On coming out and collective queer trauma.

In the socially conservative Long Island town I grew up, the word “gay” was only used negatively. There were virtually no examples of gay people to look up to; in my high school of roughly 3200 people throughout 8 grades, I knew of only 2 gay people. Our high school readings contained no queer characters; protagonists or otherwise. The Catholic church was ever-present.

Taken individually, these traits may seem subtle or vague, but they were symptoms of deeper social oppression: a silencing of sorts. It wasn’t an internal stubbornness that caused me to try to actively convince myself that the attraction I felt for other men was an illusion — it was handed to me by my surroundings, like some mild form of lung cancer induced by poor air quality. I constantly policed my thoughts, punishing myself whenever I caught myself daydreaming of male bodies. I dutifully watched pornography of lesbians in an attempt to convince my mind of the fact that women could indeed be sexualized. My mental castigations seemed hourly, with significant impact.

As the years wore on and the self-conversion process became increasingly futile, I started fulfilling normal teenage urges via Craigslist personals. I had anonymous and dangerous sex with men anywhere from 30 to 50 years old, often in cars or hotel rooms. After such encounters, I would feel dirty, guilty, and abused — both by myself and others. I would punish myself and doubled down on the self-policing of my thoughts. However, like an addiction, the urges returned more strongly and I would seek out riskier and riskier encounters.

This is the backdrop upon which my parents unwittingly entered. One day, when I was 17, my parents checked my email without warning me. They found an email conversation in which I was discussing a meeting time with a man. Several days later, my dad asked me to talk to him privately; white-faced, he asked if I were “a homosexual.” I was shocked and unprepared. As if in a dream, I said, “yes.” I don’t remember the rest of our conversation — he counseled me a bit on how this was OK, but that that life would were riskier. I could die of AIDS. I do remember that he took me down to my mother, who was clearly waiting for an answer. We repeated the conversation. She cried, sad and upset for me and for the life she had imagined, replete with grandchildren. As she cried, she told me that life would be a lot harder and I would need to be careful.

The next few months were, for many reasons, difficult. I often felt as though I was walking on eggshells and was a stranger in my family. In direct rebellion, I started to date an older man, which became a daily battle and wedged my parents and I apart. I felt resentment and belittlement over my privacy being violated, and, honestly, disgust that my parents had handled the situation with grief rather than empathy.

In the larger context of the homophobia of the society around me, coming out as a chapter of growing up gay had imparted a trauma that is difficult to understand. As I have settled into gay communities in the US, I’ve heard a range of other coming out stories. Here are some of them.

Joe is a friend of mine who grew up in a hippie commune. He had caring mothers and fathers, and sexuality was seen as quite fluid. From what I could understand of his experience, Joe was exposed to the possibility of homosexuality and gay role models from an early age, and never quite needed to come out. I believe I sense a confidence and ease in Joe’s sexuality as a result; frankly, I envy Joe’s upbringing to an extent that is perhaps unhealthy. How would my life, sexual preferences, behaviors, emotional intimacy be different? I’ll never quite know.

Steve is a friend who is 24 and isn’t open to his parents. He was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, and was surrounded by plenty of gay role models, yet believes that his parents would not accept him for who he is. He claimed that he would tackle the subject when someone important enough came along to come out with, but this confused me. How did he expect to enter into a stable, productive relationship if he didn’t have the mental peace and clarity of leading a single life? The fundamental differences in assumptions made this a difficult topic for us to broach, and as a result, we’ve never dug deep.

Ben described to me his coming out as “stumbling out” of the closet. He told his family piece by piece, when circumstances aligned. First he told a drunken older brother, who was touched; then he told his mom six months later. Hoping to expedite the process, he asked his mom to tell the remaining family members; she did, and they were hurt by the indirectness. He believes that his relationship with them was fundamentally altered by this decision, and he bears the guilt today. I perceive a struggle in Ben with elements of his homosexuality that he has yet to fully parse: his body comfort, gender expression, and social presentation.

Trevor had a good deal of trauma around coming out. I’m not clear on the exact events of his coming out, but I know they weren’t pleasant. His parents, deeply religious, encouraged him to enter various conversion centers (“ex-gay camps”) over the course of years. The depth of trauma that he incurred from the regimented attempt to police his body and thoughts is hard to underestimate. He left his family behind, changing his name and diving into West Coast gay scene. Although he is in ways incredibly inspiring — a community leader and role model for many — I find myself deeply mystified by aspects of his persona. I perceive a guardedness, a highly cultivated social expression, and a hungry search for something Trevor knows he doesn’t yet have — yet doesn’t fully understand. And although many in my social circles find Trevor entrancing, few claim know him with any measure of depth.

It was Trevor’s story that initially inspired me to dig deeper into the mutual experience of coming out; to attempt to weave the gossamer strands of stories into a spider-web with meaningful conclusions. I used to value the sharing of coming out stories as a way to process trauma, and, through processing, to overcome it and connect. However, it was Trevor’s story that first led me to believe that coming out can really vary, compromising our connection to other gay men and imparting a whole host of interpersonal and sociosexual effects.

See, it is of fundamental importance to distinguish between “how coming out should happen,” i.e. as the normative narrative society has developed, and “how coming happens despite our best efforts to the contrary,” i.e. the reality. This normative narrative is the oft repeated script of the nervous teen sitting his parents down, nervously blurting it out, and then tearfully embracing supportive, positive parents. A crucial aspect of the narrative is that the main source of friction is internal: the teenager, the protagonist, has the agency to decide when and how to reveal. The teenager practices what to say.

I think this dream is well encapsulated in the following pop reference. From The Weekend, a touching gay movie, an orphaned man pantomimes a coming out he never had to a romantic partner, who pantomimes a reply:

“You know what, son? It doesn’t matter to me. I love you just the same. And guess what? I couldn’t be more proud of you than if you were the first man on the moon.”

To me, this epitomizes the reaction that we all want to be met with; to some extent, it’s the story that we have been taught to believe we are owed. And I truly believe that we should be treated like this— that it’s horribly oppressive for our society to expect young people without matured emotional tools guide their older family members through reactions. As Alan Downs describes in “The Velvet Rage”, we often turn this trauma into rage, superficial relationships, addiction, and disharmony of community. Down’s description certainly describes issues I struggle with daily. I believe it describes Steve and his absence from community; it describes Trevor too to a certain extent, who interacts with gay community almost entirely on his own terms.

Interestingly, some scholars claim that this normative narrative emerged as a political tool. LGBT-rights activists like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) originally facilitated the narrative that “coming out” was one good way to spread acceptance of LGBT people beyond the gay ghettos of the 70’s. The movie Milk portrays a scene where Harvey Milk encourages his followers to call everyone in their family and come out to them: although gays were safe in the Castro, their family, i.e. California voters, needed to know that gay people were in their life. The Castro gays coming out changed the lives of those less economically mobile, in conservative communities. Embracing the normative narrative, the HRC claimed, helps gays.

However, the normative coming-out narrative also helps the heterosexual, family-based status quo. As Schulman notes in “Gentrification of the Mind”, the normative script emphasizes that the gay individual is still the same individual they were when they were perceived straight, that their future remains potentially unperturbed; that they can partner up and produce grandkids; that deviance from the heterosexual future into some alternate, community-based queer life is not actually an existential threat to the existence of a nuclear, privatized family unit.

Through Trevor’s story and others, I’ve come to believe that the promise of the normative script is, at its core, unattainable. Coming out, embracing a non-normative sexuality, and placing oneself out of the heterosexual dating norms that are handed to us is fundamentally threatening to the unstable idea of the heterosexual family-based status quo.

For me, elements of the normative promise were clearly missing; my parents certainly felt they had lost something. For Trevor, his coming out was a more extreme threat — almost an existential threat — to the stability of his family’s conception of itself. And for Steve, coming out seems such a threat that he hasn’t yet performed it. We have all suffered by bearing the brunt of this disruption to our family; have we suffered in the same way?

I have come to believe that the answer is “no, we all suffer in uniquely indescribable ways” — yet the starting assumption between gay men of my age cohort is “yes, our suffering is fundamentally comparable.” As a result, we often come to the table with other gay men expecting them to have had some normative elements to their coming out. We thus experience friction and disunity in trying to map our expectations of other’s experience on to their actual experience. How are we to come together as a community, if all of us bear such scars and in such different ways?

First, I believe that younger gay men bear a social responsibility to form connections with older gay men in communities in which we socialize. Intergenerational relationships (platonic or otherwise) are largely absent from gay socializing, and this has a profound effect on the passing down of knowledge, cultural norms, and lived experiences. As a result, younger gay men are more susceptible to building their worldview solely influenced by the normative epistemology. In my own experience, deepening my bonds with gay men of different ages has enriched my appreciation for the depths and struggles of queer culture, allowing me to both acknowledge the differences we labor under as well as accept a greater diversity of worldview.

Second, I think there needs to be a promotion of an alternative model of coming out — one that is community-based and supported. We all die alone and currently, we come out alone. Why does this need to be the case? Why privilege the nuclear family unit as the most important (and thus the first) people to find out? Fledgling gays should come out to sympathetic high school friends (the other queer people around them, perhaps the women, etc.) and build a base of support. When the group feels ready, they should accompany our protagonist to his/her parents, at which point, the social pressure is on the parents to accept their child, and not the other way around.

Third, I think we need to perform the quiet, reflective emotional work necessary to come to terms with our past ourselves. We could all do better with learning to sit with unpleasant emotions, to accept them, and to use them as tools to improve our futures. I believe that we in the gay community face a near-crisis of communication — put a bunch of male-trained bodies in a community, laden them with trauma, and then tell me that you expect the average level of emotional communication to be high? The only way to reverse this is through intentional, careful, and consistent effort.

Fourth, invest in queer community, queer literature, and queer culture. These spaces have had indescribable healing effects in my own life, and can be incredible resources for education.

Taken together, I believe that these actions will have a profound effect on our ability to relate and connect as individuals. Our being queer and our coming out may have had profound impacts on our early developments, but our futures are our own — and we have the ability to shape ourselves to be as compassionate as we desire.

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