Coming Out: It Separates the Men From the Boys
Proclaiming a sexual preference is something that straight men never really have to bother with unless, of course, they have special interests to pursue. Sharing the fact of your homosexuality with the world, however, is rarely as festive an occasion as a debutante's ball. Coming out involves varying degrees of difficulty that are affected by class, race, religion, and geography, but, as anyone who is gay will confirm, being "that way" is not something you become, it is a set of emotional and physical responses that just are. And once you know what and who you like to do in bed, you must be prepared to decide how you are going to live the rest of your life. In a heterosexist society where queens are not the exception that rules, coming out is one of the most courageous, honest, and manly things that any guy can do.
The trick is how to spring it on the world. Scrawling "I'm gay" in lipstick on your parents' bedroom mirror may demonstrate a personal signature of the highest style, but is not particularly sensitive to their feelings. Upon hearing me utter those words almost twenty years ago, my own mother did what and self-respecting middle-class mom would do: went directly into a seizure. Unfortunately, she was behind the wheel of our family station wagon. As I was coming out of the closet, our car was hurtling over an embankment. The moment was terrifying but exactly right.
At the time, I was drowning in the luxury of late-'60s suburbia. My reasons for declaring a sexual preference that sexual preference had to do less with the pursuit of personal freedom than with the lust for pure shock value. But then I didn't just come out of the closet, I shot out like an MX-80 missile. Not only did I get to proclaim my homosexuality in the privacy of my Santa Barbara home at the age of sixteen, I also got a crack at doing it four years later on national TV, when the PBS documentary An American Family became a showcase for my liberation. It was the first, and to this day possibly the only, program to feature a real-life gay man as an integral member of American family life. In the winter of 1973 when the gay movement and culture made the concept, if not the practice, almost too trendy the twelve-part video-vérité series transformed me from a nobody to a homo Eddie Haskell in what seemed like sixty seconds.
Underneath the naked urge to create a millions-served scandal, however, there was the terrifying fear that I was the only person going through this. I was wrong: as an example of how desolate the terrain was only two decades ago, one result of An American Family was that I became a gay role model. Though my mailbox was inundated with letters, bags of them, from kids across the American landscape who felt compelled to share their revelations, I also received Bibles with parts about the eternal hellfire guys like me qualified for thoughtfully underlined.
But it was a pleasure to be a gay eyesore. I or rather my sexual preference became a cause célèbre, and I greedily capitalized on the situation with such generous flourishes as going on a national media tour, "gaily" provoking callers on radio talk shows across the Midwest, and appearing on The Merv Griffin Show with Ronnie Spector-style mascara. I rubbed everyone's noes in my gayness. Why? Because it was there.
The social Armageddon I'd gloomily envisioned descending on me as a result of my decision never materialized; in fact, with my highly publicized reputation preceding me, all kinds of doors swung open as if I were a cuddly extraterrestrial. In my family and in society, my gayness became quietly accepted and shock of all shocks life went on. In retrospect, the most unnerving aspect of being openly gay was that it turned out to be as disappointingly normal as being straight.
As many gay men of that glam-rock era did, I had already announced my intentions in deeds if not in words. There was my fondness for glittery costume jewelry and black leather, my weakness for (gulp) head scarves and blue lipstick and red eye shadow, the time I wore a woman's antique fur jacket to my high school junior prom. My father still regales holiday gatherings with the one about how he got turned down for a loan at the local S&L when the bank officer saw me walking past him in green wrap-around sunglasses, a green suede trench coat, and a bright red-hennaed Diamond Doggie hairdo.
The gay sensibility from camp to butch and back again has always found a mirror in mainstream culture, but in the last twenty years it has just as often driven the imagery of pop. Glitter rock, disco, and the New Romantics of the early '80s traded in on the glamorous appeal of androgyny, allowing straight folks to speak the lingo. The effect, typified by such performers as David Bowie and Boy George, created a safely contained theatrical expression of gay style. But appropriation works in circular ways; punk rock democratized the motorcycle jacket for gay men who didn't identify themselves as leather queens, while Bruce Springsteen's blue jeans, white T-shirts, and sleeveless plaid shirts legitimized classic elements of the gay-clone wardrobe.
For gay men, clothes are semaphoric signals of sexual identification. It is therefore hardly surprising that when they do come out of the closet gays are usually dressed in a precise and particular manner. Coming out encourages men to embrace the personal style that suits them best be it the heightened version of blue-collar clothes that telegraphs eroticism or a variation of the drag aesthetic.
Unlike straight men, who have the luxury of being slobs because women usually expect them to be, gay men whether preppies, fashion victims, or jocks are thought to be more obsessed with how they look because they dress for themselves and, consequently, for each other. While this may allow for a certain adventuresomeness in selecting clothes (thus mythologizing gay men as trendsetting arbiters of taste), it just as often reinforces conformity in fashion and grooming. If there is a gay uniform, it is often undistinguishable from its heterosexual counterpart. The differences are to be found in how each man coordinates the details: the brand and cut of the jeans, the way sleeves and cuffs are rolled, the design of such accessories as belts and boots, the haircut, the length of sideburns, the number and size of earrings.
Coming out, however, involves so much more than a simple exchange of dress codes and cultural iconography. It is a means of redefining oneself, of claiming membership in a lifestyle and a social order with distinct values. Chief among these values is honesty; the belief in a sexual etiquette based on sex, not etiquette; the freedom to enjoy it without commitment; and the right to decry the hypocrisy of those men who enjoy giving blow jobs in train-station rest rooms on their way home to their wives and families.
Of course, sexuality is a private matter; some believe that broadcasting it destroys the very things that make it sacred. But compared with the truly life-threatening issues at play in going public about one's HIV status, advertising your attraction to a member of your own sex seems almost quaint. Today, there are publicly gay policemen, politicians, tennis players, authors, artists, and after years of flirting with bisexual revelations genuinely queer pop stars showing the world that gayness isn't just the province of stereotypes.
Gay culture is in a coming-out process of its own. From out of the closets in the '60s, the culture moved onto the disco floors of the '70s and through the hospital wards of the '80s and onwards to the streets. The fey gay image is no longer quite so applicable in this muscular age of activist groups such as ACT UP and Queer Nation. The media, focusing in on AIDS, have put gay people in the spotlight more in the last ten years than at any time in history.
This does not lessen the tragic proportions of the AIDS crisis itself, but, come hell or Holy Rollers, it serves notice that gay culture is surviving and thriving. Some activists even believe that the recent rise in homophobic violence might be a gauge of the success of positive gay images. "The fact that so many people are coming out in different walks of life and doing it so powerfully is making those who are bigoted more likely to attack," says one "There would be no need to bash us if we quietly stayed home."
And on the home front the tide is certainly turning. A friend told me of a man who, after keeping his gayness a painful secret all the way through the first year of college, decided to come out to his family. On a weekend home from school, he gathered his parents and sister around him. Excruciatingly, he announced that he was gay to his father's unexpected elation. "Who is she?" his dad cried jubilantly. "Mary? Cathy?" "Dad," his sister broke in, "he said 'gay,' not 'engaged'!" For a few moments, the entire family laughed over the mix-up. And then life went on as usual.
This article was originally published in the February 1991 issue of Details.
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