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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008

Is Coming Out Still Relevant?

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National Coming Out Day occurred Oct. 11. This day, recognized by schools and community organizations across the country, encourages gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people to share and celebrate their identities.

National Coming Out Day was first observed in 1988. A lot has happened in 20 years. At every sex-ed teacher training that I’ve done in the past few years, I’ve heard that people in their teens and 20s today feel less attached to an LGBTQ identity and that coming out is a less momentous event than it might have been for older people back in the day. It’s been interesting to watch the media follow Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson around—LiLo seems not to care about claiming a label or coming out in a formal way, only about being with a person she loves. At the same time, Clay Aiken declares, ‘Yes, I’m gay” in giant letters on the cover of People magazine.

Interested in finding out if things really have changed, I set out to ask Milwaukee residents about their reactions to the phrase “coming out” and their own coming-out experiences, if they had them. The 18 folks I heard from ranged in age from 18 to 60. Each one said that coming out had been an important, and sometimes profound, process for them. The words used most frequently to describe feelings about coming out were “release,” “relief” and “honesty.” According to Erik, 18, “It’s like stripping the mask and dropping a heavy bag.”

There were far greater similarities than differences across generations, and some responses challenged my original idea that coming out would be easier for younger queers. “Disclosing…is much easier today for me at 60 than it was at 16,” Gary says. “It is also easier for me now than it is for 16-year-olds now. While tolerance has increased exponentially in the past four decades, there seems to be greater resistance as well…I don’t think we’ve made much progress on real acceptance.”

The concept of having a “day” to come out can perpetuate the idea that coming out is something that you do only once— you decide to come out, kick down that closet door and live happily ever after. Nora, 21, clarifies, “It isn’t something you do just once; it is a lifelong process. Every time you make a new friend or get a new job or are presumed to be heterosexual… you have to decide whether or not you are going to come out in that particular situation.” (Adds Kerry, 24, “Unless you are a loud gay, with tons of glitter.”) People’s identities can also change over time. Monika, 21, says, “I’ve come out a bunch of times—bisexual, lesbian and eventually queer were my labels.”

So—coming out still matters, and people are continually coming out every day, all around us. Support from straight people is crucial, make no mistake. “Coming out means admitting to others that I am gay,” states Tom, 52. “This can be to close family and friends, colleagues at work, professional contacts, or on an even larger scale.” In other words, all of us.

Parents can be especially important, but so can friends. “The best part was telling my mother, being in tears and shaking from nervousness, and having her hug me and tell me that there’s no need to be so upset. She and my father would always love me, no matter what,” recalls Tasha, 19. “[But] I wish I’d had the support of my peer group. I was totally ostracized from them.”

Erik says, “After telling the first person and watching their nonchalant response, it was liberating and so easy to tell others.”

Do you have a coming-out story? Share it at www.expressmilwaukee. com/sexpress.

Laura Anne Stuart owns the Tool Shed, a sex toy store in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. She has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

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