Society has long painted a picture of what coming out is "supposed" to be -- but what is it actually like?
Jo Rozycki | October 8, 2018
Here’s another article from our Fall 2018 Pride Guide, released in conjunction with 2018′s VA PrideFest. Get your copy of the print edition at your favorite shops around town, or check out the digital version here.
If you are a member of the LGBTQ community, you have to come out. At least, that’s what our society expects. There’s a standard picture of coming out that many people have in their heads: sitting family and friends down on a couch or at the dinner table, and making an announcement. And there’s also a standard template of expected responses: either tearful acceptance and outpouring of love, or vehement disapproval and banishment.
However, this is not by any means the way it always works. The LGBTQ experience of coming out plays out in many different ways; it’s as diverse as the community itself. In order to get a glimpse of the many different forms coming out can take, I spoke with three people from the central Virginia area about their experiences with coming out. They all grew up differently, were raised differently, were accepted differently, and live their unique lives differently. They all have their own unique stories. Regardless, coming out is something that they, like all LGBTQ people, have to navigate on a daily basis. Here’s how they see it.
Bisexual Cis Female
26 years old
Hometown: Queens, NY
Current City: Richmond, VA
Occupation: Project Management
“Coming out was messy, horrible, complicated. I was about 23, 24. I was dating a guy at the time. The reason we were [in an] open [relationship] was because I said, ‘I am feeling these things for women and I want to explore that, because I don’t know if I fully understand that within myself what that means.’ I realized through that [experience] that I feel more than just sexually for women. In hindsight, I’m grateful that I was with someone that gave me the room to explore that part of myself, in a time where I didn’t understand what I was experiencing.
“I think it was easier to come out to people that didn’t already know me well. I don’t even know if that counts. If someone doesn’t know any other previous version of you, does that mean that you’re coming out to them? Is that still coming out if they never knew that you weren’t? I would say, almost in the same way that somebody white-complected doesn’t scream what race they are, I don’t think that I personally scream visually that I’m interested in women. I was like, ‘Do I have to announce this part of myself? Is it a part of myself, or all of me now? Do I need to make sure everybody knows, just to set the record straight?’
“It was shocking for my sister. It was very shocking for my mom. They [learned] after the friends, because I told my friends in such rapid succession. My mom’s side of the family is from Jamaica. In Jamaica, you can be in grave danger if you’re a homosexual. It’s a very real thing. My parents didn’t have great reactions at first, but they love me more than anything, even their perceived values.
“For me, coming out is necessary for people to understand me. I think it depends on the person. Everybody should be able to, but I don’t think everybody has [to have] an official conversation saying the words ‘I am LGBTQ.’
“It can be very empowering. I felt more understood by my friends, and I could breathe a little easier. But coming out can be very othering. One day in the future, it would be nice if there was a space where you just come as you are.”
Gay Cis Male
61 years old
Hometown: Mount Lebanon, PA
Current City: Richmond, VA
Occupation: Executive Director of Richmond Triangle Players
“At 12 or 13, my parents started subscribing to the Sunday New York Times. They had movie ads, and [at] that time – this was about 1969, 1970 – there were x-rated theatres being advertised in the paper. And they were all-male. I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ Even though I knew from a really early age I was in a different tribe, that was the first time I said, ‘Oh, that means…oh, okay. That’s why…’ I very significantly had crushes and they were all on men. Then it became very, very clear to me.
“I didn’t find the words until probably high school. As I was going through it as a young teen, the celebrity crushes I had, there was no question who I was looking at. I was looking at Bobby Sherman, Robert Conrad, all these guys. Everyone else was checking out Julie Newmar and Susan Day. Outside of the avoidance in high school, I never had any real conflict about it. There was no shame. It was just who I was.
“It was my freshman year of college. [It was] absolutely liberating. I felt like I belonged. I just did it. It was what I needed to do to be happy. I wanted those relationships in my life. I wanted the dating, the partnering.
“It was my mother who [first] asked me. I’d had a botched appendicitis diagnosis, so I contracted peritonitis. I was very sick. I was in the hospital, after four or five days on drugs. Around that time, my parents had a friend who had been married with kids, was involved in the school system, but had been caught having sex in a car with another man. That was the ruination of his life and his career. No job, drummed out of town, no wife, no kids. That was very upsetting to her because of how his life got destroyed, not because of what he had done. I was lying in the bed, and she relates that story. She said, ‘So what about you?’ I knew what she was asking. I said, ‘Well, yeah, that’s me.’ She goes, ‘That’s fine. I just wanted to hear you say that. Your dad and I have already talked through all this, and it’s not an issue. We just know it’s going to be a harder road for you, and that makes us a little sad.’
“I think it depends on the person, the situation, and their lives. It depends on what that means for you. If coming out is coming out for yourself — getting honest with yourself, finding your authentic, true self — then I think everybody’s got to do it.
“It redefines your relationships with other people, or it can redefine you. If you have people in your life who’d rather prefer the lie to the truth, then the truth is going to drive them away. But that’s okay. Sadly, sometimes it’s your blood family. But that’s still okay. The glory of being queer, and what we’ve always done, is we’ve made our families. We’ve always created our families out of the people we know love us.”
23 years old
Hometown: Charlottesville, VA
Current City: Oberlin, OH
“I learned about LGBTQ probably in 7th or 8th grade. I’ve kind of known since I was 7 or 8, I just didn’t have the language to say anything about it. Because I was raised Christian, anything that isn’t straight is a sin.
“I was 17 and I was visiting Oberlin. There was a very attractive student who was showing us around and answering all of our questions. That was the first time that I actively was attracted to someone who wasn’t a cis boy. It was weird for me. I felt butterflies, I was getting hot, I couldn’t help but smile at her and stare at her. I didn’t know why.
“It started to hurt not being able to tell anyone. I like sharing. I felt like I [had] started lying to my friends because I just couldn’t talk about it. I came out to my whole entire friend group at the end of freshman year. It was spring 2014. At the time, I told them I was bisexual, because I didn’t know how to gauge it. None of them were openly anything but straight. It scared me because I was like, ‘If no one else in this group isn’t straight, how are they going to accept me?’ They all were ecstatic. No one was weirded out about it. It was such a celebratory moment.
“I had waited another year to tell my mom. I spent five days talking with my brother about how to tell my mother. It was hurting, not telling her things. All I wanted to tell her was all the beautiful things happening in my life. But all those things revolved around me telling her. We got really distant because I just stopped talking to her.
“We had a family reunion dinner, and at the very end, I told her. She was like ‘I kind of knew. Nothing is going to stop me from loving you.’ We cried and we hugged. The moment itself was positive. The moments and years after that started to unravel, and really showed how we all need to work through this. It’s still something I can’t actively talk about with my mom. She knows; I don’t hide it from her anymore. It’s just something we don’t really mention.
“The reason why I waited so long to tell her was because I was afraid I was going to make her choose between her family and her religion. A lot of it was just based off of the fact that church folk talk. That started affecting how the congregation felt about me. What does it look like to be one of the only black, woman preachers in town, who’s supposed to be preaching all of these things, whose child is coming out? And not only telling her I’m queer, but [also that] I’m not sure how I feel about Christianity anymore, because it literally doesn’t like me. [It] was a very hard conversation to have with her. I had to explain to her that this is not something I can do anymore. It was rough.
“[Being] black and queer and spiritual/religious is just such an interesting mix of things because you’re dealing with oppression from different sides. The LGBTQ community and the black community have been on parallel journeys in history. They’ve both had to fight for what they needed.
“I remember when I first started feeling not my gender, I had two other friends who are trans non-binary. I asked, ‘What makes you feel like [you were] not a woman, and not a man? I don’t feel comfortable as a woman, but I very much do not see myself as a man.’ In the midst of this conversation, I realized that I’m in the middle, and I don’t know what that’s called. And my friend goes, ‘That’s called non-binary.’ That was the first eureka moment. That was four years ago.
“I have to come out every single day. It’s frustrating. I let people misgender me because having to sit and explain to them over and over and over again is difficult. If I’m misgendered, I’d rather be misgendered than be forgotten. Both suck. But I’d rather be misgendered because people are ignorant, rather than say it and get angry with me and have a whole thing start.
“Because of the world we live in, I think it’s impossible not to come out. Coming out should not be necessary. I should not have to come out to people 12 times a day. I never come out because it’s something I want to do. I know it’s something I have to do, so someone won’t misgender me, or I’m somehow seen as valid in your eyes.
“It’s not for us. It never was for us. It’s so that cis, straight people understand and can somehow validate that for us. Because we live in a cis, straight world. If you’re other than those things, you somehow have to justify who you are to everyone else.
“Even if you don’t call it coming out, it’s still coming out. We still have to say who we are. We still have to speak and have agency and be able to realize and tell other people that we matter. We deserve to be here, just like everybody else.”