Thursday, 11 October 2012

Why coming out is still an everyday experience

Today is Coming Out day. And it’s still relevant.

Commenting during last year’s Irish presidential election campaign on the sea change in attitudes to sexuality in Ireland, the writer Colm Toibin memorably said that recently he’d forgotten he was gay because he was too busy doing something else.  I know what he meant.

The change in attitudes in Britain that’s taken place in the last thirty years has indeed been remarkable. In 1983, when NatCen’s landmark British Social Attitudes survey was carried out, 62 per cent thought homosexuality was always or mostly wrong. By 2010 that trend had more or less reversed: 39 per cent said that homosexuality was never wrong, while ten per cent said it was rarely wrong. And as survey after survey shows that trend continues.

For those of us who came out many years ago, who’ve become comfortable in our own skin with the support of family, friends and colleagues, Colm Toibin’s experience will resonate a great deal. But it’s all too easy to forget how traumatic coming out was and can be. And it would be tempting to assume that attitudinal change has some how rendered coming out easier or even a thing of the past.

But we still live in a society where the presumption is heterosexuality. And even in socially liberal circles that presumption is still pretty deep rooted. Being lesbian or gay may not be as shocking as it once was, but it can still be mildly disconcerting or disappointing to even the most progressive people. The presumption of heterosexuality, ‘heterosexism’ in an institutional context, means that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is still a declaration of difference. It means being the other.

Being the other means that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is at best a negotiated experience.  It might not require a grand strategy, but it will still involve everyday tactical decisions. Who to tell, what to say, will anyone be offended, will it change someone’s perception of me? And so on. And coming out never stops. Wherever you go, whatever you do, that negotiation continues, however benign, a feature of normal daily life.

So if you’re at work and you’re in a relationship, do you play the pronouns game to conceal the gender of your partner? Conversely, if you’re not in a relationship, how do you come out without the prop of a partner to introduce your sexuality into everyday conversation? Research that I was involved in for the European Social Fund as recently as 2006 revealed that coming out could be a radically different experience for people working in the same building: one person talking about being in a ‘comfort zone’ and another talking about having to wear ‘an emotional suit of armour’ everyday.

For young people coming out for the first time at school or college coming out can still be a hugely traumatic and lonely experience. Yes attitudes have changed. Yes role models are more plentiful. But when the chips are down, it’s something you’ve got to do for yourself and it takes courage. For people in countries where attitudes have still to change, we know it can still be a matter of life and death.

So if you’re straight what can you do? Time and time again research participants have said to me over the years that one of the things that can make a real difference is when straight people take responsibility for creating an environment where coming out is less of an ordeal. That means not presuming and not stereotyping. It means thinking about what you say and not assuming you know everything about the people around you. It means that no matter what your private assumptions are they should remain private.

And by the way that doesn’t mean treading on eggshells. It’s not political correctness gone mad. It’s just common sense and common courtesy. Too much to ask? If attitudes have changed as much as the surveys tell us it shouldn’t be.

And you might just make someone’s coming out journey a whole lot easier.

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