The idea of coming out is older than many realize but it has taken nearly one and half centuries for concept to become widely spread and experienced.
In 1869 the German homosexual rights advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs talked about coming out as a means of emancipation. Ulrichs claimed that invisibility was a major obstacle toward changing public opinion, he urged homosexuals themselves to come out. How true this was. It has been the visibility(coming out) of out, proud gay and lesbian people which has influenced acceptance and equality more than anything else. Ulrichs concept was ground-breaking and way before it’s time. But it has to begin somewhere.
In his 1906 work Kultur (The Sexual Life of Our Time in its Relation to Modern Civilization, Iwan Bloch, a German-Jewish physician, encouraged elderly homosexuals to come out to their heterosexual family members and acquaintances.
In 1914, Magnus Hirschfeld revisited the topic in his major work The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1914), discussing the social and legal potentials of several thousand men and women of rank coming out to the police (as it was illegal) in order to influence legislators and public opinion.
1944 .The first important American to come out was the poet Robert Duncan by using his own name in the anarchist magazine Politics, claiming that homosexuals were an oppressed minority.
In 1951, Edward Sagarin published his landmark The Homosexual in America, exclaiming, “Society has handed me a mask to wear…Everywhere I go, at all times and before all sections of society, I pretend.” Donald Webster Cory was the name he published under, but his frank and openly subjective descriptions served as a stimulus to the emerging homosexual self-consciousness.
1969 Stonewall Riots. Gay liberation was birthed.
Today, more gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are out than ever before. Research has demonstrated that being in the closet is unhealthy for the individual. Many of the challenges currently faced in the LGBT community could be attributed to the long term impacts of internalized homophobia; living in the closet with secrecy and shame. Coming out is often seen within gay and lesbian communities as politically healthy, even a duty or necessity, arguing that the more out gay people there are, the harder it will be for opponents to misrepresent, marginalize, and oppress.
This is of course very challenging in countries like Africa, the Middle East, other Islamic nations as well as parts of Eastern Europe such as Russia where penalties of imprisonment or death still exist.
The act of revealing a closeted person’s orientation against his or her wishes is known as “outing” them. Sometimes it is used to prove a political point, or demonstrate a contradiction between private lifestyle and public stance. Outing someone is like ripping a butterfly from its cocoon. You can damage them for life and rob them of THEIR life changing experience of liberation. For a successful emergence THEY have to struggle through the cocoon of fear and shame. THEN they can fly.
The process of resolution (coming out)
Let me take you through the process that I went through. Its not the same for everyone but like Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ process of grieving, most people pass through each stage at some time no matter how briefly. Problems develop when people become stuck in one place and can’t move on.
- Unconscious – (I don’t know I’m gay, straight or anything. I’m just a kid)
- Awareness awakens – (I’m different to the guys or girls around me. I’m thinking about and finding myself attracted to the same sex. Could I be gay?) Research shows that the average age when people have this awareness is around 13-14 during puberty. That makes sense because it is of course a sexual orientation we are talking about. For some there is a period when they become aware but they don’t have a word for it. Some have this awareness even younger – particularly in hindsight they see how it was always the same gender that attracted them or got their attention in movies or that they we fascinated with same gender bodies instead of opposite etc.
- Denial (I’m not gay, I was drunk, I’m bisexual, I was just horny, it’s just a stage, I was just experimenting). Sadly some people get stuck here for years or even their life.
- Rejection (I can change it, I can overcome it). In this stage people fight, pray and do whatever they can to get rid of it so they can be “normal”.
- Suppression (I can control it, monitor it, it’s my secret, no one need know). Trying to push this fundamental part of you are down is like trying to hold a beach
ball underwater. Over time it becomes tiring and eventually it can pop to the surface or even scarier you may get outed.
- Hatred (this thing is too strong for me, I hate my gayness, therefore I hate myself). During this stage the most damage is done to the individual. It’s called internalised homophobia (self-hatred). Living with the internal conflict or hatred of the gay self (dissonance) will eventually impact us either psychologically (e.g. depression), emotionally (distancing and unable to have intimacy or strong friendships) or physically (stress related illnesses e.g. high blood pressure, insomnia, ulcers etc)
- Acceptance (Healthy & unhealthy, I accept it, I’m fine with it now, or I reluctantly accept it). It’s wonderful that so many young people today are coming out and accepting their homosexuality. There is also a group, like I was for years, who have accepted their sexuality but only reluctantly. There is no great sense of pride. They would prefer to be heterosexual and as long as that remains in their thinking, they can never fully embrace their true selves and enjoy the sense of freedom that brings. They exist with a subconscious belief that life is unfair, they still live with a sense of shame. I have met people who have accepted their homosexuality but still believe they will inevitably go to hell because they “gave in” to their homosexuality. Imagine what that thinking is doing to their mental health.
- Celebration (I love being gay).
This is the beginning of living a life of authenticity and congruence. The person who celebrates and embraces their sexuality lives a powerful life that transforms those around them because no one can deny what you have………a wholesome and profound love of self. This is where the term “gay pride” would be particularly relevant. Some straight people don’t get the concept of gay pride which is understandable because they have never had to endure years of gay shame.
These days there are lots of community and online support groups to help people through this process.
The vast majority of those I have worked with, one on one, through this process have had good outcomes whilst many experienced way better than they ever expected.
© Anthony Venn-Brown