On (Not) Coming Out
I am bisexual.
Such a simple statement, but syntactic modesty conceals the inescapable complexity of its sociopolitical undercurrent. Those three words are burdened, also, with a personal weight. It is difficult to imagine a person for whom a phrase like this is not so heavily charged. Maybe one day such an admission will become as innocuous as any other statement of essential fact: I have brown hair; I have blue eyes; I am bisexual (or gay, or transgender, or pansexual, or gender fluid, or any other aspect of one’s identity).
But for now, it remains complicated, at least on some level. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, particularly the person who says it. Actually saying it, however, can be difficult. Even just thinking it may become a turbulent exercise in gradual self-discovery.
My own experience was a strange one. It took me a long time to realize I was bisexual, and even longer to say it. Let me tell you a bit about that.
First, some context. I was raised Roman Catholic. My elementary school and my high school were both Catholic. I was baptized as an infant, received my First Communion at eight, and Confirmed at fourteen. For most of that, I was quite devout. I prayed regularly. There was even a period in Grade 6 when I resolved to pray the rosary every night before bed. But by Grade 7 I was apathetic (at best), and an atheist before I was Confirmed the following year. The evolution of my religious views are better left for another time; suffice it to say that I was very religious for the better part of my childhood, and that had a predictable impact on my sense of self. Catholicism remains a homophobic religion—despite some more recent hints of fractured, incremental change—and it was even worse in those years than it is now.
Naturally, a religious upbringing follows from a religious family. I don’t want to give any false impression, so for clarity: I have a wonderful family, and I love them dearly. Some are more devout than others, but the vast majority of my relatives are fairly described as believers, particularly on my Italian side. But they’re not fanatical; I’m not talking about hardcore, ultra-conservative evangelicals here. When I was growing up, we missed Sunday Mass at least as often as we went. With that said, however, even run-of-the-mill, everyday religiosity tends to foster intolerance. Again—not a malevolent intolerance. Yet it was obvious, from the words and actions of various family members, that homosexuality was wrong. Very clearly I can remember specific instances of homophobia, at worst, and discomfort, at best. Comedic imitations of “flaming” coworkers; laughing at pedestrians in Toronto’s gay village; expressing revulsion for colonoscopies because they are too reminiscent of anal sex; discussing the mechanics of a gay couple’s sex life like it’s a nature documentary; saying “ew” instinctively at any depiction of gay romance; avoiding purposefully a movie like The Danish Girl because it’s about a transgender person; arguing that gay sex is unnatural because God made the anus a one-way street; lamenting the appropriation of God’s promissory rainbow by a bunch of sinners; and the list goes on. Some of these incidents go back a decade or more, and others took place mere months ago.
Unsurprisingly, the environment at school was no better. In my Catholic elementary school we were taught a subject popularly known as “Family Life,” which referred, of course, to heterosexual family life. I’ll give you the Cole’s Notes version: be a good Catholic, practice your faith, get married, have children, and only have sex for baby-making. There was no mention of homosexuality that I can recall; if there was, the textbook and teachers would have only denounced it anyway.
The student body was not exactly the picture of tolerance either. Their homophobia was more social in origin than religious; where the Church says gay people go to hell, students just made fun of them, used words like “gay” and “fag” for a laugh.
Which brings me to myself.
This may or may not surprise you, but I, too, was a little bit homophobic. Not in a fire-and-brimstone way, but in the same casual, dismissive way as some of my family and the other kids at school. Using “gay” as a pejorative, for example. The usual stuff. I remember a particular conversation: someone suggested I buy a pink shirt because “tough guys wear pink,” to which I replied, “so do gay guys.”
I didn’t buy the shirt.
While it is true that I said such things on occasion, I did so infrequently, and looking back, I’m not sure they were ever sincere. My internal dialogue never really matched what I was saying. Which is not to suggest that I was a beacon of tolerance on the inside—honestly, homosexuality just wasn’t something I thought about much. Even now, with the power of 20/20 hindsight, I struggle to understand fully the reasons behind my sporadic—yet undeniable—homophobic attitude. One thing I do remember quite clearly is how I felt following even the slightest insinuation that I was anything other than straight. Whether it was someone recommending I buy a pink shirt or a bully at school calling me “gay,” my reaction was essentially the same every time: extreme discomfort. Psychoanalysis is better left to the experts, but to me, that signals some combination of repression and the pressure to conform.
For all of these reasons, and probably more, I did not clue into my own sexuality until my late teens. Looking back, there were subtle hints along the way, but I must have buried them. Grade 12 was a turning point. For the first time, I allowed my brain to entertain the possibility that I was not straight. One of the most important moments for me that year is as significant as it is mundane: driving with a close friend one night, I told her—rather facetiously—that I thought I was “10 percent gay” because I was attracted to a particular male television star.
She basically told me I was being an idiot for quantifying it, and she was right. I knew it then and I know it now.
It was progress, but even then, I did not think I was full-stop gay or bisexual. And the summer after high school, I started dating a girl, which conveniently saved me from having to deal with it for a little while longer. I remember feeling relieved at the time. Towards the end of that relationship, however, the truth hit me. This was in my first year of undergraduate studies. First, I admitted to myself that I was bisexual. Then I admitted it to a couple of friends I had met at university. By the time first year ended, there was no longer any doubt about it.
This sea change arrived with little fanfare. No identity crisis, no emotional turmoil. There was no “eureka!” moment, and I can’t pinpoint a particular moment in time when I finally ‘came out’ to myself.
I don’t actually have statistics or research about the age at which a person realizes they are gay or bisexual. It is possible that my own timeline is totally average. But based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence, it seems to me that most people either make that discovery at a much younger age than I did or otherwise know it from the get-go, irrespective of when they actually come out. My story is different. I found out in my first year of university, not in grade school. Believe me, I would have preferred to realize much sooner. Maybe that would have made life more difficult, maybe it would have made it easier, no one can say for certain—but either way, I’d like to think it would have had a positive effect.
The profundity of my self-discovery is perhaps somewhat undermined by the fact that it was accompanied neither by inward nor outward changes of significant measure, as one might have expected. Rather, life carried on, through three more years at university. Other experiences during that time, like going on exchange, were more strikingly, fundamentally pivotal than uncovering my sexuality ever was. Maybe it’s because I made the discovery so late in the game. Or maybe it’s because I never went to gay bars in university, never dated a boy, or for that matter, never even so much as kissed one. In practical terms, being bisexual changed almost nothing. Sure, I was ‘out’ to more and more people, but only people at school, and only as a matter of fact, not following some momentous and emotional ‘coming out’ moment. I never sat anyone down just to tell them. If it came up in conversation, or there was some other reason to mention it, I was almost completely open to admitting my bisexuality, even as early as my second year.
Outside of school, it was a different story. In a way, life at school and life at home were almost two different worlds, like parallel universes. Part of that separation was physical: I lived about an hour away from home during my undergraduate studies (except for summers, of course). Mostly, though, the distance was less tangible, and consequently harder to explain. There was never any kind of conscious choice about this—it’s just the way things happened to be, for whatever reason. Or more probably, a multitude of reasons. I can guess at a few of them. For one, my social life existed almost exclusively at school. Second, I tend to be emotionally elusive; more specifically, I tend to avoid, by pure instinct, overtly serious or ‘real’ encounters of any kind on almost all occasions. In short, I don’t ‘share’ easily. Third, my family had always assumed I was straight, had no reason to think otherwise, and were probably hardwired not to think that way regardless. Putting these things together, it’s unsurprising that I was not casually ‘out’ at home in the same way I was at school. I had no reason to tell them, and they had no reason to ask. Such was the way of things for the remainder of my undergraduate degree, after which I moved back home. Nothing changed. I worked for a year, then started law school. Still, nothing changed.
Indulge me, once again, as I speculate on what I understand to be a more ‘ordinary’ story for a similarly situated gay or bisexual person, particularly with respect to their relationship with their family. Such a person might struggle with their sexuality for a period, fret about telling their parents, eventually work up to it, sit them down, possibly one at a time, and very purposefully pronounce “I’m gay”, or a phrase close to it. Now, before the storm hits, let me acknowledge and underscore that there exists an infinite diversity of experiences, including an infinite spectrum of responses to such an admission, from unconditionally positive to unimaginably horrific. That said, I think there is a kind of pervasive, paradigmatic image of what coming out to one’s parents looks like in the average case, and it’s something like I’ve described. Whether that image is wholly accurate or not is a separate question for another time.
In any event, I never went through anything of the sort, and I never will—and this brings me, finally, to the main thing I wanted to write about: not coming out.
Let’s return, for a moment, to my undergraduate days. From the beginning, I was relatively open with friends and peers, unafraid (though probably still nervous) to admit my sexuality if the topic came up. Obviously that became easier as the years went on. It has continued in law school, as well. During orientation week, only two or three days after meeting everyone and before classes had started, I told a now-close friend that I was bisexual, simply because the conversation turned in that direction. I am at a place, now, where I can do so with no hesitation, little trepidation, and only marginal regard to what the reaction might be. For all intents and purposes, I have been ‘out’ to the world at large for many years.
With my family, however, it was always a different experience. Very early on, I decided that I was never going to have a ‘coming out’ moment, not with anyone, and especially not with my family. Not because I wanted to hide my sexuality, but because my own mindset was fundamentally opposed to what I might call the underlying purpose of such an experience. For me, at least, coming out to my parents in this way seemed like an exercise in validation. The whole notion of sitting someone down and confessing one’s sexuality is predicated on a kind of unpredictability, a lack of certainty about how the person will react, what they will say, what they will think, together with a desire for the person to accept you and your sexuality, and a corresponding fear that they will not.
Let me say, first of all, that I am extraordinarily lucky. I knew there would be no major consequences if my parents found out I was bisexual. They might not understand it, but I was always certain that if I did come out to them, everything would be fine and, generally speaking, carry on as normal. The worst I could reasonably expect was disappointment. This is a luxury that many people do not have. Too often, LGBTQ+ people face severe and potentially destructive reactions from their families. Like I said before, there is a diversity of experience, and I am cognizant of how fortunate I am.
For myself, knowing the reaction would be generally positive is one of the reasons why I was always against the idea of coming out. After all, what would that moment have looked like? I tell them I’m bisexual, and then what? Maybe they tell me they still love me. Maybe they’re weirdly excited and say something like “that’s great!” Maybe they ask me if I’m sure. Who knows. The point is that, whatever the reaction is, I knew it would not be overly negative. That element of unpredictability was never there, nor the sense of precariousness that goes along with it.
The other reason—and probably the more decisive one—is that I was not looking for validation of any kind. I never needed it, never wanted it. I imagined my parents telling me, for instance, they they still love me, or that my sexuality doesn’t matter to them. And my only thought was: so? Parents are supposed to love their children. A person’s sexuality should not matter. If anyone in my life—whether acquaintance, friend, family, or parent—was intolerant or not accepting of my sexuality, that’s their problem, not mine. I have few qualms about saying “good riddance” and moving on from such negativity.
And because of that, I had no reason to have a ‘coming out’ to my parents, nor to anyone else. I decided that I would simply live my life, and news of my sexuality would emerge whenever it happened to come up naturally. If someone asked me point-blank, I resolved to answer honestly. If I was bringing a boy home, they could find out then. There were any number of circumstances in which my family would find out I was bisexual, but I knew I would never sit them down just to tell them.
Let me stress, again, that I am describing my own experience, and mine alone. For a lot of people (if not most), the experience of coming out is tremendously important. Whether the reaction is positive or negative, it may be an absolutely pivotal moment in someone’s life. I get that, believe me. Nothing I say is meant to disparage or in any way downplay the significance or validity of those experiences. I feel so much hope and joy when I hear about a coming-out story with a happy ending, just as I feel angry and broken-hearted when I hear about a bad one. As I said, there are as many experiences as there are people to experience them; so while for many people their experience revolves around coming out, my own has been one of resistance to that paradigm, for the reasons I’ve described. I suspect my relationship with coming out is somewhat outside the norm, and that’s okay. If your own experience leads you to one or more ‘coming out’ moments, that is equally valid, and I wish you all the support and confidence and positivity in the world.
Now, it would be misleading to stop there, leaving you with the impression that my decision not to come out was the only factor in play. It is true that I have only ever ‘come out’ to anyone in the usual course of things, casually and spontaneously, and never in a moment planned for that purpose. It is also true that I did, in fact, formulate the decision not to come out and the reasons behind it very early on. But as much as I’d like to think I had simply made a decision and stuck with it, the reality is that, for the first few years, not coming out was probably based less on decision-making and more on fundamental aspects of my personality: for one, the instinctual aversion to serious personal disclosure I described earlier, and beyond that, an even broader dislike for attention. Despite my conscious decision not to come out, it was really for these other reasons that I never did so, at least in those early years. I suppose I was not yet as comfortable with myself as I am now. It is impossible to pinpoint a date beyond which the decision itself took over, but if I had to guess, it was likely no later than my final undergraduate year—which is not to say, of course, that those personality traits were suddenly switched off.
How did my parents find out about my sexual orientation, then, if I never sat them down to break the news? To keep a long story short, they were proofreading an application for me, one line of which happened to mention it. They read the line, and the cat was out of the bag. The fact that I am bisexual was not technically a secret—after all, I had decided to live my life unaltered, and it would come out whenever it happened to come up—but obviously I was not oblivious to the reality of the situation. They didn’t know. When I sent that document for them to proofread, I was acutely aware, from the moment I hit ‘send’, that this would cause something of a stir. So I waited for the texts or emails I assumed were forthcoming, and sure enough, they arrived in short order. (I should mention, for clarity’s sake, that I was halfway around the world at the time, in Uganda, so texts and emails were the only effective means of communication. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a small relief.)
Since then, I’m glad to say that little has changed in my day-to-day life. I don’t know if my parents told anyone else after they found out, but I really don’t care either way. Maybe everyone else knows, or maybe no one does. Maybe there are people reading this right now for whom this is new information. If so, now you know! Keep it to yourself or tell everyone, it’s all the same to me. I’m just living my life, trying as hard as I can not to let the ‘secret’ of my sexuality nor its disclosure predetermine what I do or say.
But that’s just me.