GAMMA: The Gay
Married Men's Association
Providing peer counseling, support, and outreach to gay married men, their wives, partners, and friends.
We would welcome your comments and contributions on the subject of Coming Out. Tell us about your own experiences. We invite you to send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org . They may be edited for clarity and brevity prior to posting. We will identify your submission by use of your first name and middle initial, unless you prefer to remain anonymous.
Coming out was the most difficult and challenging experience of my life. It was also the most necessary and most rewarding, because it enabled me to become an honest, whole, open human being, comfortable with myself and with others.
During the coming-out process, I kept a small notebook, in which I jotted down various quotations from my reading, plus observations about myself and others. Now and again, I would review what I had written, in search of inspiration and courage. Perhaps some excerpts from my notebook will help you as well, as you continue on your journey.
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The very first quotation requires a bit of explanation. In 1996, the Library of Congress cancelled a photo exhibit showing the realities of American slavery, because Black employees of the Library protested they did not want this part of their history put on public display. Subsequently, the Martin Luther King Library in Washington, D.C. mounted the exhibit. The director of the King Library explained his decision as follows:
It's not until these kinds of things [the realities of slavery] are exposed or out in the open that one gets an opportunity to heal. It's part of our history. It's a reality.
I applied the D.C. librarians words in a very different context, to my desire to be honest with myself and others about my homosexuality. I wanted to get "these kinds of things" out in the open. I wanted to heal. So I began to come out. I did heal, eventually. I'm grateful to the King librarian for first pointing the way.
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The second item in my notebook is a listing of the "cage bars" that enclosed the "cage" or closet in which I felt trapped, afraid to come out. These "bars" represented the fears, attitudes, and memories that made coming out so difficult for me.
Fear of closeness to other human beings.
A habit of falling in love with men who are unavailable.
Painful memories of unrequited love.
Fear of disease.
Looking back, it's clear that, in one way or another, I had to deal with every one of these issues. Some, like age, simply had to be accepted as part of my life. Others, like my fear of closeness to others, represented feelings that I could gradually overcome.
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My coming-out notebook contains a series of quotations from Richard Isay, M.D., a gay psychoanalyst, formerly married, who wrote Becoming Gay (Owl Books, Henry Holt and Company, 1996). Here are some of them:
It is healthy for an adult to come out in all areas of his life… to provide continuity between his internal, private life and his external, social life. Coming out alleviates the anxiety and depression caused by the sense of inauthenticity that arises from hiding or disguising oneself. (p. 8)
When describing his own coming-out process, Isay used the following words to record his feelings while attending a gay pornographic movie during an out-of-town trip (p. 27-8):
Because of the intensity of my sexual feelings, I realized that, in fact, I was homosexual. For the first time, because my sexual feelings and impulses were so clear and powerful, I did not believe I was sick. I experienced a sense of relief and exhilaration. I knew that homosexuality was the passion I had believed myself incapable of ever experiencing.
For the next weeks elation alternated with intense and utter despair. I was devoted to my wife and two children and was nearing completion of training in a profession that was prejudiced against and intolerant of homosexuals. I was excited by the prospect of expressing my sexual passion, but I could not conceive how the confines of my life would ever permit this.
Isay's book also contains an important chapter entitled "The Dilemma of Heterosexually Married Homosexual Men". It contains an insightful series of case studies of married homosexuals who have come to Isay for help. A couple of those case studies seemed particularly applicable to me. In one of them, Isay observed (p. 102):
I felt that he [Isay's patient] had to acquire understanding of his unconscious rage that derived from the emotional deprivation of his childhood, before his self-regard would be healthy enough that he could begin to consolidate and integrate his sexual orientation and form a positive sexual identity. Only then would he be able to deal with the stress of separation and divorce and be able to sustain a relationship with another man.
As to another patient, Isay warned (p. 109):
Any middle-aged homosexual man in a long heterosexual marriage poses a serious suicide risk; he is likely to believe there is no other solution to the dilemma caused by conflict between his fear of loss of love and security and the inherent, compelling need to express his sexuality in a loving relationship with another man.
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Another book that found its way into my coming-out notebook is Loving Someone Gay, by Don Clark (Celestial Arts, Berkeley, California, 1987). Clark, who was married at the time he began to come out, states (p. 203) that "It is very difficult to be gay and remain monogamous in a heterosexual marriage." Later (pp. 219-20) he offers a series of "generalizations" about the feelings of persons in the coming-out process:
(1) The Gay person has learned to feel different. In this society, which values conformity, the person feels devalued or worthless even though he or she may be outwardly successful and accomplished.
(2) The Gay person has learned to distrust his or her own feelings. The process began with the dim awareness of attraction to people of the same gender and the environmental message that such feelings of attraction are wrong or bad….
(3) The Gay person is likely to have decreased awareness of feelings. The anger generated in a punitive environment and the anger at self for being different seems unjustified and therefore must be sent out of awareness where it continues to accumulate. The other feelings are affected through a process of generalization and are also given less awareness or attention.
(4) The Gay person, being invisible to others, is assaulted daily with attacks on [his] character and ability. These attacks may come in the form of anti-Gay jokes and statements…often from friends and family….
(5) The Gay person feels alone, wrong, and fears further lack of support and affection if he or she reveals true thoughts, feelings, and identity.
(6) The Gay person is apt to be the victim of depression…. Much of this stems from the hidden anger, the self-imposed limitation on awareness of feelings and interpersonal interaction, and the lack of emotional nurturance.
(7) The Gay person is likely to be tempted to dull the pain that surfaces now and again through misuse of drugs and alcohol or to end the pain by suicide.
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Yet another book that comments usefully on the coming-out process is Virtually Normal by Andrew Sullivan. Among other things, Sullivan provides a clear and poignant account of his own coming-out experience. Later in the book (p. 165-6), he makes the following comments about "the process that is clumsily called 'coming out'":
The act of openly conceding one's homosexuality is in some ways an act of faith in the sturdiness of one's own identity and the sincerity of one's own heart. For those who never feel that faith, life will always, in a fundamental emotional way, be something of a crepuscular zone. Those who never seize their own identity…are forever at the mercy of others' definitions and whims…in the depths of their psyches and the quiet part of their souls….
The resilience of hostility toward homosexuals…is greatly abetted by the fact that homosexuals are hidden from view. In these circumstances, bigotry cannot be countered by truth, because homosexuals insist on concealing the truth. Prejudice…is…overcome only the tenacity and courage of those willing to confront it….
It is only by the paradoxical process of risking one's livelihood and sense of self by asserting that one is NOT a victim that the psychological dynamic is transformed and real progress is made….
Liberals may actually have distracted gay people from the more pressing and immediate task at hand -- the wrenching attempt to disclose one's sexuality to parents, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, the difficult process of coming to terms with what is often a traumatic adolescence, [and] the abandonment of internalized self-loathing.
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Queer Science by Simon LeVay (The MIT Press, 1996) found its way into my notebook. LeVay focuses mainly on biological science, but he also comments on comments on the coming-out process, which he describes as "a process of increasing honesty (to oneself and others) about a same-sex attraction one has been experiencing all along."
When reviewing LeVay's book, the September 1, 1996 Washington Post Book Review commented (p. 9) that:
The more people are willing to drop ideology and look at the facts…it should become self-evident that gay people live in a manner appropriate to their nature. It will no longer be possible pretend that someone's homosexuality can be -- for others' convenience -- walled off from the rest of their psyche or excised by act of medicine, law, or religion. Biology reinforces what gay people have always understood: Being gay is an integral aspect of self. It isn't something that you do but something that you are.
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A book that was especially important for me in the coming-out process was Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America, by Michael Nava and Robert Dawidoff (St. Martins Press, 1994). My notebook contains a series of quotations:
The feelings that prompt ordinary people to love members of their own gender against the grain of convention, and the decision to honor those feelings, are different for every person. The decision to accept one's homosexuality occurs in that interior space where a person's deepest truths reside: the core of personal liberty. (p. 15)
Gay people can hide. But the condition of hiding or passing is a surrender of freedom, of identity and ultimately of life itself… The unsuspected homosexual trapped in an unwanted heterosexual lifestyle pays the tribute of his or her own life to the system of oppression. Such a person courts dysfunction, misery, and shame without escaping intolerable oppression, and special vulnerability to prosecution. (p. 18)
Coming out is more than an acknowledgment, acceptance, or even announcement of one's sexual identity. It represents a continuing process founded on an act of compassion toward oneself… That act is the acceptance of one's fundamental worth, including and not despite one's homosexuality, in the face of social condemnation and likely persecution. Coming out is the process by which one arrives at one's values the hard way: testing them against what one knows to be true about oneself. Gay men and lesbians must think about family, morality, nature, choice, freedom, and responsibility in ways most people never have to. Truly to come out, a gay person must become one of those human beings who…want to be true to themseves… Once they have their own authentic self, they will not want to lose it. (p. 26)
Attempts to stop being gay leave people spiritually and emotionally wounded…but no straighter. (p. 45)
Gay people don't come out because it is fashionable, popular, easy, safe, mandatory, or conventional; they do it to be true to themselves (p. 103)
While remaining in the closet is prudent survival strategy, it also makes closeted gay men and women hapless collaborators in their own oppression. (p. 115)
Most lesbians and gay men are ordinary human beings…. Most of them never wanted to be outlaws or to be faced with the choice of being true to themselves or lying about their lives in order to get by without being scorned, rejected, or physically attacked. They do not relish having to make public disclosures of private matters simply to win the right of privacy that everyone else takes for granted. (p. 159)
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So how did all this resolve itself for me?
One of the things I learned is that coming out is an ongoing process. I expect that I will be coming out in one way or another for many years to come, perhaps for the rest of my life.
But after a couple of years of reading, and thinking, and having the courage to reveal myself to others, I was able to arrive at a few informal conclusions about who and where I was. Here they are:
(1) I have become a different person than I was a year or two ago -- the person I always was and was intended to be -- but inside the old skin, and with an obligation to respect and live with the choices that I made in the past.
(2) Discovering, at long last, that I am genuinely and authentically gay is like having an elephant move into my living room: it is an inescapable fact that demands a response.
(3) I hope for a time when the stresses and challenges of the coming-out process will be largely resolved, when I can be comfortable in my marriage (the legacy of the past) without being untrue to the reality of the present (which is that I am a gay man with gay needs).
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There's more in my notebook, but these are the most important of the quotations. There's more to my life as well, and I expect my coming-out process will continue. So wish me luck; I wish you luck too.
by Tom F.
G A M M A