If you’re gay, your life can be divided into roughly two parts: the years before you come out and the years after. According to the conventional narrative, the first part of your life is poisoned by strife and struggle, the latter blessed with love and honesty. And the division between these parts lies in a single moment of bold, irreversible self-actualization: the act of coming out. Whether your coming out goes swimmingly or terribly—whether your parents throw you a party or throw you out of the house—the mere act of doing it, of reconciling the dissonance within yourself and asserting your true identity, is meant to be a moment of glorious affirmation.
But for most gay people, coming out is simply a drag. It’s scary, it’s stressful, it’s awkward, and it might get you disowned. And while gay people may frequently reminisce (or commiserate) with each other about their coming out stories, here’s a rule I’d like to lay down on National Coming Out Day. Straight people, please never, ever ask a gay person about their coming out.
I realize this sounds callous, even rude. Coming out, after all, is a vitally important moment in any gay person’s life; isn’t it only polite to inquire how it went? But I implore you, straight America, resist the urge. No matter how benign your question may seem, asking about someone’s coming out doesn’t open the door to deeper friendship. It’s more likely to open old wounds.
For far too many gay people, coming out remains the most singularly traumatic event of their lives. On television, coming out is usually greeted with celebratory affection at best, distressed confusion at worst. That’s a nice fantasy. But in reality, announcing your orientation to your parents can lead to tears, terror, and emotional brawls. Some gay people would rather attempt suicide than come out; some, tragically, succeed. Religious parents might tell their gay kids they’re going to hell, or send them to gay conversion “therapy.” I’ve met gay people who parents told them they’d get AIDS and die; that God hated them; that they were twisted perverts; that they didn’t deserve to live. And of course, even today, many parents reject their children outright when they announce that they’re homosexual, cutting them off or kicking them out onto the street. (The homeless rate of LGBT youths is horrifyingly high for a reason.)
And even for the lucky gay people whose families respond with acceptance, there’s invariably a hitch in the happy ending. Maybe granddad can’t know or he’ll write you out of the will; maybe grandma can’t find out lest she grab her crucifix and start an impromptu exorcism. Virtually all LGBT people have these lingering vestiges of homophobia dangling somewhere on their family tree, and few enjoy discussing them.
I entirely understand straight people’s urge to ask gay people about coming out. It’s a monumentally meaningful rite of passage, a dramatic and revealing process wholly unique to gay life. There’s no real analog for straight people. Those who inquire do so with no malice; they simply want to hear an inspiring tale of ultimate triumph. And if someone is willing to discuss their coming out story, it can build trust and further a burgeoning friendship.
But if the story is not forthcoming, just let it lie. For some people, coming out carries with it candor and joy; for others, it brings sorrow and slammed doors. It’s not worth the risk. Straight people who ask about coming out are generally good-hearted and well-intentioned. But unless the information is freely offered, please: Keep your questions in the closet.