Tips on coming out from people who’ve been ‘in’
Ahead of National Coming Out Day on Saturday, LGBT people tell of their own experiences
October 11th is National Coming Out Day, but coming out isn’t what it used to be. Where once people felt restricted by the intolerance of Catholic Ireland, nowadays there can be an almost impatient drum roll from liberal friends who can’t understand why you’re not here, queer and making everyone get used to it.
Almost exactly three years ago I told my parents, in a letter, that I was gay. Unfortunately the letter got lost in the post, and I got lost in the wilds of Kerry, where I had fled to escape the fallout.
If this was a signal I’d made the wrong decision in burning down my closet, the message had been received (unlike the letter, which took a full seven days to reach its destination).
“Sure it’ll be grand,” said one person I told that I wasn’t out yet to my parents. “What difference does it make in this day and age?”
It was as if the prevailing attitudes of society would soften the blow for my folks, who I’d always imagined equated homosexuality with leathers and feathers and for whom my coming-out, as a single child, was like a toxic spill on their dreams of grandchildren.
“People underestimate how big a life change it is,” says Laura Louise Condell, administrator of the Dublin Lesbian Line. “But there is still a lot of homophobia out there and it can be a really hard process.”
“The most common age people identify as LGBT is 12,” says Brian Sheehan of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network. “Most don’t start coming out until they’re 17. Before they can name what they are, they are exposed – if not personally – to others being physically and verbally assaulted because of their perceived homosexuality. Coming out is often the moment you risk the support structures around you.”
A need for patience It’s important to have patience with those you tell. The first words out of their mouths may not be exactly what you want to hear. “I suppose it’s better than you being killed on the roads,” is what my
mother said when I told her I was gay. In her own way she was trying to be supportive, and she was a great support to me during this period. “People often need time to get used to it,” says Sheehan. “It can take time to adjust.”
First held 26 years ago in the United States, National Coming Out Day is now a global event. The key message from the National LGBT Helpline is that coming out is not just about young people. “It doesn’t matter what age you are, what your background is; if you need support, we’re here,” says co- ordinator Paula Fagan.
They have recruited a number of “out” people to record video messages to their closeted selves in the hopes that it will get people, of any age, to reach out and avail of their services.
Kirsty Parks (26) says she got involved because National Coming Out Day was targeted at people who were not out yet and she wanted to share how her experience could be of benefit.
“I was 21 when I came out, but 18 when I realised I was gay. Because I identified as Christian I didn’t think it was possible. I thought people chose it. It took a long time for me to come to terms with who I was.
“I started attending the Dundalk Outcomers group. Just meeting other people, hearing their stories, opened up my world. Within a couple of weeks I had a whole new support network.”
What nobody warns you about, though, is how boring coming out can be. In my own experience there was a whoosh of relief in telling people who I really was, but saying “I’m gay” over and over soon gets repetitive.
“There’s always a little bit of coming-out in new situations,” says John Lyons, the Labour TD who was one of the first two openly gay TDs elected.
“You have to explain yourself in a way others never have to. A straight person doesn’t have to tell people he’s straight, but for gays there is always a part of the coming-out process that continues.”
“It’s a frightening, big step,” says television producer and former Big Brother contestant Anna Nolan. “But of all the LGBT people I know, there isn’t one person who regretted coming out. It only made their life better.”
The Dublin Lesbian Line and the National LGBT Helpline will extend their hours for National Coming Out Day tomorrow. Call 1890-929539 More at lgbt.ie