Coming Out: A Relic of the Past?

Rhys Harper

Rhys is a nineteen year-old Glaswegian journalist currently on his soul-searching gap year, minus the actual soul searching. He has written for a number of publications and regards himself as quite the political activist, though more in theory than in practice.

It’s not often, I must confess, that I would willingly discuss my sexuality at work. Perhaps this unwillingness spawns from deep-rooted internalised homophobia, or perhaps it’s just that I work in retail and so any discussion relating to sexuality, or politics, or religion for that matter, is pretty much out of bounds.

You don’t work hard to create a welcoming atmosphere that will encourage customers to spend the money that pays your wages, only for it to be dashed due to inter-collegial comments made about libertarianism being the first symptom of “scumbag syndrome” within earshot of middle class suburban Tory voters who were about to spend £300 on chinos. It’s just not good business acumen, really.

And so it was with great reluctance that I entered – or more accurately, was shoved – into such a discussion last week when circled by three heterosexual colleagues like the tug boat from Jaws who bluntly threw the question: “Why aren’t you out to your parents?” The composition of my Grand Hetero Jury was, upon reflection, interesting. One already knew that I was not “out” to my family because of a similar inquisition that had sprang from seemingly nowhere about six months previously when trapped alone on the shop floor with nothing to discuss except, apparently, what I do with my penis. She made it quite clear then, and again last week, that she found my predicament entirely funny.

The second of my inquisitors looked upon me from a different position. She, too, had known about my situation following a conversation we had had not three days beforehand in which she told me that her sister was a lesbian and that their family had been passively unsupportive, even cruel. She was visibly, out of the three, more concerned for me than amused. The third – best of all – had no idea that I was not out to absolutely everyone in the world, squawked “What?” loudly and repeatedly, made clear that she just assumed anyone beyond the age of twelve was almost legally obliged to have applied for their queer license, lest they be living a lie.

What then followed was a succession of attempts to draw from me an explanation as to why I had not told my parents, by the age of nineteen, that I was attracted to the same sex and had been aware of this attraction since the age of about three or four when I first encountered Leonardo DiCaprio in either Titanic or Romeo + Juliet (I truthfully cannot remember which, I was just looking at his fine face). It was less like drawing blood from a stone, and more like drawing blood from a vacuum of space positioned twelve hundred light-years away using only a Fisher Price spade. I shrugged my shoulders; I told them I “just didn’t want to.” This did not appease them. They pressed on.

Are they religious? No. Would you get kicked out the house? Definitely not. Have they ever given the impression that they would react badly? No, not really.

Frustration from their side; indifference from mine. I was not giving them the answers they wanted – or expected, perhaps even felt entitled – to hear.  And then –

“Do you not think they deserve to know? Do you not think it’s dishonest of you to not tell them?”

I pulled the breaks. Because at that point I knew this discussion could not go any further without a Carrie-like meltdown. My passive indifference to this inane questioning had switched to active opposition. I walked away.

What’s regrettable is that I did just that, I walked away rather than stay and explain the stupidity and inherent homophobia – yes, I said it – of such a position. But some things are easy enough to explain through queer LGBT culture websites and blogs, but less so in the real world, with people who don’t readily follow every civil rights development and social critique like it’s a sport. But I should have stated my problem, I really should have.

I should have told them that my sexuality belongs to me, and I am obliged to no one but myself when it comes to issues pertaining to it. I should have asked them why they believe it is compulsory for me to inform my parents that I am not heterosexual, despite the fact I have never been looked down on in such a way for not telling my parents that I do not enjoy seafood, or the music of Michael Bublé, or either of the truly terrible Fantastic Four films that were released several years ago.

This belief that I somehow ‘owe’ it to my parents, or to anyone, to be up front and honest with them about my sexuality really strikes at the heart of why I dislike the whole “coming out” concept.  Often the entire process just feels like permission seeking. Like we are being told we must go through these stages: sitting down with our friends and family at the dining table, informing them that we are not like them, that we are different, then accepting their acceptance through tears: initiation complete. The straight world can now comprehend you. You have announced that you are ‘the other’, making it official. The stamp presses down on the mental file. You are Neil Patrick Harris. You are Ellen DeGeneres.

Isn’t that sad? One of our dearest milestones as individuals is to make our sexual feelings public in a way that those who get turned on by morph suits or the smell of paint are not obliged to.  Sure, sexuality is about much more than just sex, but then if you examine what makes someone attractive, or lovable, you’ll find the reasons are just as similar, or as varying, as that of non-queer people. The only real distinction is gender.

Equally it would be a little utopian of me to suggest that we should move into some post-gender world, like it’s that easy or desirable. But what we could do – those of us who are sick of the closet system (and I know I’m not the only one) – is refuse to engage with the hetero-dominant model of confessing, of ‘admitting’ what we are like it’s akin to criminality. We could put in to practice a habit and, over time, naturalisation of just talking about our lives as they are, without a prefix of apology or clarification. We could just state, without the slightest trace of embarrassment, that Zac Efron is in fact a babe. And if anyone stutters afterwards “Oh…are you… are you gay?” react as though they have just asked if you are human.

Because when we talk of being proud of our sexuality, what we are really saying is that we are proud of ourselves and that our sexuality is just one component of that – one we would not seek to change: why should we? It’s not lesser. It’s not even that significant when you really list out all the things that define us.  I like to think that my politics and my Spotify playlists say more about me than my craving for Nick Jonas.

‘Coming out’ for many feels an awful lot like an admission of inferiority, almost apologetic in its approach. There is no before and after, no butterfly-like transformation into what a heterosexual society deems acceptable from a queer person. There are just people, people who may or may not have rewound the Romeo + Juliet videotape so many times that it broke.

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