Coming Out: A Long Journey
The voyage of sexual self-discovery is a long road filled with awkwardness and pratfalls for people of all ages. This voyage can be painful, even for individuals in the mainstream.
By NOAH C. ZUSS
heterosexuals, or what many Western societies
consider people living non-alternative lifestyles,
acceptance by larger societies of their physical
coming of age and sexual identity is assumed.
The same cannot be said for same-sex curious or
alternative lifestyle individuals. People of all
backgrounds and lifestyles struggle with their
sexual identities throughout their lives, but
because many societies still do not readily accept
openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
people their journey is often more arduous.
|This resource guide focuses on advice for African-Americans.
The narrative comes from people of diverse backgrounds
and all ages. Some come out in their teens, others
as married partners after many years of silence.
Some are conscious of whether the larger society
will accept them; others fear the change in their
lives that may occur.
Coming out is a seminal decision in a person's
life; the changes that occur can shape a life
and go a long way to determining their future.
Unfortunately, many people going through the journey
of self discovery are often misunderstood and
criticized by loved ones and society at large,
making this journey and the subsequent changes
Therefore, individuals that live alternative or
same-sex lifestyles and come out can face hardships
from their families, their community and society
These attitudes can be pervasive, as several scholars
on the topic suggest.
In a study by Dr. Jack Drescher, published in
Psychiatric Times, he writes, "beginning in childhood
- and distinguishing them from racial and ethnic
minorities - gay people are often subjected to
the antihomosexual attitudes of their own families
These findings are supported by the work of many
others in the field of social psychology. Drescher
credits the work of pioneers in this field of
research, George Weinberg and Gregory Herek, who
coined terms like heterosexism and homophobia.
Dreshcher also finds that "hiding activities learned
in childhood often persist into young adulthood,
middle age and even senescence - leading many
gay people to conceal important aspects of themselves."
The research of Drescher and others certainly
finds these personal changes difficult when viewed
in the context of acceptance by society. All cases
are slightly different, but reporting points to
great complexity of feeling and challenging periods
for those that wish to come out, and acknowledge
their true selves to the world.
Further supporting this fact with research, Drescher
writes that, "Closeted individuals frequently
cannot acknowledge to themselves, let alone to
others, their homoerotic feelings, attractions
and fantasies. Their homosexuality is so unacceptable
that it must be kept out of conscious awareness
and cannot be integrated into their public persona.
Consequently these feelings must be dissociated
from the self and hidden from others."
Dr Hindi Mermelstein, medical director of Ambulatory
Services at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health
System has worked in the field over 20 years and
counseled individuals from all backgrounds that
have struggled with these issues.
Not only can the changes be painful, many debate
whether to reveal their true selves to others
for many years, often suffering in silence.
In her experience these changes can be painful,
but are not always. She feels a supportive family
environment is the single largest determinant
in whether someone experiences depression, feelings
of isolation and loss after coming out to family,
friends or others.
One of the largest hurdles according to Mermelstein
is for a person to actually say it out loud. This
means it no longer is a thought, but a reality
in their life.
|Resources for those thinking of coming out are now available online.
"When someone says it out loud, it makes it true,"
she said. "The ambivalence of a person accepting
their own homosexuality remains there, but the
hidden secret can no longer live in that ambivalence.
When a person announces it, it becomes true in
a more real way."
For many coming out under difficult circumstances
can mark only the beginning of their struggle.
For them, the process of deciding to reveal oneself
coupled with the anxiety and pain of feelings
of isolation makes for a long, hard road.
These feelings are very real and not imagined.
The social stigma of homosexuality or alternative
lifestyles has a long history in the United States.
The current LGBT rights movement aims to abolish
this negative perception.
Much of this stigma stems from these same mental
health circles that even 100 years ago deemed
homosexuality a disorder and something that could
be cured with therapy and medication. Until 1973
the American Psychiatric Association included
homosexuality as a disorder in the sexual deviancy
section of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
of Mental Disorders, the DSM-II. The World Health
Organization listed homosexuality as a mental
illness until 1990.
According to Mermelstein much depends on the specifics.
If a person grows to adulthood in a supportive
family and community, the negative effects if
revealing and subsequent changes are far less
"It depends on the community and circumstance,"
she said. "There are many factors involved, if
a person is from a religious background for example."
The story of Rick Mueller's coming out is probably
typical. Today Mueller is a strong, confident,
openly gay man. But it wasn't always that easy.
His journey was marked by supportive and suspicious
individuals, touching on many gray areas in a
scale that is not strictly black and white.
Rick was born in Brooklyn in the 1960s and knew
he was gay in high school. In an e-mail about
his experiences he writes he "had actually been
pinned as such for one of my friends witnessed
a sexual encounter. I actually began experimenting
when I was 18 and by the time I was 20, my Father
asked me if I was gay and I said yes. My parents
got used to it. They were supportive. And allowed
me to have friends over when I moved back. My
brothers, I believe, wish I was quieter about
it. What was easy for me was that the early nineteen
seventies marked the beginning of gay culture,
so it was a time best described as Camelot for
gays - in Manhattan. But still, I did not come
out on a public level. Some knew at work but most
did not - or maybe I was more out than I remember.
But by the 80s I came out at work and was totally