"I could finally exhale after holding my breath for years": What it's really like to come out of the closet
"My mum found porn under my bed... whoops"
The classic Hollywood storyline for coming out goes a little like this: a young gay boy fancies someone on his high school baseball team and falls head over heels in love.
He starts to come to terms with his sexuality and then tells a few friends before building up the nerve to tell his parents. After some initially fiery feelings, the Mum and Dad eventually come around and realise they loved their child all along – all in a perfectly-formed, 30-minute episode arc.
And yet, for many people, this just isn’t the case at all. Coming out to your loved ones can take years, it can be messy and most people find they have to come out all the time whenever they meet new people.
ShortList has spoken to some rather interesting gay, bisexual and trans people who’ve share their stories of what it’s really like to come out – and why it’s not just a one-time thing…
’I still have to come out all the time’
David Morgan, 34, is a comedian
I didn’t so much come out at school - I more confirmed rumours. I’d been called gay for most of my time at school so no one was that surprised. I was 15 and I did it the Monday after Jack came out on Dawson’s Creek. I was hopeful he’d hear and I’d be in a relationship with him by the next weekend.
I felt amazing, the stress of not telling people had managed to give me horrific eczema through stress and anxiety for the year before I came out. Once I’d told everyone, it just cleared up.
I still have to come out all the time. Every time I go on stage I have to tell the audience so that they can ‘get’ me and it can be a great way to open a set as it breaks that tension very early.
If I could come out again, I wouldn’t have tried to fight it for so long. It was a hard time. Lying to everyone you know can leave you very lonely.
’It’s like a light dies in their eyes’
Justin Myers, 42, is a writer. His latest novel is The Last Romeo
I came out to my mother during the Christmas holidays, and came out to my dad during a ridiculous argument about nothing, on his birthday so… you could say I’m something of a hot mess in that regard. But it was a slow process it is. There’s no accompanying firework display.
It was an interminable peeling off of layer upon layer, starting with the friends I saw every day, older yet closer friends who still lived in my hometown, followed by the dread-filled crawl toward telling my parents. Horrible.
I still have to come out – to hairdressers, usually. I change stylists a lot. Doctors, too. It seems to come up quite often. People make judgements about you when your sexuality is revealed. It’s weird – sometimes you can see them mentally dismissing you, like a light dies in their eyes, they step back from you just a fraction, and their hand will unconsciously go to their top button or draw in the neck of their shirt. And that’s always sad, because I am still who I was 30 seconds ago.
’Being bisexual is invisible’
Lewis Oakley, 26, is a bisexual activist and digital executive
One of the hardest things about coming out as a bisexual man is that society only sees men who have sex with men as gay - and women are less likely to see you as a potential love interest. It’s maybe the only sexuality that makes you less attractive to half of the people you’re attracted too.
Bisexual people also tend to realise their sexuality a lot later and I didn’t realise I was bisexual until I was 19. I knew I was attracted to girls as a teenager and that meant I was straight. It wasn’t until much later that I realised the boys I’d admired at school and wanted to hang out with - I actually found attractive.
I had a lot of gay friends so I didn’t think coming out would be an issue but I found out the hard way that a large majority of gay men don’t think bisexuality exists. I had a lot of ‘Oh yeah, I said that at first’ or ‘Just be honest with yourself, you’re gay.’
And being bisexual is invisible, when I walk down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand people mistake me for being straight. I’ll be coming out for the rest of my life but it’s a part of myself that I’d rather embrace and shout about than feel ashamed of.
’Being black and gay means I’m having to work harder to find place in the world’
Aaron Carty, 33, from Ipswich, works with UK Black Pride
I was absolutely terrified coming out. My granddad had come out in the 60s, when it became legal, and at the time was married to my Nan with three kids. And growing up I knew that this had ripped the family apart, so having to come out filled me with dread.
If I could come out to my loved ones again I’d tell them that being black and gay means I’m having to work harder to find place in the world and having to do more work to keep it. I look at young black LGBTQ children and worry that the world is still going to treat the differently because of the colour of their skin; I feel like I should warn them about the world.
The LGBTQ community needs to take into consideration how hard they’ve had it growing up gay and then double that anxiety, worry and fear to think about how people of colour are also dealing with racist attacks, abuse and discrimination.
But overcome so much just to get on an equal footing means that black queer people are even stronger. That’s why we have UK Black Pride and why it’s more important than ever. This movement is here to stay.
UK Black Pride, Sunday, 8th July 2018, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens - 12pm-8pm
’Like drowning in a cup of water’
Joshua Masson, 24, from Essex, works a drag queen, called Precious
I mainly remember the fear become coming out.
I like to use the expression ‘drowning in a cup of water’ because really that’s how it felt; something that, in reality, is quite small and yet it felt like it was going to be the end of me, my family’s love and my friendships.
After I came out, my mum told my Nan, who was my best friend, and we had a wonderful conversation about it. My Nan told me: “Everyone in the family will be okay with it, especially Granddad. And if he isn’t, well, then I’m dumping him… so that’s one less worry for you.”
We spoke every day until her passing and frankly I think she loved me even more because I was gay.
’The world has shifted to be more accommodating, tolerating, and even celebrating of trans issues’
My romantic relationship didn’t last beyond the first few years of my medical transition. None of my previous partners had encouraged my transition and so I was stuck, treading water. I was a coward. I was fearful of making drastic changes in my life, even for my own happiness.
But now that I’m happy with who I am I have much better relationships with everyone around me – and I’ve also found someone to share my life with who is also trans and understands the complexities of being trans.
So coming out as trans was a big deal for me, because I’d been thinking about it for a really long time and had loads of guilt and shame about it. Also, I feared that a medical transition may not fix the feeling of being uncomfortable in my own skin, and then the only solution was suicide. It was literally do or die. Luckily, it worked and I’m here to tell you the tale. It’s so hard to explain to trans people who are pre-transition just how much more comfortable they will begin to feel in their bodies because as a trans person you may never have experienced that before.
My only regret was not speaking out sooner but I was going through my own process and the lack of representation in the media really affected my journey.
The world has changed significantly in that time. The world has shifted to be more accommodating, tolerating, and even celebrating of trans issues. For the first time, I feel ‘at one’ with myself, in my own skin.
’I ran to the next village and came out to my parents from a phone box’
Tom Hayes, 32, is the editor of Beyond Positive
I came out at 13 and that was way back in 1998. I first told some friends at school and they were very supportive. It was the era of Steps… Steps and Cher’s Believe were very big at the time. But I was terrified about telling my parents even though they’re fairly laid-back, liberal people but I just had no idea how they’d react. And I tried telling them over and over again and it just wouldn’t come out.
It got the point where I actually ran away one evening and called them from a public phone box and told them over the phone. I ran to the next village and said, “Mum and Dad, I’m gay.” They said: “Yes we know. Your father will come and pick you up now.” I don’t think I was the most discreet homosexual young man in the world.
I was recently in hospital with sepsis and I had the hardest time explaining to this nurse that my partner was a boy and not a girl. She wasn’t homophobic or anything she just couldn’t her head around it. Every time I said “he,” she said, “she?” This was in London.
’I could finally exhale after holding my breath for years’
Yusuf Tamanna, 28, from London, is a writer
The first time I came out I was petrified. I think that’s a fairly common feeling. It was to my mum and I’m lucky to have such a loving family and she put my mind at ease. I waited a whole year later until I told my sisters and I only told my dad this year.
Coming out isn’t the type of thing you do just once via a company-wide email. I wish you could! Each time I came out to a family member or friend I just remember feeling lighter. Like I could finally exhale after holding my breath for years.
I totally come out every day. It can get exhausting sometimes because new work colleagues will always skirt around it and I like to lay it out on the table: “YES! I AM GAY!” Sometimes it isn’t so forthcoming; once I came out to a colleague by talking to him about Ru Paul’s Drag Race and after we both realised we were both gay we just laughed.
As a person of colour, I’d hope the rest of the LGBTQ community could learn that my experience, and the experiences of other LGBTQ people are valid and important in fixing the problems in our community. Listen to us, don’t assume you know what it’s like because you’ve read an article online. Ask us questions and let us occupy spaces without making us feel as if we’re a burden.
’Passing as straight is considered a privilege’
Matt Cain, 43, is the former editor of Attitude
Initially there was some shock from my family when I came out. The thing is, in those days there was so fear about being gay.
So you fear the worst. You fear that you’ll be rejected by your family and that they’ll stop loving you. That’s what I feared. But thankfully that wasn’t the case.
A lot of gay people say they have to come out multiple times but they tend to be the ones who pass as straight. That’s considered a privilege but I think there are challenges that come with it – because you have to keep coming out.
In my case, I’ve never really passed as straight. Even before I knew I was gay or what gay meant, people in the playground told me that I was.
Gay people who don’t pass are often thrust onto the front line. They can’t hide and they have to deal with it. And they’ve often been thrust onto the front line of political activism, especially if you see visibility as a form of activism.
’My mum found porn under my bed… whoops’
George Palmer, 26, works in PR
Coming out is scary for anyone. My mum found porn under my bed… whoops - so by the time it came around to me telling her I think she’d pretty much come to terms with it. Initially I thought it might not go down well because of her religious Muslim background, but I was wrong. She’s an amazing open-minded person and coming out to her made us even closer than we’d ever been.
It’s easy to read too much into little comments said by your family before you come out and assume your parents might not accept your sexuality before you come out, but often they’re just thoughtless comments with no actual belief or homophobia behind them.
If I could change anything I think I would have come out to my dad earlier. He knows now, but it took me a lot of time to tell him and it felt really scary for me and I wasn’t sure of how he’d take it.
There’s something more difficult about telling your father, maybe to do with your expectations as a man and your masculinity. But, we actually have the strongest relationship now that we’ve ever had since I’ve told him.
’I still have to come out to cab drivers’
Matthew Todd, 44, is the author of Straight Jacket
I was really isolated and frightened growing up gay. Life was too painful so I disappeared into the fantasy of entertainment and became obsessed with theatre and Madonna as a way of escaping reality.
I told my best friend in 1990 and that was a turning point. I told my dad when I was about 20 or 21 and he was great and my mum a year or so later, and she was very upset at first. I’m not surprised considering what the media was telling her about what it meant to be gay.
I still have to come out to cab drivers, doctors, estate agents, hotel receptionists and even being two men at a restaurant table having an intimate dinner.
It’s not that we want to wave a flag the whole time, far from it, just I don’t want to have to hide. I don’t feel the need to announce it at all. But I will not hide. Hiding is toxic.
(Images: Getty / Sharon Kilgannon / Dominic Ibbotson)