November 11, 2009

“Mommy, can you help me tie my shoes? Oh…and by the way, I’m gay”

How young is too young to come out of the closet?

Unlike a lot of the contributors to this blog, I wasn’t out when I arrived on campus as a freshman. Far from it. I thought about coming out immediately after setting foot in Durham, you know, following the ever-popular doctrine that college is a new life, a new start, where you can be a new you. But that’s not how it worked out for me. I was much too shy and too insecure around all of the new people I was meeting to actually be myself, and eventually by the beginning of my sophomore year, I had let so much time fly by that I thought it became too late to explore that side of me. I was already set in a group of fantastic friends, I was doing well in my classes, and I didn’t want to disturb this seemingly perfect existence.

However, it was after months of feeling stuck in a rut, of that constant internal nagging and, as pathetic as it might sound, seeing my friends go out and hook-up and/or begin to have romantic interests (because we all know these things are sometimes mutually exclusive) that I realized that if I wanted to be happy, I needed to come to grips with whatever was holding me back from admitting to myself and everyone I knew, that I was gay. And so finally with one month left in the school year, I told my first friend the truth about my sexuality at, ironically of all places, Sirens Lounge (a lesbian bar in Durham, for those of you who are unfamiliar). The floodgates began to open and eventually I had informed everyone who was important to me, including members of my family, that I was, in fact, a gay man (because, like the slogan for Pringles goes, once you pop, you can't stop).

I must admit, that after I did this, I felt emboldened, empowered, and unthinkably confident. I had done what I thought was the impossible and was so proud of myself for taking the leap which would allow me, after so many years of struggling, to finally begin living my life. In some instances, I wish it hadn’t taken so long, but I don’t regret that it did. By the time I was ready to come out, I was mature enough to have had a complete understanding of who I was, and the type of person I wanted to be, and I think for the most part, what I went through has made up a large part of that understanding. And in a way, I’m really happy and at peace with that. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and without a doubt, the internal hardships and questioning that I faced throughout my teen years were an important part of my development.
After acknowledging this, however, I began to wonder what my life would have been like if I had decided to come out earlier. Twenty years ago, the fact that I came out at nineteen would have been extremely bold, but now it seems, kids as young as 10 and 11 are taking hold of their sexuality and coming out in some cases before they even reach middle school. Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ recent article in the New York Times discusses exactly this phenomenon. With the rise of media attention given to gay issues as well as the increasing depiction of gays in popular culture (with my personal faves being Cam and Mitchell from “Modern Family”…sorry, but I felt the need to plug a truly remarkable, yet under-appreciated show), now more than ever, young adolescents are finding the courage to open up to their friends and families the feelings they harbor towards members of the same gender.

Much like the author of the article, my initial reaction was that these kids are just far too young to even begin entertaining these thoughts, and again much like Mr. Denizet-Lewis, I wasn’t sure exactly why I felt this way. I mean, on the one hand, this realization and announcement at such a young age means that these children are already thinking about themselves as sexual beings, which I find just…HORRIFYING. Furthermore, I can’t even imagine how the conversation between these kids and their parents goes. Is it at the playground? While they’re getting help on their pre-Algebra homework? Or does it go a little like the title of this post?

But most of all, I think my initial negative reaction came out of pure shock. If it took so long for me to come out, how are these 12, 13, and 14 year-old adolescents able to do it?!

Of course, the other side of the emotional turmoil this article practically threw me into, was that of complete and utter happiness. I was so overjoyed for these kids, that they were able to recognize the fact that they have a voice of their own and that they can exercise it to make their parents and their peers aware of who they really are. Furthermore, the fact that these kids have found a safe haven in their communities with friends, families, or local community centers is also a wonderful signal that the heteronormativity so heavily enforced by society is finally starting to erode, another thought I couldn't possibly be more thrilled with. I can only hope that the actions of these children will eventually tear down the traditional assumption that everyone is straight until they state that they aren't. However, despite all of these positives, I think it is also vital to understand what is going on here in the realm of the point I brought up earlier in my own coming out saga.

Ultimately I do believe, as I think everyone should, that coming out is always a good thing. However, in the end, I also believe that it takes a deep level of understanding of who you are as a person as well as a sense of maturity in order to do so. It’s important to realize that no matter how progressive the area is that you live in, by coming out, you are labeling yourself, and I think it takes some form of self-identification to handle some of the pressures that LGBT people are still facing today. An understanding which I’m not sure a middle school student can have. Between bullying at school or the bullying in national politics, or the constant facing of stereotypes, or being judged because of who you love (I could go on, but this could get depressing), I'm just not convinced that middle-schoolers are adept in navigating the harsh realities of the world. But I don't know, maybe if more and more of these youngsters are coming out, eventually they'll have a large enough voice so that these issues no longer matter or even exist.

Then again, that could just be wishful thinking :)

But I don't know, you tell me…what are your thoughts on the subject? Is there such a thing as too young to come out of the closet? And what implications do you think this might have on the future of gay leadership? It seems that today, many of the most successful and prominent LGBT activists came from backgrounds where they had to keep their identity a secret, and in dealing with this struggle, became advocates for the LGBT cause and the fight for equality. But now that our future generations are seemingly skipping this important moment of inward reflection, are they as equipped to face the struggles and fight for equality with the same vitality and dedication? I certainly hope so...


  1. Do you ever wonder how different you would be now if you had the courage to be out in high school? Playing straight involved so much self-suppression, even as far as lowering my voice to sound "straighter." I just wonder what sort of permanent effect that the torture of the closet had on my personality development at that critical stage of forming an identity. I might never be as stable or happy as the person I would have been if I were out (and accepted) at 14. So it's good to hear that the next wave of gays won't have the same worries.

  2. I did "skip this important moment of inward reflection", coming out to my school and immediate family when I was 12. I have no idea what it feels like to be closeted and I honestly never want to know. This is not to say that it was easy being out, or that I was "accepted." Middle schoolers, whether in New York City or San Antonio, Texas can be irrationaly cruel. Because my personhood hadn't fully developed, the only way I was defined and the only way I defined myself was as a lesbian. I don't see how not having to deal with keeping your identity a secret would impair your ability to be a leader within the gay community. Dealing with being out and dealing with the being in the closet are both valid struggles. The gay cause is so dear to me because I have experienced firsthand the consequences of being an out gay person- in middle school, high school and now in college.