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Coming out as LGBTQ: It’s not one moment, but several

We asked members of the LGBTQIA+ community to talk to us about how they define “coming out.” (Illustration by Rachel Orr)
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It can feel like “coming out” is everywhere — people talk about coming as every letter of the LGBTQ acronym, coming out with mental illness. The New York Times has noted that the Orlando massacre has inspired more people to come out as gay

But coming out usually isn’t a singular pronouncement — an Ellen DeGeneres moment or a “Glee” moment. Instead, it’s a series of moments.

For Tia Bryan, a 30-year-old bisexual woman in Dallas, coming out is a process that happens every day. She and her fiancee feel supported by an accepting community, but she still finds herself explaining the ring on her finger to co-workers, strangers and friends. Leading up to their wedding next April, Bryan and her fiancee are experiencing a variety of coming-out moments — big conversations with family members as well as quiet public displays of affection.

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“It’s definitely a lot more than some proclamation,” she says. “Even something as small as holding someone’s hand or kissing someone’s cheek or brushing their hair out of their face can speak volumes when done in public. It’s saying ‘I’m not afraid to be who I am.’ ”

Bonnie Jo Morris, a professor of women’s studies at Georgetown University, has collected her own coming-out experiences in a one-woman show, celebrating the big and awkward to the small and easy. She points out that, for many people in the LGBTQ community, coming out isn’t an option in many situations — it’s not safe.

“I’ve come out to people in hot tubs and on airplanes,” she says. “But in some places I’ve traveled and it’s been dangerous, and I have lied. Do you lie about a dead boyfriend just to be safe for 10 minutes? … You’re never off the hook for the rest of your life.”

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Pablo Ben, a history professor at San Diego State University, has researched the political history of coming out, tracing the movement to the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and even earlier to some groups in 1860s Germany, when activists were coming out as gay to their communities. Ben came out to his own family more than 20 years ago, but he still found himself “coming out” to a waiter at a coffee shop in Buenos Aires who assumed he was straight.

“There’s always a certain degree and areas of life in which you come out and areas of life in which you don’t,” he says. “And there’s always some areas of life in which you don’t. I work at San Diego State University and I’m open over there, and I’m open to my family since my 20s. All my family in Argentina, I present at a lecture and everyone knows.”

“But … I go to a cafe and a waiter assumes I am straight,” he says. “And I don’t know — it’s not about not being out, it’s just like, I don’t know if I don’t have the energy to make it a topic. Sometimes, you don’t want that interaction. You just want a coffee.”

We collected stories from our followers on Tumblr, asking them to leave us a voicemail explaining what coming out means to them — when they’ve done it, how and what it felt like. Some talked about the first conversation; some discussed a single moment; others described an ongoing process. One caller, Gary Gates, summed it up pretty neatly: “I’ve never come out, and I’m always coming out.”


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