Coming Out Is So 20th-Century

Just before a recent trip back home to Boston, I mentioned to someone that I might look up old friends from high school. I had reconnected with a few people recently through Facebook and thought it would be fun to see them in person after all these years, but I had some trepidation, since our lives had diverged so much. (High school was a very long time ago.) In fact, I said, I had had to unfriend a couple of my old classmates when political conflicts erupted after the election; god only knew what other surprises they might have in store for me.

In what seemed a non sequitur to me, my friend asked if I had ever come out to these people.

“Come out?” I asked. “You mean, like, actually say, ‘I’m gay’?” I hadn’t had that conversation with anyone in more than 25 years. Surely it wasn’t necessary anymore. I posted my life on social media—pictures of my partner, political screeds about homophobic politicians. I’d published two novels featuring gay characters, for heaven’s sake. Why would I need to “come out”?

The last time I had come out, in so many words, I was 28 years old. Since then, I haven’t felt the need to—for a number of reasons, both personal and cultural. The world changed in the interim, and god knows I did.

The last time I’d “had the conversation” was before Ellen, before Will and Grace, before marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And, of course, before I had moved to the Castro.

Writing teachers make a big deal about “showing” over “telling.” In fiction, if you want to elucidate a theme or convey a point, it’s much more effective to do so by having your character do something than by simply talking about it. Instead of writing, “Joseph was a frightened man,” you put him in a situation and show him trembling, sweating. You paint a picture with words; otherwise, they’re just words.

So instead of saying the words, I long ago decided to live them. I no longer sit people down to tell them I’m gay: I casually mention my partner. I talk about Provincetown, the opera, RuPaul—the artifacts of my culture—as breezily as other people talk about sports.

The truth is that, even when I was doing it, I resented the coming-out ritual, the presumed need for it. I resented the notion that my sexual behavior came with an expectation of strobe-light disclosure. No one had ever pulled me aside to confess their heterosexuality. Why should I have to make a big deal out of telling them I’m gay? By living my life matter-of-factly and without secrecy, I was making all the statement that needed to be made. I was, in fact, making an even deeper statement, I thought: I was proclaiming that my sexual orientation was not an extraordinary thing. I was telling the world, by implication, that it was completely normal.

Of course, I didn’t always feel this way. Certainly not when I was growing up in barely working-class Chelsea, Massachusetts, where the word faggot was thrown at me every day of my adolescence. Now I have the privilege of living in San Francisco, where people are more likely to criticize you for wearing pastels than for being a bottom.

But San Francisco is indeed a bubble, and after 24 years inside that bubble, it’s easy to forget that the world outside hasn’t changed as much as I’d like to think.

For other people, because of where they live, what they do for a living, or how they were raised, coming out can still be as difficult as it ever was. With such thoughts rattling through my mind, that disconnect took over as the main theme of my new novel, Channeling Morgan.

The title character in the book, Clive Morgan, is a successful actor who fears what coming out could do to his career. The notion of a closeted actor, of course, is so familiar as to be cliché, but in this instance it was that very familiarity that I believed would help bring the point home. Gay rumors have followed movie stars all the way back to Charles Laughton; and even in our current era, there are only a handful of out film actors, despite the obvious attraction the profession has for gay people.

Just witness the difference between the Tonys and the Oscars every year: at the former, barely a male actor accepts an award without thanking his husband, but in the world of American movies, where success means appealing to a wider and less urban audience, you take your life into your hands by being anything less than butch. But are we really supposed to believe that stage actors are more likely to be gay than movie actors are?

I may not agree with my characters, but my job as an author is not to point the finger at them. My duty, rather, is to portray these characters honestly and as empathetically as possible. My duty is to see myself in them. In this book, that meant understanding the things that keep Clive and others from expressing their true identities.

So, I had to ask myself: What does it mean to be closeted in 21st-century America, in a culture that has often been called post-gay? What kind of pain does that cause? And why would you inflict it upon yourself? Surely, the Clives of the world know what they’re missing. Surely, even if they’re privileged in other ways, they are not immune to envy when they see how many of us are living more open lives.

Because these days, in this culture, the closet door is seldom locked from the outside. Like Dorothy and Oz, we all have the power to leave it at any time. That may mean leaving the things you’re used to—the place you grew up, the family or church that condemns you for being who you are, or the career that has made you rich as long as you agree to hide the truth.

In the course of developing Clive’s story, though, I realized that there are lots of closets out there. And some people just trade one for another. So that had to play into the story, as well.

I’ve always believed that sexism lies at the heart of homophobia, at least when it comes to men. Homophobes seem to make a clear distinction between the sexes: men as strong, women as weak. But that same belief can infiltrate the gay community as well. Witness how often bottom is thrown about as an epithet (usually with passive-aggressive facetiousness) among gay men. While many proclaim they have no issue with being gay, for some, there’s still residual shame in being fey.

We all have our closets, of one sort or another. And though I like to think I’ve broken out of mine, I can’t deny that I still carry a piece of it with me. Perhaps we all do.

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