It’s October 11th…it’s National Coming Out Day.
I hardly think it’s accidental that Coming Out Day falls on the day immediately following World Mental Health Day. Given that LGBTI people are disproportionately likely to experience mental ill health, improving awareness and making it easier for people to come out are surely obvious methods of rasing standards of mental wellbeing.
Last year, to mark the occasion, several members of KaleidoScot’s team shared their own coming out stories in the hope of raising awareness of some of the issues surrounding coming out – and perhaps empowering others to do the same. My own story is here.
It’s not quite the fuill story though, because for me the disclusore of my sexuality was a gradual thing. It was gradual for many reasons – for a start, it took me a while to fully understand my own identity. In my late teens I was unsure whether I was gay or bi – what I did know is that I certainly wasn’t “normal”, either in terms of being heterosexual or conforming to binary notions of gender. I used to joke I was “at least 60 per cent” female.
Initially, I came out to close friends – that wasn’t always easy, and some were less tolerant than they at first appeared – and eventually was happy to effectively come out to the world. I’ve unashamedly and publicly embraced by sexuality. I’ve worn my orientation on my sleeve even in church. I’m not ashamed of who I am, so why should anyone else?
However, there were a few people I wasn’t quite so open with – my family. There were reasons for this. My dad was gay, and this created some problems for my mum when he told her in the 1970s. She was initially supportive, but sadly his inability to accept himself (they were both quite religious, which no doubt didn’t help them make sense of the issues) led to them obtaining a divorce. Thereafter, Dad’s “secret” would never be spoken about, apart from whenever my stepfather wanted to label him a “pervert” or make some other such homophobic and derogatory insult (he seemed to enjoy such things). I knew that Mum had had a difficult time and couldn’t fully understand homosexuality, so in my teens I keep my own developing identity secret. To be honest, I thought it would hurt her too much to find out I was like my dad. And religious families are seldom easy to talk to about these issues.
I’ve also not be open about my sexuality with my in-laws. I’m married to Anna – a truly inspirational woman who genuinely does understand me, and for whom my “differences” are actually attractive, but her family are Evangelicals for whom even my championing of LGBTI issues in the church is a problem. I think they see me as a hopelessly confused Christian hippy. They probably know I’m bi, but I’ve never felt it was right to openly state it.
Obviously not telling Mum meant not telling any other family members. This became more difficult after someone unintentionally outed me to my brother a couple of years ago. And after receiving some particularly nasty homophobic abuse from a family member a couple of weeks ago, I thought it was now the time to tell Mum exactly who I was.
So just two days ago, I phoned her and told her everything. I explianed where the path I’ve been on has taken me, about the various people who have been a part of my life on the way (some she knew, others she didn’t), how I finally accepted myself as bisexual and how I identify as non-binary. Of course, she didn’t understand it fully. She doesn’t fully “get” bisexuality. But while not feeling entirely understood, I felt totally accepted.
She had no idea about the homophobia I had experienced, and was both shocked and saddened by it. She also clearly had her suspicions anyway – she told me she “knew I had always been different, in a lovely way”. Ultimately, while she might not be able to get her head around notions of gender and sexuality not being fixed, I no longer have any reason to believe my orientation is a problem to her. It isn’t.
I think there is a need to improve education and awareness, so that people like my mother are more knowledgeable about, for example, what bisexuality/pansexuality is (trying to make that distinction was Mission Impossible). Understanding is key to changing attitudes and challenging prejudices. The first time I attempted to come out to anyone was to a Baptist minister on Islay where I lived – that might seem a strange choice, but he was an eccentric kind of person who dressed in combats and at the time was the most broad-minded person I knew. He was also independent of family and social networks. I told him: “You know, I really don’t think I’m ever going to like women”; to which he responded, “Don’t worry son, you will one day. You’re a bit young to be pre-occupied with these things.” I was 14. He didn’t even understand what I was trying to tell him.
Of course, understanding isn’t necessarily central to acceptance and love – but it would certainly lead to people like the minister (who I knew was far from homophobic) being better equipped to help those who come in search of support and affirmation.
Tonight I’ll be at a special service at a local church for the LGBTI community at which, among other things, our respective coming out stories will be celebrated. This is a terrific thing in itself and shows how much progress has been made in recent years. But coming out isn’t always easy, and it’s not necessarily for everyone. I look forward to the time when no-one will need to come out, because it won’t matter – I certainly hope my own daughters would have no such difficulties, and I’m doing my best to raise them in a tolerant and inclusive environment.
The time when no-one will care about orientation is perhaps a long way off, but as my Mum said just a couple of nights ago, I “shouldn’t have worried about it”. Indeed, I’ve been surprised at the acceptance I’ve found in very unusual and unexpected places. Now, I wonder if Anna’s family will be so accepting…