One night of his freshman year of college, Tyler Artner lay on his twin-sized dorm bed at the University of Oregon with his roommate Mike and their friend Mary. They’d been up talking for a while, and tired from vibrant conversation, they began to drift off into laughter-induced sleep. Artner, however, was wide-awake, thinking ferociously–Do they know? The question buzzed around his brain, shifting shapes and filling him with paranoia that he and his friends, close in proximity, were in fact separated by the invisible wedge of a secret.
He’d been considering this moment for years, considering the right time, right place, right people. Suddenly time caught up with him as he waited for a quiet moment between the breathing patterns of his dozing friends. He took a deep breath and said quietly, “Hey, uh…I’m gay.”
Mike nor Mary expected his confession: “Mike stood up and had this really questioning look on his face, like, what did you just say? After that we laughed about it for a while.” Five years later, Artner describes his first coming out story, which he considers funny and more boring than most. In the case of taking a leap of faith to reveal an intimate part of your identity, that is probably a good thing.
No one in Artner’s life expected him to be gay. He never identified with the stereotypical gay male; “I’m not flamboyant or feminine, and I don’t give great advice to girls.” He moves with a languid confidence, holds a straight yet relaxed posture, and allows his eyes to do the smiling, humble and welcoming. Attending high school in relatively conservative Medford, Oregon, he never expressed whether he liked women or men, and elected to simply not say anything. When all of his friends moved to Portland for college, Artner purposefully moved to Eugene in hopes of an opportunity to start over.
“I wanted to remake myself before I made a declaration about who I was,” he says.
The move to Eugene opened up opportunities to embrace an important part of himself he had previously elected to withhold. He was ready to take what he realized was an irrevocable step, one that would lead him in the direction of a more open and whole life.
Coming out publicly is a relatively modern activity. The original use of the phrase didn’t connote or suggest coming out to both gay and straight people as the contemporary usage does. Author and University of Illinois professor John D’Emilio explains what coming out meant in the 1960’s, the peak of the sexual liberation and gay freedom movement, in The World Turned, his collection of personal essays on gay history, politics and culture. He says coming out in the 60’s “was really more like ‘coming into’ a semi-secret world.” At the time, it wasn’t acceptable for the gay community to be public, so it developed and functioned under the radar. It employed the phrase “coming out” to signify that one gay person was willing to admit to another gay person that they were also gay; an extending of the hand to acknowledge their secret bond.
Today, the definition is more open. The Human Rights Campaign’s Coming Out Project defines coming out as the process in which a person first acknowledges, accepts and appreciates his or her sexual orientation or gender identity and begins to share that with others. The HRC provides a comprehensive online resource guide to coming out. While acknowledging that everyone’s process is different, the guide breaks down the “coming out continuum” into three broad stages. The first is opening up to oneself, asking questions, and making the decision to tell others. The second is coming out and actively talking for the first time about one’s sexual orientation or gender identity with the people in your life. The third is living openly, the ongoing phase after one has initially talked with close friends about life as an LGBTQ person, now able to tell new people that come into his or her life fluidly when it feels appropriate.
“It may be painful, people may be upset, and you will never feel so vulnerable in your life,” says 22-year-old Ryan Higgins, “but you’ll never be so happy and your life will be so much richer.”
Coming out is no longer passing from one secret world to the next. It is departure from the assumed heterosexual world and passage into a genuine, honest, and comfortable lifestyle.
“It is more of a coming into yourself than coming out,” says Higgins, a geography major at the University of Oregon, “because it is a time where you are finally comfortable with who you are.”
Higgins really came out to himself after falling in love. His next step was to tell his friends. “It wasn’t until I met Andy that I knew for sure,” he says, “A big part of my decision [to come out] was that I loved him and he was the one person in my life that made me want to tell everyone.”
After a positive response from his female best friend, he decided to tell his male best friend and roommate. Though disappointed by his friend’s initial, less than supportive response, Higgins was relieved when he came around a few days later. “After I told him, I didn’t care who knew,” he says “and that was the best feeling in the world because I no longer had to hide this huge part of my life.”
Higgins finds it easier to be out in Eugene than at home in Pittsburgh, where he hasn’t told his very Roman Catholic family yet, though he thinks they will be accepting when the time comes.
When Higgins came out to his friends, he was a junior in college. “I waited because I wasn’t completely sure that I was gay,” he says. “Maybe I was just in denial.”
American culture doesn’t raise children with the possibility that they might fall in love with someone of the same sex, or that they might have a gender identity that differs from the body into which they were born.
“Almost all children grow up in families that think of themselves and all their members as heterosexual,” says queer theorist Michael Warner in his essay The Trouble With Normal, “and for some children this produces a profound and nameless estrangement, a sense of inner secrets and hidden shame.”
He explains how later in life, those pushed into this queerness by dominant straightness will be told that they are closeted, and given the impression that they have been telling lies.
“They bear a special burden of disclosure,” Warner says.
The perpetuated practices and norms that support assumed heterosexuality force anyone who identifies as queer to come out and say so or else be assumed straight.
Karin Martin of University of Michigan conducted a study on how parents normalize heterosexuality to their children. The results suggested that most mothers assume that their children are heterosexual, describe romantic and adult relationships to children as only between women and men, and make queer lifestyle invisible to their children.
But these parents are only doing what they were raised to know. Institutions such as law, religion, education, and especially the media fuel the heterosexual agenda. An example of this is Martin’s study with colleague Emily Kazyak on the pervasiveness of heterosexuality in classic Disney and other G-rated children’s films.
“Although I came from a family of LGBTQ allies,” says 21-year-old Casey Drobnick, “I think it took me so long to realize my sexuality because was taught to assume straightness, as if until proven otherwise.”
Today, one can find a better well-rounded cast of queer characters in entertainment, providing children and adults alike with a more inclusive perspective. Many LGBTQ organizations advocate for fair representation in the media, like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) who’s mission to promote a realistic LGBTQ reflection in the media can make coming out a little less daunting.
The day that Drobnick realized that she had feelings for a woman, she came out to a close friend. She felt a great sense of relief from finally being able to understand herself and be accepted by somebody for it.
Drobnick, a psychology major, wishes our society were less heteronormative, but can’t see the LGBTQ coming out process becoming obsolete any time soon. “I think we would sooner see a world in which everyone, even those who are straight, have to come out,” she says.
Even as society grows more inclusive, public display of affection is still considered a permanent statement of sexuality, and discounts those who regard their sexuality with fluidity. “I probably come out in some way or another to people every day,” Drobnick says, “whether it be walking down the street with my girlfriend or telling people that I work with LGBTQ campus programs.” For her, realizing that sexuality is always evolving is a rite of passage in itself. “When I realized I am queer, and thought about it more and more, many aspects of my life suddenly made sense. That was a huge milestone for me.”
After that first night he came out in his dorm room, Artner says the last five years have changed his life in ways he cannot express nor numerate. Allowing himself to come out opened up conversations between old friends, current, and new friends as well as acquaintances. “I opened a dialogue,” he says, “not between any one person, but between the world and myself. It was the point in my life where I could start talking honestly about what I wanted. What I needed.”