In honor of International Coming Out Day today, I’d like to start this article right and share my own coming out story, but I can’t. I don’t have one concrete story to tell, and neither do most other LGBT people. Contrary to what most movies, books, TV shows and even this particular day imply, coming out of the closet is not one big event.
Most media portray coming out as something you only have to do once. Everyone you know and love is gathered, you make an eloquent speech. Afterwards, hopefully, there are hugs and smiles. Maybe even confetti, depending on what movie you’re watching.
My real life experience was very different. I told my best friend I wasn’t straight while she was studying (she said, ‘oh okay’ and went right back to her math homework), I told my mom while we were doing the dishes (‘Yes, I know. Hand me the towel’), my brother when talking about his then-girlfriend (‘Wait, so when you’re saying she’s really pretty, you mean..?’) and my dad right before an article I wrote about it got published.
There was never any confetti, but my mom did hug me after all the dishes were put away. I told my friends at school gradually, and I’m still telling new people every day. I even kind of accidentally came out while pitching the idea for this article, and I’m coming out to you right now. So, in honor of Coming Out Day, let me do this right. Hello world, I’m bisexual.
Opening the closet door
While this day is a great way to provide an incentive or an occasion for people who are struggling with their sexual or gender orientation to tell their stories, it unintentionally stresses the fact that coming out is a one-time, or in this case a one-day, thing. ‘Coming Out Day is pretty important to me,’ says 20-year-old communication management student Lalo Rosas, ‘I was still too afraid to tell my family that I was gay a few years ago, but I chose this day to tell the lady behind the cash register at the supermarket. She gave me a kind of weird look while she gave me back my change, but it was the first time I ever told anyone. I still had to tell everyone that actually mattered, but from that day on I made the decision to start telling other people, and now I’m living out and proud.’
‘Coming Out Day is an initiative meant to hearten everyone that needs it,’ says Dries De Smet from Wel Jong Niet Hetero, a Belgian LGBT organization for youth. ‘This year, we’re doing a social media action called No Way Back, in which we ask people that have come out how their lives have improved since they’ve made the decision to live openly. That way we can provide people with positive role models, because telling people you are not straight for the first time is difficult for most. It’s a big step, but from that first time on, it usually gets less scary.’
Melissa Awouters, a 22-year-old journalism student, knows exactly what that’s like. ‘I first came out when I was, like, 13. A boy from my class asked me to be his girlfriend, and I said that I didn’t think I liked boys in that way. I just kind of hoped he would tell the other kids at school, so that I didn’t have to. I had a serious talk about it with my best friends, but it still took me a while to tell my parents. The media present coming out of the closet as something you have to do one time, and one time only, but it’s a really fragmented process for most people.’
Not only do you have to come out again and again starting from that first time, but that first conversation also impacts all other future conversations in a great way, Melissa thinks. ‘If the first person you tell doesn’t react very well, or doesn’t accept you, you won’t be so quick to tell other people. If, for example, my friends hadn’t blindly accepted me, I’m not sure I would have told my parents so soon. What if they hadn’t accepted me either? I wouldn’t have had anybody left.’
Lying by omission
Luckily for her that was not the case. ‘My parents weren’t thrilled or anything, but they accepted that I wouldn’t be bringing a boyfriend to family gatherings without too much trouble. When I actually was at one of those gatherings, I had to start all over again. No, auntie, I don’t have a boyfriend. Thank you, grandma, but you don’t have to wish me a nice boyfriend for my birthday. I was just so sick of lying by omission that I told them all at once.’
The 21-year-old linguistics student Jesse Janssen took a different approach. ‘The first time I told someone I was gay, it was my best friend. After that I told my other close friends, one at a time. It didn’t take me very long at all to come out at home. From other gay guys, I hear that’s pretty unusual. For a lot of my friends, the very last people they told were their parents. Half a year after I told my best friend, I was completely out to everyone I know and I subtly put it on my social media profiles. For me that was the final step. I’m completely out now and happier because of it.’
It gets better
Still, it’s not all rainbows and glitter. ‘When I meet new people, it’s always a thing. Somehow my sexual orientation always has to be brought up. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s just a little annoying that I constantly have to say it. Since I came out, meeting new people has constantly been some variation of ‘I’m Jesse, also I’m gay’, because if I don’t clarify, they’ll ask later. Or ask my friends. Just ‘Hi, I’m Jesse’ is not good enough anymore, apparently.’
Melissa also feels that way. ‘Lately I don’t even bother anymore. The people that need to know I like girls will figure it out. When I was younger, I needed the validation from other people, but I think this indifference might actually be a new stage of acceptance. I am who I am, deal with it.’
According to Dries from Wel Jong Niet Hetero, there is only one rule to coming out the right way. ‘What’s most important is that you do it because you want to, not because you feel like you have to. There is this saying in the community that a lot of older LGBT people use: it gets better. Meaning, you might struggle now, but you’ll accept yourself, and you’ll find people who accept you. It’s undoubtedly true, but I think it’s a bit double. Okay, it gets better, but that doesn’t change the situation a lot of young people are in right now. That is exactly why Coming Out Day and the No Way Back initiative are so important. The first time you open the closet door is the hardest, but it’s an important decision you have to make for yourself. Some people don’t come out at all, but suddenly drop a comment when it becomes relevant for them, and that’s okay too. There is no right or wrong way to come out. But this day is here to remind you that if you tell everyone at once or if it takes you five years, whatever you decide to do, you are not alone.’
Text: Maïthé Chini