Saturday, 11 October 2014

The problem with National Coming Out Day

Well, today is National Coming Out Day. And I guess it's now my job as an angry cultural cynic, or so I've been described, to explain why I despise it.

Let me start by saying that this comes as my perception of the holiday as a gay man who's had the experience of coming out to family members who were hardly progressive on the issue at the time, and for whom the whole sexuality thing got out about me (against my will) while at school... Catholic school...

While the times are certainly easier now than they were in the past, we must not forget that for many people, coming out to their family, friends, co-workers, etc, simply is not an option. I was terrified of coming out to my family as a teen, largely because of my very Catholic, half Spanish, half Sicilian stepfather, who was already in a (often mutually) violent relationship with my mother. At the same time, I'd confided my sexuality in someone at school who I thought to be my friend. In a matter of days, the rumour had passed around the entire school and instigated a school life of bullying until the age of 18 that was, at times, so bad that I once malingered illness for 2 months to avoid going. I couldn't involve the school administration, as they'd talk to my parents about the issue, and when I did, they simply ignored it, citing the already repealed Section 28 as the reason (in reality, it was just because the school was run by Catholic bigots).

It wasn't until I was 22, and my stepfather had finally moved out, that I felt able to tell my mother about my sexuality, and it took a good stiff drink beforehand. Looking back, she took it a lot better than I expected, but not as well as could be hoped. She had literally never known an openly gay person in her life, let alone expected her son to be gay.

So how does all of this relate to National Coming Out Day?

The concept behind NCOD is that people should use the day to pluck up their courage to talk to people about who they are - just swallow your doubts and tell people, all in the name of progress because we need visibility and yada yada. I agree, gay people need to be more visible in society for people to realise it's really not a big deal. But is creating a pre-packaged day of observance that sends the message of "Oh go on, just 'be brave', you'll be fine" really productive?

There is already increasing pressure on LGBT people to come out, because there's a growing cultural delusion that it'll automatically be fine when you do. And what's more, you have an implied moral duty to do so, because we need visibility!

When I was 14 and told a friend that I'm gay, I regretted it until I was 18 and left school with abysmally bad grades that I largely blame the chronic bullying I experienced for. When I was a teenager and wanted to communicate with my parents on the subject, I was unable to do so. It was not a matter of courage or bravery, it was a matter of self-preservation. Between the age of 14-18, much of my life felt like a living hell, because of having to hide my sexuality. Read, had to, from my family, and also because of the one time I told someone before I should have. There are still plenty of horror stories waiting to happen, particularly with LGBT youths who are desperate to be able to talk to someone, but can't.

I do not regret now, 2 years on, having told my mother. But I told her when I was ready to. Not when I was told I should just be a little more brave.

Gay, lesbian, bi, trans teens don't need to be patronised with the message that they should just be brave to benefit the LGBT community. You trivialise the experience of having to live in that kind of environment where hiding it is simply a matter of self-preservation. Many gay people, young ones especially, have a hard enough time without being pressured into coming out, and being sent an implicit message that not doing so is a personal failure.

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