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Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out

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Have you just come out of the closet, or are you peeking through the keyhole thinking about it? Is life on the outside starting to look inviting, shiny and new?

(Yes, even you back there, hiding behind that box of moth balls and Aunt Ethel's spectator pumps.)

I confess, I lucked out. I never really had to "come out" because I grew into my sexuality very clearly being attracted to and involved with both men and women, and my father acknowledging that basically went like this:

Dad: "So, was that your girlfriend that just slept over?"
Me: "No, that was just a friend."
Dad: "Oh. Sorry. I didn't mean to assume that--"
Me: "Don't be. My girlfriend was the girl from the night before."
Dad: "Oh. Gotcha."

That was pretty much that.

No fuss, no fanfare, no drama, and at the time, I went to an urban arts school where just as many of us were gay and bisexual as those who were straight, so it was no big deal on that account either. Different time, different place, and I was indeed one of the lucky ones when it came to coming out. It may well be the most boring coming out story in history, but it's mine, and I'll take it.

That doesn't mean I didn't have my own mistakes to make, or that I didn't watch friends of mine make a million when coming out themselves. So, I offer you a few tips to help make the transition a little bit easier, a little less rocky, and to hopefully give you a few less things to have to look back on and laugh at later.

There's a difference between holding the door open and pushing people through it.

Now that you're out, and you know how good it feels, you may want anyone else you know who isn't out to experience the same thing. Well-intentioned as that may be, it's never a good idea to pull someone kicking and screaming out the closet door. We're all different, including differences in our safety and vulnerability. While it may be or feel safe for you to be out, someone else may have a radically different experience or set of circumstances that makes it a lot less safe for them.

You can talk to your pals about how great you feel right now, and about how much being out benefits you. Just be sure that you're also respecting their own pace and allowing them the same sort of time you needed to come out when you were ready to. When they're ready, they'll let you know, and then you can be the supportive, wonderful friend that you are, and tell them about all the mistakes you made coming out yourself. Maybe by then they'll be funny.

Too, don't overlook the obvious: sometimes, we don't just want friends to come out for themselves, we may want them to come out for our sake. If you're the only out person you know, it can feel pretty isolating, and you may want your pal to come out just so that you have someone else out with you. And understandable as that is, it is neither fair nor friendly.

Your straight friends stayed your friends when they knew you were gay or bisexual -- don't ditch them now because they're straight.

Remember those wonderful friends who told you that while they didn't understand being gay or bisexual, they loved you for who you were and would read up on it and accept you for whatever was best for you? Those folks who went with you to your first pride march, or who defended you to the first person who called you a stupid dyke?

Those wouldn't happen to be the same friends you haven't called in a month, or who you don't have time for anymore, would they? Whoops. Best fix that.

Don't beat yourself up about it, it happens to the best of us. When you come out, it's normal and natural to want to surround yourself with people who have been through what you've been through, and who are like-minded. It's also normal and natural to want to get involved in your gay or bisexual community. Just remember that there is more to you than your sexual identity, and straight folks have to come to terms with theirs too. So, you may have more in common than you think, and those friendships are still just as valuable. While your new gay friends may be better at listening to your woes about dating, your old straight friends might know how you got that scar on your arm in the seventh grade, and may still love to go watch old movies with you on Sunday afternoons.

Friendships are about more than sexual identity. They're about bonds. Don't break'em thoughtlessly.

Don't become an infomercial.

Remember before you came out, how very awful it felt when others said things to you that assumed or endorsed heterosexuality as some sort of superior state of being, or as the ONLY state of being?

Need I say more? Didn't think so. Fundamentalism isn't pretty no matter who wears it, or how well they accessorize.

Be nice to your parents, especially when they're hyperventilating.

They've been through a lot. Really. They have watched you change in so many ways during your life, that they have to sit down a lot just to keep from getting motion sickness. So, even the most accepting, liberal parents may not want to throw you a party the minute you come out to them, and they may choke on their carrots instead of saying congratulations when you announce it at the dinner table.

Most of us can handle gradual changes, but young people tend to change pretty darn fast, and your folks may not have seen this one coming. Of course, it may not be a change for you at all, if you've known all along, or had that niggling feeling, but if they didn't know that it can come as a pretty big shock, especially in families where there isn't a good deal of experience with or acceptance of homosexuality.

So, when you lay it on your parents, be kind. Be patient. Be gentle. Offer to answer any questions they might have. Make yourself available to talk about it. Let them know that you're okay with it if they're not elated right now. Give them a few days to absorb it all before you drag them to PFLAG meetings or hang the rainbow flag on the front lawn.

Many parents do come around in time, it just takes a little. And some parents just won't. Ever. And while that hurts, and it feels really awful, it's a harsh reality. You may find that at some point you either have to accede not to discuss your partnerships and orientation to keep the peace, or you may find that that simply doesn't feel right and you have to come up with some other solution.

It sucks, but some families or family members just may never come around, and if that's the situation, please know that doesn't mean you don't get to have a family. You still do, you just may need to make your own family of friends and partners, which is certainly not a sad thing: many of us have self-constructed families we really love and find bring us a lot more joy and support than the families we were born into did.

But no matter what happens, being kind, sincere and patient is usually the best answer, and the best way to be sure you're treated in the same manner.

Think before you put up that billboard or pull out that megaphone.

When you first come out, you may feel like you want to tell the whole world. It's exhilarating to feel like you can finally be honest and forthright about your sexual identity and celebrate it. Just be sure that you're doing it in the right places, and most importantly, in safe places.

For instance, going to a trucker bar in rural Alabama and announcing you're a lesbian over the karaoke mike is a Bad Idea. Ditto for deeply kissing your boyfriend on a subway at two in the morning (yes, the sign on the train says "Queens," sweetheart, but it doesn't mean you). Bear in mind that sexual safety rules apply to being gay not only as much as they apply to straight people, but in most places, a little more so. When you broadcast anything sexual about yourself, you are basically inviting those around you to react or participate. And some people's incredibly warped idea of participating may be to beat you, harass you or to try and sexually assault you.

Not every place is the right place to be sexual or the right place to be out, whatever your orientation may be. So, be sure to come down off the clouds now and then for a potent reality check. And be sure that when you do choose to be out or sexual in public, you have some sense of the risks you are taking and feel prepared to manage or handle the potential consequences. If it feels to you like the place that you're in isn't a safe place to be out in, you're probably right. Trust your instincts. Being out in public is only worth so much.

Block the numbers for ALL U-Haul locations from your telephone.

One of the biggest mistakes many people who have just come out make is to rush into their first relationship so fast that it takes less time from a first date to picking out china patterns than it did to pull together that outfit you're wearing today.

It's very easy to get caught up in the rush not only of being out, but of being out WITH a partner for the first time. Your first same-sex partnership may very well feel like THE same-sex partnership, but bear in mind that if it is, what's the rush? I'd be a rich woman if I had a dime for every newly out-person I've encountered who had to break a lease and lose a security deposit more than once before they realized that rushing in to domesticity isn't a good idea. Especially when you don't even know your partner's full name yet.

There is no special magic that makes same-sex relationships move any faster than opposite-sex ones. Take your time and get to know not just the person you're with, but your own identity before you start packing. If it's meant to be, it'll keep. And if you take your time with it, it'll be a better relationship in the long run.

Remember that sex isn't love. Make it your mantra.

Not only is it virtually impossible to avoid having your heart broken the first few times around the block, it isn't necessarily a bad thing, hurt as it does. Having your heart broken can be a potent reality call that you're just a little TOO vulnerable, or that your expectations are a notch too high.

When you come out, you're not just dealing with developing a new facet of your sexual identity, but with starting to deal with a new identity in terms of your relationships, and -- let's be frank -- often about finally getting laid properly, by someone you WANT to be with, in what can feel like an age of waiting, thinking that'd never wind up happening. But since all those things can tend to happen at once, it can be easy to get them all muddled up.

Again, the same rules apply to same-sex relations as applied to opposite-sex ones: sex and love can certainly come together sometimes, but they are not one and the same. And sex cannot create love by virtue of a momentary physical bond. Check in with yourself: if you know you can't handle casual sex (read: you meet someone, you hook up, they never, ever call you again even though they say they will), don't put yourself in that position. If you know you're only ready for sex in the context of a long-term relationship, be forthright about that with potential partners you meet. And if you do find yourself weeping on your pillow having confused the two, cut yourself some slack. We live and we learn, and it only isn't okay if you keep making the same mistakes again and again and again once you know better.

Don't forget about your sexual health.

If you've been sexually active in opposite/different-sex partnerships, you may feel a tremendous burden lifted from your shoulders when you enter same-sex partnerships because worrying about pregnancy is now a thing of the past. While that is certainly a big burden lifted, it's easy to get caught up in that and only remember that it isn't the ONLY thing to worry about when you find out you've got genital warts. Good morning, sunshine: that's not the wake-up call you want to be getting.

Same-sex partnerships carry STI risks just like different-sex ones do. You still need to get your annual sexual health checkup or GYN exam, and you still need to be tested at least once a year AND use safer sex practices, like condoms, dental dams and gloves. Think of it as a way to find new uses for old toys. Think of it as a way to ensure that you'll be around long enough, and healthy enough, to enjoy being out of the closet. Think of it as a way of being able to avoid having to come out the an entirely different closet, and a far less pleasant one: having an incurable, or simply really annoying, STI.

And about that two feet between you and the ground...

While it's good to let yourself really get into all this, and to explore it thoroughly, don't forget that it is only one part of you, not all of you. You are more than the sum of your parts, and are more than just your sexual identity.

That means it's important to remember that just being gay doesn't get you into college: you still need to keep your grades up for that. Your sexual identity also won't pay your rent, clean your room, do the laundry, walk the dog, keep contact with your friends and family, or balance your bank account. And to do all of those things, you may have to step out of the bliss now and then to keep it real.

Celebrate yourself.

In the midst of all the complexities there are in getting used to your sexual identity, and amid all the mistakes you'll make (because we all do), don't forget to take time out to really appreciate the good stuff. Realize that -- especially in our culture today -- it takes bravery and guts to be honest about your sexual identity. It takes a lot to make yourself a little more vulnerable for the sake of living honestly, but it's a really great thing. And while it's got it's rough spots, it usually feels really good.

So, do nice things for yourself. Go out with some close friends and be out. Pamper yourself. Get a new haircut, buy some new books. Explore it all -- write about what you're going through, talk to close friends you know are supportive, listen to music that makes you feel good about this.

As time goes by, the rough patches get a lot easier to get through, and your sexual identity through the years will become a more integral part of your entire personal identity. But while you're developing it, enjoy it. Sexuality is supposed to be about joy and about pleasure and about feeling good. Honor it, and you honor yourself. And file away the mistakes you made for some later date. You really will be able to laugh about them someday. Just perhaps not someday soon.

written 11 Jun 2001 . updated 11 Oct 2012

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