Thursday, June 4, 2009

Coming Out Gay

One of the more disappointing reactions I saw in the comments left on the "Can Someone Choose To Be Gay?" article is the judgmental attitudes towards those who aren't completely "out". I think we can help our community and ourselves by better understanding that the coming out experience is different for each of us. The ability to label one's self as "gay" varies person to person. Some people "know" from an early age; others "know" at a later time in their life. For some people this process is easy. For others, the coming out process can be very difficult.

One of the first researchers in this area, Vivian Cass writes the model I like best.

Stage 1 - Identity Confusion
The classic phrase at this point is simply "Something's not right, I'm different." Sometimes we simply lack the language to describe how we know something is different. Many people talk about knowing at a young age that they knew. How we respond to this statement separates people who come out quickly or those who take a while. For any number of reasons, some people get stuck and shut down. Others get a sense of what "I'm different means" and they start to put the pieces together.

Stage 2 - Identity Comparison
The question becomes "Is there anyone else like me?" This process is where we might start to understand the label "gay" or "homosexual" by hearing things on TV, seeing others, hearing snippets of conversations, or even getting teased. Others say something that helps us "click" into a new level of understanding. A lot of this stage is about coping with feeling alone or coping because we lack the information. This stage is about getting enough information.

Stage 3 - Identity Tolerance
In this stage, there is a sense of initial self-recognition where we can say "I probably am gay." The internal denial decreases, but I don't interact much with those around because I'm so "different." This is the classic "in the closet stage" where I act straight to create a "mask" and hide part of myself. It is also a stage where a person will react negatively to certain stereotypes saying, "I'm not like them." "Them" are the stereotypes which might be the leather community, the drag community or the "fems." In this stage, the internalized stereotypes have the most negative impact on the individual's coming out process. Getting through this stage is about confronting and challenging the internal messages.

Stage 4 - Identity Acceptance
Finding other gay men and women as friends and role models is important. This was difficult for older generations; in my opinion in-school groups and TV images makes this easier now. Those individuals fortunate enough to have access to support groups and/or social events often experience a sense of self-acceptance. Guys start to ask, "How do I want to live my life as a gay man."

Stages 5 - Identity Pride
In this stage, there is a sense of "this is who I am." The pride of being gay starts to show, and the disclosure to others is a commonplace occurrence. In some people, the pride even becomes militant: 'I'm here, I'm queer, deal with it." There is sometimes a rejection of the "straight" world: "I only want to be with people like me."

Stages 6 - Identity Synthesis
Being gay in this stage is simply part of my life. Individuals move from a "them and us" mentality into an acceptance of the similarities between the heterosexual and homosexual worlds. We are all dealing with life issues that are more similar than different: Is my job secure? How am I happy in the world? What's important to me? How do I find someone I love? And believe it or not, the relationship issues are more similar than different. We are all striving for intimacy.

I want to restate this; it's important to keep in mind that we don't all move through this process at the same speed. The men and women at earlier stages in this process aren't helped by "pushing" them through it faster no matter how well intended you are. They have to take it at their own pace.

What does help is to honestly answer their questions and to not judge them for not fully embracing it. What can help is to share your coming out process. Whether it was a good experience or not others reading them may find themselves in a similar situation and use your example as a means to make it easier for themselves. Hopefully they will share their story with others, which in turn will help to make their journey easier.

What's your story?

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