Coming out – what’s it all about?

In the week that another Ellen comes out as gay, I have been thinking about the process of coming out. I have “come out” twice in my life – once as gay and once as trans. The first time I came out, I told a really good friend on the night that “The Puppy Episode” first aired in the UK (1998). I hadn’t planned it that way as part of Channel 4’s big “coming out” night party. Although I’d been watching that season of “Ellen”, I’d forgotten it was on that night and didn’t even set the video recorder! I wasn’t quite as up-to-speed with LGBT media events then as I am now. However, I do know that “Ellen” was a huge wake-up call for me as to who I was and why I was. Living in a small conservative island, I had no role models around to clue me into what being gay meant and “Ellen” filled that gap. So, actually, it was kind of appropriate that I did come out on the same night as the character Ellen Morgan – although, unwittingly.

Having told my friend, it took me two years, lots of deep thought, conversations and counseling, to feel secure enough about how I felt to then tell my family. Their reaction can be summed up as ‘well, that’s hardly a surprise’ and ‘we still love you because you’re still you’.

The second time I came out, I told the same friend first and then it took me two years, lots of deep thought, conversations and counseling, to feel secure enough about how I felt to then tell my family. Their reaction can be summed up as ‘well, that’s hardly a surprise’ and ‘we still love you because you’re still you’!

I didn’t deliberately follow the same pattern of coming out the second time around, it just happened that way. I find it interesting that it took me two years, both times, to reach a point where I was comfortable that what I was telling people was the truth and not a false reading of my feelings. I’m not suggesting that everyone who comes out should, or does, take two years to do so. Obviously, that’s how long it takes me to process things, other people will be different. Most people don’t come out twice and so don’t have the opportunity to compare notes.

Gaining that perspective, I believe that there is a pattern to coming out that starts with coming out to yourself. Then, there is a period of testing the theory. In my case, it was about reading and counseling, watching as many television programs as I could and surfing the Internet for more and more information, until I was sure. For other people, it might be more physical and less cerebral, experimenting with dating or cross-dressing, for example. However you get through it, you reach a point where you accept the proof of what you initially thought was the case. For me, both times, that was harder than coming out and the “testing”, and “re-testing”, phase took a comparatively long time. Once I’d reached an acceptance of myself, the coming out process was swift. I found that I wanted to tell people in order that they didn’t take me for someone that I wasn’t and, thereby, collude in something that I knew to be a lie. The desire to share what I knew came because I had reached a level of comfort with my news that to keep it secret would have no longer been honest and, frankly, would have been more of a burden than sharing it.

Having maintained my relationships intact the first time round, I felt fairly secure that my friends and family would be just as accepting the second time. I was therefore less nervous the second time around and clearer about what I needed to tell those close to me in order that they could process the information. But I had to tell more people. My second coming out was necessarily going to be more public. Coming out as gay, unless you choose to, you don’t have to out yourself to complete strangers (government officials, insurance brokers, bank clerks) and people you only know in a professional capacity (co-workers, your lawyer, your GP). Coming out as trans, there is no way to avoid outing yourself to people you would not normally share intimate information with. And, because of where I live, there was no way I was going to be able to contain it to those who I told selectively. If I wanted to be stealth, I would have to move away and I wasn’t prepared to do that.

So, what is the process really all about? It will be different for everyone and, for me, it was different both times.

My first coming out, I did for me. It explained to me and those close to me who I was and why I was. I didn’t hide the fact that I was gay, but I didn’t feel a need to share it with work colleagues, for example. The people who needed to know knew, and that was enough. I had a choice about who I told and when. My first coming out released me from the burden of striving to conform to something I was never going to be. It allowed me to be more “me” and it gave me the freedom to express myself inline with my true identity.

My second coming out, I did for more nuanced reasons. Of course, I did it for me but I also did it because I felt an obligation to others to do it. Having spent time educating myself about the politics of the LGBT community, I am more politically aware than I was. I know that coming out helps others all over the world. Visibility normalises the LGBT experience for outsiders. It was therefore important to me to be visible the second time. The first time I came out, I was helped by the visibility of people like Ellen Degerenes and Martina Navratilova. Perhaps, because I am older, I care less about what people think now. Or, perhaps, life has taught me that the majority of people give only a passing thought to the personal lives of others. They don’t really care what someone does personally unless, of course, it affects them directly. Regardless of the need to come out to all sorts of people that transitioning imposes, I wanted to come out fully and completely as a transman. It’s a small thing, but a gesture that I felt I could make to give back to a community that helped me.

I now have a better understanding of the extra burden that coming out when you are in the media’s eye entails. It isn’t something that you just do for yourself anymore. You don’t choose who you come out to, you come out to the world. Ellen Page’s speech at the Human Rights’ Time to Thrive conference was therefore political and personal, and it was all the more poignant and powerful for that. Coming out is always a selfish move but, as Ellen Page proved, it can also be a selfless one, too.

Ian McKellen in an interview this week spoke about his reasons for coming out that speaks to the desire of LGBT people not only to be out, but to be out for others.

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