The Conflict of Coming Out

In 2009 I got married for the third time, to the same person.  The first wedding was to celebrate our commitment with everyone we felt was important in our lives.  The second wedding was to rejoice that Civil Unions were a step in making our marriage binding.  And finally, in 2009, our children witnessed the commitment we have always had, but was now legal.

We rejoiced. Two moms and two kids and went on a harbor cruise for dinner to celebrate. As we boarded the boat we were asked if we were commemorating a special occasion.  The staff came to our table bearing gifts.  It made us giddy. There were announcements about the guests and their diverse events.  We had a moment of anxiety before our family was exposed to hundreds of strangers.  There was weak applause as our names were read and situation was revealed. There was a moment of tension and then an older woman came over to our table to give us her heartfelt congratulations and said, “Good for you!” It was sweet and a little awkward since she didn’t tell us what motivated her approaching us.

What was most memorable, and has literally always stayed with me, was the reaction from one of the young servers. He slipped us a note that I still carry in my wallet.  He wrote, “Jennifer and Rebecca! I just want to tell you congratulations! You are a beautiful family and you inspire me as a gay man to follow my dreams and have a family.  You are AWESOME and I pray that you be blessed through your years together.”

That is the power of “coming out.”  Being a possibility for someone else.  It is always risky until you know the outcome.  But you can’t know unless you try.  It’s ironic to have to question whether you should be yourself, or not.  How do you live with constantly being vigilant? Sometimes you are damned if you do come out with the traumas of isolation, rejection, losing a job and therefore health insurance and the list becomes endless.  

However, more often, you are even more damned if you don’t come out.  Unfortunately, it’s a familiar sensation and therefore, at least in the short term, it feels easier to do.  In the long term, well, we’ve all heard the stories of any type of internalized turmoil.  

What I know about coming out is that although the person on the receiving end may be supportive, the agony of anticipating their reaction is like a test; a test to see if you are worthy of being allowed to be yourself.   I had a job supervising staff in a rural town in Georgia.  It took me a year to come out to them as a northern, lesbian Jew.  I had to earn their trust and respect as a manager first, otherwise I felt they wouldn’t see me at all.

And that’s another thing, we all have a coming out story. Which one of my identities should I have picked to share or hold onto? Northern, lesbian or being Jewish? Whether we have cancer, a parent left the family when we were young, we are independently wealthy, or we are lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender, we all risk being treated differently because of the variety of ways people have been influenced.  All of us are impacted by what we are taught by our families, our teachers, our friends, our faith, neighbors, and media. But that is one-sided.  Where it really counts is when you can have a dialogue about what you are hearing, feeling, thinking, and seeing. Otherwise, you are stuffed with strangers inside you, never truly knowing or expressing who you are.

I tell my coming out story a lot.  Despite all of the love and acceptance I had growing up, when my parents found out I was in a relationship with a woman, they were confused, they were in deep denial and the last thing they wanted was to talk about it. That sounds common among families, who are also coming out.

I think that fear of the unknown is the core of my becoming a therapist. I didn’t think that ignoring conflict would ever work. I always believed that sharing with others and them sharing with me would solve almost anything.  That type of interchange always felt cathartic.  No one would be harmed if you could at least understand, if not agree, another’s experience. 

Growing up, I wanted to be Irish Catholic.  Being the youngest, by many years, I thought Irish families had all 5+ kids very close in age, they always bickered but, at least in my mind, they addressed their issues.

For me, coming out is like my childhood ideal of a family, it’s never-ending. It doesn’t just happen when you come out to yourself. Or to your parents. Or even to the entire family, including neighbors and family friends. It’s on the airplane, striking up a conversation with your row-mate. It’s talking about the weekend by the water cooler. It’s just standing silently by the pictures in the hall of your home with a repair person.

My idyllic family is also willing to struggle with countless opportunities for attack and be a worthy opponent, just as viable as everyone else. There are threats and like barriers broken, there are many moments of self-validation, for being authentic and overcoming strain and tension.

What I know most about coming out, is it’s unpredictable.  What will you feel? What will the other person/people say or do.   At times, is it even a choice? I cannot judge someone for not coming out.  I can wish that they didn’t have to hide.  I can hope that the benefit of being genuine outweighs the danger. I can encourage others to decide for themselves what is best for them.  What may be my or your ultimate contribution is that when we can, we continue to come out and recognize that not everyone has that privilege.  When that happens, we can come out as an ally, supporting them in their chosen way.

Coming out is rewarding because it is difficult. When I look at that note in my wallet from the young gay man on our celebration cruise, all of the past rejections, ignorant comments, discrimination, and threats seem to dissipate. I know I’m fortunate to be myself and maybe that way of being can bring the luck-of-the-Irish to touch others too.