Coming Out in South Africa

June 27, 2008

Published in the August 1, 2007 edition of QSaltLake: Utah’s Gay and Lesbian News & Entertainment Magazine.

I recently received a letter from a young, gay, closeted man in South Africa. Through a Google search he found the column I wrote for the January 1, 2007 edition of QSaltLake entitled, “Come Out, Be Happy.” He shared much about his life experience, his desire to come out to family and friends, and his fears. He asked for my advice. Following are excerpted paragraphs from my email to him. 

I believe that the most difficult person to come out to is oneself. It sounds like you’ve already done that. However, it can be more frightening to come out to the other people in our lives. It’s been my experience that this fear is most often unfounded.

As for the experience that you had in April, I believe it’s very common when first coming out. But many men only continue in that cycle, never accomplishing more than that first-night thrill. Everyone’s journey is unique and everyone is looking for something slightly different (and yet, in my opinion, very much the same.) What is most important is that you protect yourself, emotionally and physically, and stay true to your values. Whether gay or straight, there is no peace in any lifestyle that is in conflict with what you believe in your heart to be true and right. I think you said it perfectly when you wrote, “I have come to realize how unhealthy it can be to repress what comes naturally and that it is not wrong to feel the way I do. In fact, I know that the worst thing I can do is to deny myself the opportunity to live as a complete person with the capacity to love and be loved.”

I think it’s very important that you’ve started to recognize your own homophobia and that you’ve begun to form a healthy identity as a gay man. Each of us must debunk our own negative stereotypes regarding gay people. Realize that, even though you were in the closet, a gay man accomplished all the positive things you’ve done thus far in your life. 

As for the longtime friend you want to tell that you’re gay. It’s very possible that she will feel as you fear, hurt by the fact that you didn’t tell her earlier. But if she is able to step back from that hurt, even for a moment, I’m sure she will understand. This is something that you’ve kept from everyone, not just her.

You also expressed fear of being perceived as “weak,” especially if you break down and cry when you tell her. I found in my personal experience that I more often than not always cried when I told people that I was gay. Though, I didn’t cry because I was sad. I cried because there were so many years of joy and sorrow that I had wrapped up and repressed with my sexual orientation, that when I revealed my being gay I also revealed the emotion I’d hidden with it.

Coming out is about being honest. We are all human and we all feel the same emotions. If your emotions are revealed in the tears running down your cheeks, then as an honest human being you should honor those emotions. One of my favorite quotes is by John Lancaster Spalding. It reads, “The greatest courage is to dare to appear to be what one is.” We are all vulnerable.

For me, coming out was not about having gay sex or throwing my middle finger in the face of the religion in which I was raised. My sexuality is only one part of who I am. But every part of a person is dependent upon all the others and they are all of equal importance. To believe otherwise is to misunderstand the value of being whole. 

You asked if it is normal to feel the way you do before coming out. I don’t know what it means to be normal, but I know that there is a lot of fear and ignorance in this world. Facing that fear and confronting that ignorance is what makes some people a cut above the rest.

I would encourage you to be patient with your family and other loved ones. Each of them has an idea in their head of who you are, what your life is, and what it will become. These ideas and their dreams for you will have to be altered or completely let go. The truth can shatter a person’s “reality,” leaving them surrounded by the broken pieces of the perfection that they had built inside their mind. Different people will require different amounts of time to mourn the broken pieces around them. You’ve had 25 years to come to the point where you’re ready to start accepting yourself as gay. It’s never right to hold another person to a higher standard than you hold yourself. I doubt it will take any of your loved ones 25 years, but give them time to grieve the loss of their “reality.” And keep in mind that being gay in a straight world can be hard enough to understand when you’re living it. Imagine if you were an outsider looking in. 

I feel very strongly about the importance of coming out. Everyone deserves to live in the light, to be loved in the light. And it really does all come down to love. Coming out is an act of self-love; it’s the experience of baring your true self to those whom you love and then waiting to see if they truly love you, or if they just love the façade that you created for them. There is a significant difference between being loved as you pretend to be and being loved as you are. You deserve to be loved as you truly are, by yourself, as well as by those whom you love.

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