Gay men and the ongoing battle with coming out Words by Stuart Haggas | @GetStuart | Photos: Shuterstock.com One of the greatest challenges that gay men face can be summed up in two little words: coming out. No matter at what age we come to terms with our sexuality, whether it’s at adolescence or much later in life, it can be a heavy burden to bear – and confiding in a friend or close family member isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Gay men have forever battled with coming out. It’s obvious why we were afraid to come out in the past: homosexuality was a criminal offence in England and Wales until 1967 (that’s less than 50 years ago); it remained illegal in Scotland until 1980, in Northern Ireland until 1982 and as recently as 1993 in the Republic of Ireland. Once it became legal, things still weren’t equal. There wasn’t an equal age of consent, many out gay men and women faced discrimination and homophobia, and same-sex marriage was unimaginable until recently. But our society has evolved and attitudes towards gay people have improved. So why does coming out remain a big issue in UK and Ireland today? THE AGE OF OUT Coming out is often one of the first big steps gay men take in the world. For this issue of FS, we spoke to young men in their teens and early twenties about their recent coming out experiences. And one stark revelation is that fear remains a genuine foe for young gay men who are still in the closet. “My two biggest worries were: Will my parents accept me for who I really am? Will I still have a roof over my head this time tomorrow?” says Cailean, 20 from Clydebank. “I worried about being disowned by my family, losing my mum for good, being homeless and disowned from the town I have been brought up in,” says Jayjay, 24 from Hemel Hempstead. “I worried that I would be kicked out of my home, made homeless, cut off financially, lose friends,” says Tom, 21 from Manchester. “I worried that people from high school would find out, and that I therefore might get beaten up,” says Joe, 23 from Morecambe. “And that people might think about me differently.” “I worried that I wouldn’t be accepted, that people at school would physically and emotionally intimidate me,” adds Aaron, 18 from London, “and that I’d become a leper, pariah or laughing stock at school.” NO WALK IN THE PARK “While it’s great to acknowledge the leaps we’ve made in terms of LGBT equality and to highlight the growing array of visible LGBT role models in the public eye, it’s important that we don’t forget that coming out is a very individual experience,” says Wayne Dhesi, who founded RUComingOut in 2012 to offer young people support and advice on coming out. “No matter how many famous gay and bi men there are in the world, the process of sitting your parents down and telling them you’re not straight will rarely feel like a walk in the park.” OUT TIME If coming out remains so daunting, why do it? “It’s too stressful to keep it hidden,” admits Aaron. “My two years in the closet was soul-destroying and unhealthy.” Tom agrees, adding: “You can’t spend your whole life lying about who you are. Being gay is part of a person’s identity.” “I didn’t want to live a lie,” says Rob, 23 from Belfast. “Every question about dating or interest in girls had to be answered with a lie. Also, I was already teased about being/acting ‘gay’. My parents made homophobic remarks too, which was upsetting.” “It was starting to have a negative impact on multiple things in my life,” says Tom, 21 from Birmingham, “and I had enough of feeling shit about myself and not feeling able to tell anyone.” PUSHED OUT For others however, the decision to come out wasn’t an entirely independent choice. “After being discovered to be in a same-sex relationship when I was 14, I was forced to come out to my school,” explains Alexander, 18 from Nottingham. “Although the reaction from both teachers and students was negative, luckily I was never a recipient of physical attacks though there were many verbal ones. I was called names such as ‘fag’. However, I feel a stronger person now and I have no regrets, nor am I ashamed.” “When I was around 17 I started having feelings for this guy,” says Adam, 22 from Newcastle. “He always wanted to come round my house and my parents thought we were just best friends. We experimented for months together, but then it got a little out of hand. I called it off after four months, just before I left for a family holiday to America. “Then, as I was boarding my flight to America with my family, I received a text from this guy which said ‘you have until you return to tell your parents what we did or I’ll tell them for you, so I started to panic and felt sick. I didn’t know how my parents would react but I was now given a timescale to tell my parents something so big, something I wasn’t prepared for. Three hours into the flight I couldn’t settle, and felt so scared I knew I just had to tell them. I first told mum, who then sat in silence for the next three hours and refused to talk to me. My dad also reacted the same way. Both my parents told me it was just a phase and I would snap out of it. That was five years ago. Today they both support me and love me for who I am.” SIGH OF RELIEF Although many acknowledged a fear of coming out, most of the young men we spoke to actually had a positive coming out experience. “Coming out was genuinely the most terrifying thing I have ever done,” says Sam. “However once it had been done, the sense of relief was incredible.” “It was like a big sigh of relief,” agrees Hadley, 23 from Bedford. “Afterwards, I became much more cheerful and confident.” “A huge burden was lifted off my shoulders and I could actually be me,” adds David, 18 from Glasgow. “It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” says Asa, 19 from Hastings. “All the years of hiding my sexuality and the negative emotions towards it slowly got better the more I came out to friends and family.” “It was liberating but terrifying,” says Jack, 19 from Cambridge. “My secondary school didn’t really talk about LGBT issues – apart from a 30-minute lesson in year nine about Stonewall. YouTube helped massively but they always focused on the build-up to coming out. Once I’d done it, I felt scared because I didn’t know what would come next.” NO REGRETS “In the four years since setting up RUComingOut, I’ve yet to speak to a single person who regrets coming out,” says Wayne. “I’m not saying that coming out is always easy. Lots of people will lose family members or friends and will not have a great experience. However, for the majority of people who I have spoken to who have come out, the fear they had before opening up was never realised. Even in cases where friends don’t take it well or family relationships are never quite the same, the positives that come from being able to live your own life authentically massively outweigh the negatives.” “While ‘coming out’ is not the answer to all of life’s challenges, it has, for many young gay men, proved to be a hugely relieving and positive experience,” adds Andre Smith of Positive East, “leaving many of the clients I have worked with surprised by the sheer amount of time and energy they gave over to worrying about rejection and judgements that never actually manifested. “Unfortunately that is not the case for every young gay man. Every one of us has different life situations, some of which need to be carefully weighed and considered before making our decision. Coming out can trigger any number of reactions in the people we choose to tell, and the consequences can be as far reaching as being asked to leave the family home.” WORST FEARS For some of the young men that FS spoke to, the impact of their coming out did mirror their worst fears. “It was very liberating when I told some of my friends,” Rob says. But when Rob came out to his mum and dad a year later, it wasn’t as well received. “It was very traumatic when I told my parents. Honestly, it was a horrible conversation. I remember I cried a lot, and I don’t often do that. “My parents grounded me. I suddenly wasn’t allowed to go to the gym alone, although I was a sportsman and I hadn’t changed. Also, my mother was very upset by it. She behaved like it was a choice I’d made. It took her a good five years to accept it, and even then grudgingly. “I was surprised with how OK my dad was,” Rob adds. “We’ve become a little closer since. He believes very much in having a good soul, no matter what you do with your body. I think my mother realised that day she is much more traditional than she had thought. She’s still ashamed by it and doesn’t tell people unless she can’t help it.” Jayjay’s coming out was also challenging. “The Muslim community who found out, the teenagers and younger people, sent threatening messages to me, letters through my door, bricks with messages. They came into my work and threatened me, and there was lots of hate via prank calls. My coming out took five years to be accepted.” Jayjay sometimes regrets coming out. “I advise anyone who comes from a Pakistani Muslim background to try and avoid meeting families, as my boyfriend came and my mum wouldn’t turn up, so I lost my boyfriend, my life, all for my mum’s decision on what she thought of my relationship with another man.” “My dad wasn’t too sure how to deal with it,” says Tom from Birmingham, “and although he says that it wasn’t the word he was wanting to use, he said that he was ‘disappointed’ that I had come out.” “I first told my mother when we were alone in the car,” says Tom from Manchester. “She asked me many invasive questions about why I was not attracted to girls, and still occasionally makes hurtful comments, like asking what I expect to do about children, and accusing me of being sexually promiscuous, and telling me to be scared of HIV. I know that she is supportive in her own way, she just comes from a different time and I don’t think she realises that these comments are hurtful and stereotyping. I left it up to her to tell my father. I don’t know whether she has or not, but we are not the kind of family that would talk openly about these kind of things. I feel that it is best if she tells him. My father always showed extreme disgust at homosexuals, for example if a gay man was ever on a television show, he would often make comments. I think most likely he does know, and like my mother has slowly come to accept me for who I am.” NEGATIVITY “For those who have a negative experience of coming out, I’d say always remember that you have done nothing wrong,” says Wayne from RUComingOut. “You simply chose to be honest with yourself and with those around you. Any negativity that comes your way after, whether that’s at school or at work, can be dealt with and you have the law to protect you.” “The people you tell might be shocked, worried, or find it difficult to accept at first,” adds Andre from Positive East, “but do remember, their first reaction isn’t necessarily how they’ll feel forever – they might just need a bit of time to process what you’ve told them. The thing that the majority of parents, family members and close friends want for you is that you are happy.” TOXIC ENVIRONMENT The stress associated with coming out can lead to various mental health issues. “I had experienced a lot of homophobic bullying back in school, when I didn’t even know what ‘gay’ was, and when I hadn’t the slightest interest in dating girls or boys,” says Hadley. “All I knew back then was ‘gay’ got you punched, ‘gay’ got you hurt, and therefore it was wrong. When I realised what it all meant and what I was, it threw me into a bit of a mess, and I had moments in which I would start to cry uncontrollably.” “Being in the closet is a form of slow suicide, especially in a toxic environment,” says Aaron. “The stress of lying your way through conversations about girls, feeling like you have to conform to a homophobic group consensus, and sitting in silence while you hear ignorant, untrue and/or threatening comments about gay people will drag you down. It’s even worse if you are in love with somebody, like I was at the time. At one point I felt depressed. I contemplated suicide several times (though never with any real seriousness, admittedly). The stress is overwhelming, so endless introspection and a lot of crying became the norm. At one point I became so anxious and upset that I induced some psychogenic pain (emotional pain that manifests physically).” “Because I hated myself for years before I accepted my sexuality, I suffered from bulimia and depression,” Asa admits. “I had depression growing up because everyone at high school bullied me and told me it was bad to be gay,” says Joe. “So I was very confused and hated myself every time I thought about guys. Self-harm happened a lot as well as numerous beatings in high school. I was suicidal at one point too. When I started thinking about coming out, I got anxiety from the fear that people from high school would find out. I considered spending my whole life in the closet.” Now that Joe is out, he believes his sexuality no longer impacts his mental health today. OPEN UP “It doesn’t take a genius to work out that spending years trying to hide your sexuality from friends, family and colleagues can seriously affect your mental health and wellbeing,” Wayne from RUComingOut acknowledges. “In fact, nearly a quarter of young LGBT people have tried to take their own life at some point, compared with around 8% in the general population of young people. The important thing to remember is that you do not have to come out to be able to access support or advice. There are many books and journals online about managing anxiety as well as services that are accessible on the phone – very often these are free of charge. If you do feel ready to open up to someone who isn’t close to you, your GP may be a good call. Remember, they have to keep what you tell them confidential and may be able to put you in touch with local LGBT counselling or advice services.” “As a therapist, I’ve worked with a considerable number of men who were not yet out but who felt anxious, scared, and even sheer terror at the prospect of coming out,” adds Andre of Positive East. “Being able to talk over those concerns, and with a counsellor who is not a family member, colleague or friend, can go a very long way in alleviating the feelings of stress, guilt and pressure that can, if left unchecked, boil over into thoughts of self-harm and even suicide.” ONGOING ISSUES Although some of the guys we spoke to say the act of coming out brought an end to their depression and anxiety, for others these mental health issues have remained. “I’ve long suffered from anxiety and depression,” says Tom. “I doubt that this is solely due to my sexuality, but being gay added to the pressure on my mental health most definitely.” Tom believes his sexuality still has an impact on his mental health. “I worry a lot about relationships. It seems so few gay people are ever able to establish a stable and loving relationship. This causes me a lot of anxiety, as I would some day like a family and just don’t feel like it’s possible. A great deal of my anxiety stems from my fears that as a gay man I would become lonely as I grow older. Worries about this, and a fear of dying alone with no lasting impact on the world because I cannot have children or a family, gives me a great deal of anxiety and fear for the future.” “I still have incredible guilt around sex itself,” admits Rob. “I find it hard to reconcile sex with love and relationships. In terms of sexuality, I have anxiety and some measure of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being beaten up and chased in the past because of how I looked or acted. I still struggle to be open about my sexuality because I was taught for so long that it was wrong. I’m still overly cautious because of my past experiences. It also can be very lonely to live in a world that so often isn’t made for people like you and actively excludes you. We will never be the majority, or so it feels. It’s harder to do all the things straight people take for granted like get a job and a partner and a house and kids.” “Coming out isn’t a guarantee that you’ll never experience another problem in your life, and this goes for mental health issues too,” says RUComingOut’s Wayne Dhesi. “Sometimes people carry childhood trauma with them into their adult life. Growing up feeling different and that you don’t belong can have a devastating effect on how we see ourselves, even once we have come out. I’d encourage people to continue to talk about their experiences of being in the closet long after they come out. It’s healthy to understand and it’s always good to talk. Matthew Todd’s seminal book ‘Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay And Happy’ is a must read for any gay or bi man.” EXPERT ADVICE So how should you approach the issue of coming out? “There are many different ways to come out, and there is no right or wrong way to do it,” says Andre Smith of Positive East. “Consider who you want to tell? It’s unlikely that you will be able to gather everyone you know in one room and come out to them all at once – which is pretty daunting anyway! Therefore you’ll need to do it in stages. Think about who you want to tell first. Perhaps someone you feel will be supportive like a trusted friend or family member. They will then be able to support you when you tell other people.” “Very often it’s the words themselves that make the process of coming out really difficult,” says Wayne. “A great way of starting the conversation is to just explain to the person that you want to share with them how you’re feeling about some things. Be honest about your feelings and don’t worry too much about the end goal of any chat. It isn’t a work presentation or a job interview – it’s a chat with a friend who loves and cares about you so don’t worry.” “Think about when is the right time to say something. Be mindful that coming out might be a bit of a surprise to some people in your life,” explains Andre. “Although you may have had a long time to get used to it, the person or people you’re telling will be hearing it for the first time. Consider telling them at a time when you will be able to talk things through properly. Blurting it out to your parents from a mobile phone with 3% battery power remaining is not the ideal time!” “Although I’d never suggest getting hammered before coming out, if you know that a social setting and a couple of drinks will put you at ease then go for it,” adds Wayne. “Writing a letter or sending a text isn’t bottling it. You don’t have to sit down with someone face to face, just do whatever makes you feel most comfortable. You make the rules.” “Some people may choose to send a letter or email, as this will give the person time to process what you’re telling them before they respond. Others have used social media to come out,” acknowledges Andre. “Although this method of coming out means you’ll probably only need to do it once, it does take away the opportunity to have those personal conversations with people who are immediately closer to you. The most obvious way is to sit down in person and talk. The benefits of coming out this way are that you’ll be able to answer any questions they may have and also get some comfort and reassurance if you need it. It may feel a bit scary, but once you’ve told one person it really does start to feel easier.” READER ADVICE After navigating the treacherous task of coming out, what tips can FS readers share with other young gay men? “Be aware of your situation and environment,” says Jack, 20 from Essex. “If you have accepting parents there isn’t any reason not to. If coming out may put you in danger, then wait till you move out and leave your parents home.” “Take your time, learn about yourself,” says Hadley. “Know that while you can’t control another person’s reactions, you can control how you go about it. Understanding yourself first and then others is key. Know that you are perfectly normal, that everything will make sense afterwards, but some people may take their own time to adjust.” “In most cases your parents, especially your mum, will already know and be glad that you feel you can talk to them about this kind of thing,” says Tom. “Also, try and do it in a relaxed way rather than making it into a big deal, as it can put some control on their reaction. However, you also need to remember that it can take some time for people to get used to it, so although they may not react the way you want, they will process it and then be fine/normal with you.” “Being gay is not and should not be a big deal, so perhaps don’t approach coming out as an event,” suggests Aaron. “If you don’t make a song and dance, neither will anybody who isn’t outright prejudiced. Once out, self-deprecation goes a long way. A thick skin and a sense of humour can change perceptions in ways that activism and advocacy just can’t.” “Just wait until you’re ready,” says Joe. “There is no rush to tell anyone and there’s certainly no rush in figuring yourself out either. If it’s not safe for you to come out or if coming out might bring violence your way, you are doing nothing wrong in staying closeted for your own safety. But when you are ready to come out, I want you to know that there’s a whole world out there ready to support you and once it’s done, I promise you you’ll feel a lot better. I always felt it was easier to tell one person at a time and start with something like ‘can I tell you something in confidence’, then I’d just take a deep breath and throw it out there by just saying it. That first second is terrifying, not gonna lie, but as soon as they say literally anything positive, it’s the biggest relief in the world. Never forget you are strong and beautiful to have got this far and trust me, it really does get better.” Cailean agrees: “From a terrified, closeted teenager who was scared stiff of being outed to a confident, outgoing young adult who wears his sexuality on his wrist (in the form of Gay Pride wristbands), I’ve come a long way in just three years. Hopefully, with this article, I can help others gain that little bit of confidence to do the same.” MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE We asked Ian Howley, CEO of GMFA, to share his thoughts: “Coming out shouldn’t be a big deal in this day and age but from the experiences of the young gay men we’ve talked to, you can see that the coming out process is still a massive deal for many. For us to be in an era where ‘coming out’ is a non-issue in social and family life we need to continue our work to tackle homophobia in our schools, universities, work-places, on TV, in movies and in our day-to-day lives. Yes, we are in a much better place today than we were 20 years ago. But there is still a long way to go.” SUPPORT: For more information about sexuality and coming out visit www.rucomingout.com TALK: To talk to someone one-to-one call the LGBT Switchboard on 0300 330 0630 or visit www.switchboard.lgbt IF YOU NEED HELP NOW: If you are in crisis and need support or someone to talk to right now, Samaritans is there for you. It provides confidential, non-judgemental support, 24 hours a day for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which could lead to suicide. Call: 08457 90 90 90, or email: [email protected] switchboards and organisations that offer face-to-face counselling at www.turingnetwork.org.uk. THIS ARTICLE WAS TAKEN FROM FS ISSUE #156. TO READ THE ISSUE IN FULL CLICK HERE.