A 'How-Not-To-Style-Your-Life' Guide

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Coming Out: Three Years Later


Just over three years ago, on the 6th of January 2015, my mother and myself were spending the evening the same way that we had spent countless others: by watching Celebrity Big Brother. Now, before you click away in disgust, I will be the first to raise my hand and admit that Big Brother is by no means the pinnacle of sophisticated entertainment. Indeed, it is anything but, and on many occasions, having teeth pulled without anaesthetic could arguably constitute a more entertaining evening. However, ever since I began to navigate the perils of puberty, Big Brother served as a common interest between my Mum and myself as it brought us together every night and granted us the sort of quality time that you think only exists in American sitcoms.

During one of the ad breaks, I remember a familiar and unwelcome sensation rising in my stomach. This feeling had plagued me before: in car journeys, at restaurants, on the beach whilst on holiday. This time, however, it refused to dissipate. Without wanting to perpetuate any clich├ęs or stereotypes, it felt exactly like the sensation of word vomit that Cady Heron describes in Mean Girls. It rose from my stomach to my throat as if it was being driven out of me by a fundamental need to be heard. I could feel it hesitating on my tongue for a few seconds when, as if it were an instinct, my mouth opened and I blurted out three simple words without so much as looking up from the floor:

“I’m gay, Mum.”

Well, needless to say I had caught my poor Mother slightly off guard and before she knew it, she had an 18-year-old man-child sobbing into her like an inconsolable baby. Throughout my entire life, I have been fortunate enough to be raised in an accepting environment by a very loving and tolerant family. Growing up, my parents never once shamed me for any feminine (read: ‘girly’) tastes or traits that I observed; indeed, they had no reservations about buying me Barbies and would encourage me to grow my hair as long as I wanted. I must say, however, that they weren’t best pleased on the fateful evening that Barbie and myself received two highly unauthorised, non-regulation haircuts at the hands of the kitchen scissors, but that’s a story for another day.

What I’m alluding to is that when I came out to my family, I was met with unconditional love and support, and for that, I will be indebted to them for the rest of my life. However, a day doesn’t go by where I don’t take my luck and privilege for granted. I want to acknowledge this as a disclaimer before I delve any deeper into my experiences as it would, quite frankly, be irresponsible to not. It is a heartbreaking fact that for many LGBTQ+ people, a reception such as mine is not a reality. If anyone reading this is in a less fortunate situation, please take solace knowing that there is a whole community dedicated to loving and accepting you, and if my ramblings can offer you some hope for the future, it will have been worth it.
Immediately after coming out, I was awash with a sense of freedom the like of which I had never felt before. Indeed, the very next day, I remember sauntering around the house wearing a black cape I had recently purchased without irrational fear of what my parents or brother would think if they saw me. However, I was blithely unaware that for my entire life, my parents had tirelessly cultivated our home to be a safe space for self-expression; a heterotopia, as Foucault would put it. It wasn’t until I returned to university a few days later, then, that I soon learnt that with this freedom came a feeling of exposure that matched it in both volume and intensity.

A few weeks after coming out, I experienced what can only be described as a crisis of masculinity. I’ve always taken great pride in my appearance and even to this day, I refuse to be seen in public unless I’m dressed to the nines. Whereas before I would let my mood determine my outfit for the day, after coming out, I began to go out of my way to wear clothing that would typically be considered male and ‘masculine’. Suddenly, wearing my newly coveted black cape became out of the question and I found myself reaching more and more for articles of clothing that allowed me to fade into the background. I vividly remember going to view a student house wearing jeans, a t-shirt, a grey hoodie and trainers (*shudders*) because I wanted to present myself as masculine to the landlord in fear of them otherwise rejecting our application. It is also worth noting that it was still January during this ordeal and let me tell you, reader, I WAS BLOODY FREEZING.

If I’m honest, I’m still clueless as to why I risked succumbing to hypothermia in the pursuit of masculinity, which is something I had never sought prior to coming out. The strongest theory for this is that homophobia stems from systematic misogyny. If the archaic heteronormative notion is that the male and female sexes are complementary, not only is homosexuality considered a deviation from the ‘norm’, but homosexual men are considered ‘feminine’ for exhibiting the same attraction as heterosexual females. Indeed, there is a phenomena linked to this that is often perpetuated on gay dating apps; if you take a quick perusal of Grindr, it won’t be long before you’re confronted with phrases such as ‘straight acting’, ‘masc4masc’ and ‘no femmes’, all of which contribute to the shaming of feminine homosexual men. Indeed, it is a sad fact that we live in a society that celebrates masculinity and disparages femininity. It is clear to me now that as my identity was fully under siege, I desperately sought masculinity in fear of falling victim to a fraction of the misogyny that women face on a daily basis.

Had I continued to seek toxic masculinity for any longer than I did, I dread to think what sort of person I would be today. However, my life changed one fateful night in February 2015 when I fell down a Netflix rabbit-hole and stumbled upon the world of drag. Like many millennials, I was introduced to drag by RuPaul’s Drag Race; it was a baptism of fire and glitter, and after two weeks, I had watched every episode of every season that existed. That’s right, even All Stars 1. …Honestly, who thought that putting the queens in teams would be a good idea?!

Before Drag Race, the extent of my knowledge and exposure to drag was rudimentary. As if overnight, however, my perception shifted inexorably: it went from being about men in dresses and wigs to being an art form that grants performers and audiences alike the agency to deconstruct norms and explore the fluidity of gender. What’s more, Drag Race introduced me to the seminal documentary Paris Is Burning and catalysed my own personal education into the queer history of the late-20th century that is otherwise glossed over in government-set syllabi. Whilst some critics are quick to dismiss the show as cheap entertainment, the significance of drag queens being represented in mainstream entertainment should not be understated. Indeed, Courtney Act’s recent historic victory of Celebrity Big Brother is another example of this. Not only was Courtney able to showcase her charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent to a whole new audience, but in the process, she used her platform to educate countless viewers on LGBTQ+ issues in a way that hadn’t been done on UK reality television before. Evan Davis put it best:
So why exactly is this sort of exposure important? Well, this is a topic that many people have written entire books on, so I’m apprehensive about attempting to broach it in a single blog post. In the most basic terms possible, a lot of the trepidations surrounding coming out stem from shame that can be exerted upon you from various different sources. In my own experience, being bullied at school for being gay (which I didn’t even know I was at the time) put me off coming out because for as long as I could remember, ‘gay’ was a pejorative term amongst my peers and was something of which to be ashamed. What’s more, I grew up watching a lot a television, and the sheer lack of queer characters in functional relationships and leading traditionally ‘rewarding’ lives also skewed my perception of what my life could be like as an adult gay man. I vividly remember being 13-years-old and thinking to myself that I would have to suppress my attraction to other men for the rest of my life if I wanted to get married, have children and live out a life similar to that of my parents. So if you ever see a straight person complaining about diversity in mainstream media, remember that their privilege has blinded them to the agency that this grants queer subjects in comparison to the archetypal gay sitcom characters whose roles are often as vapid as the jokes made at their expense.

Having been out for over three years now, I really do believe that this departure from token representation helped me to fully accept myself. By introducing me to drag, an art form that I now couldn’t imagine life without, it encouraged me to question the fragility of traditional gender signifiers and think about how that impacts my own gender expression. Although I identity as a cis gay man, I’m now at a point in my life where I feel comfortable celebrating the feminine aspects of my identity just as much as the masculine. Last Halloween, for example, I went out to a bar in east London wearing a full face of androgynous, club kid-inspired makeup, and the other week I wore a sheer top on a night out and didn’t feel self-conscious once. Although these are small, personal victories, they mark an almost unrecognisable departure from the boy three years ago who made a conscious effort to ‘butch it up’ for a house viewing. Now, reader, I’m comfortable risking hypothermia in the pursuit of femininity instead!

Without wanting this post to turn into one long sycophantic endorsement of RuPaul’s Drag Race, there really is a lot of truth in the closing lines of every episode:
“If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
In my experience, self-acceptance is not a life-long achievement that you are one day granted by someone else. It is more akin to a muscle, in that you have to work tirelessly to strengthen it and then continue that work in order to maintain it. As I come to the end of this post, I want to make it clear that coming out is not the be-all and end-all of being gay. For a lot of queer youth and people who live in less progressive communities, coming out is not always an option, and personal safety should always be the priority. Coming out does not define someone’s experience as LGBTQ+, and not being ready to come out yet does not invalidate your struggle and your place in the community. If coming out feels like an impossibility to anyone reading this and you have no one to talk to about it, this link contains a list of different hotlines that are all dedicated to helping and listening to you. Try your absolutely hardest to love and appreciate your queerness every single day no matter how hard it may seem, and never forget the words of the world’s best Madonna impersonator:


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If you’ve made it to the end, thank you so much for reading my first post in nearly a year and a half. I have absolutely no idea why I haven’t posted in so long, but hopefully this will reopen the floodgates and encourage me to write more often. I will also say that I’ve been working on this post for over a month, however there are still so many aspects of this discussion that I had to omit simply because I am fundamentally unqualified to speak on behalf of many communities. Important conversations surrounding trans and non-binary issues are being had but are not being listened to as much as others, as well as BAME experiences in a community that all too often chooses to celebrate white mediocrity. If anyone has any recommendations of any writers/activists that are having these conversations, please let me know about them in the comments below because everyone would benefit from hearing what they have to say.

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For anyone interested in undertaking some wider reading on any of the topics raised in this post (not in alphabetical order):

Theory:
- Foucault, Michel. Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias. Trans. Jay Miskowiec. (Available here)
- Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. “Sex in Public.” (Available here)

The ball scene and issues of race:
- Paris is Burning. dir. Jennie Livingston. (Available to watch on Netflix and YouTube)
- hooks, bell. “Is Paris Burning?” Black Looks: Race and Representation. (Available here)

Queer history:
- Pilcher, Alex. A Queer Little History of Art. (Available to buy here)
- Todd, Matthew. Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay and Happy. (Available to buy here)
- Downs, Alan. The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. (Available to buy here)
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1 comment

  1. entirely adored reading this rather than doing my A-level work - thanks for the extra source of procrastination :)

    ReplyDelete

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