ACLU]. This also applies to other countries where sexuality discrimination is also legal and fairly common. Employment non-discrimination has come a long way, but the laws are just not quite yet there for everyone. This does not mean that you should not come out, or live in fear of being fired, but instead to educate yourself and exercise proper judgement. After all, no one knows your situation better than yourself.
Using Your Best Judgment
I myself was placed in this exact situation when I moved to Korea to teach English to elementary school students. As fast as the country is progressing economically, there is sadly a lack of progress in social equality. Being out in the workplace is extremely rare, and being fired for reasons of being ugly, old, HIV positive, and in my case, gay, are very common, especially for a job teaching children as word getting out to a parent can spell disaster. This left me in a difficult position. I decided to lie low and get a better feel from my employer which I now know was the right thing to do.
I soon learned through talking with my coworkers that my Korean boss had gay friends and that one of my coworkers was even out of the closet to her. I made a compromise by waiting, but in the end, I was happy. This was a time that I learned that timing is key. If I had jumped the gun in a different scenario I could easily have been fired on the spot and sent on an airplane back to the United States. Instead, I made the best judgment based on the information I had at my disposal and picked the right time to tell my coworkers and boss who all ultimately accepted me for who I was.
Striking a Balance
Many gay men can agree that “coming out” is not something you do once, but a process you must do over and over for the rest of your life. This may sound scary and overwhelming for some, but the truth is that this actually gives you a lot of control and dexterity over your life as well as your relationships with other people. As with anything, the more you come out, the easier it becomes. Eventually, it becomes so easy, so natural, and such an essential part of your own identity that you forget you are even doing it. On the other hand, as much of a skill coming out is, learning who to tell, and what situations are appropriate to reveal yourself are equally as important.
A lot of progress has been made and society is quickly changing, but we cannot forget that everybody’s situation is different. The gay community is much bigger than the stereotypical out and proud successful man in the big city. It includes the unsure teenager in the conservative household, the hard working employee in unequal Alabama, and the thousands upon thousands of men who simply aren’t ready or in the right place to come out for the first time, or for the 100th time. If we can stop viewing being closeted as a sign of cowardliness, but in some circumstances, a sign of intelligence and bravery, then society can benefit and become a safer, more inclusive place for all gay men.