Dear Dr Ren:
I’m 17 and I live in the Valley. I’m gay. I went to the Pride parade this year and realized for the first time how many more like me there are. That was great. But I also saw how far I have to go to be “out.” I really don’t know where to begin. Can you give me a list of the steps?
Brand New At This
Dear Brand New,
The good news is you’ve already begun.
You’ve acknowledged to yourself that you are gay and you’ve identified with your community at the parade.
You also realize there is a process involved in coming to terms with being different from mainstream society in terms of your sexuality and lifestyle. This process is both political and personal, making the “steps” you mention universal as well as individual.
The political steps begin with transforming our socially induced shame about being queer into genuine acceptance. This is no small task and is a journey rather than a destination. Happily, you need not blaze your own trail as many before you have walked this way.
Find a group catering to queer youth, or come into The Centre on Bute St. Hearing others’ stories will prepare you for what lies ahead and you will build a new circle of comrades.
Coming out often means grieving the loss of friends who will not —or dare not —accept your homosexuality. Sometimes being queer costs us our families, too. Being different has always had a high price —and great rewards. Happily, you do not have to do this in isolation.
Coming out also involves learning when and how to speak out, and when to remain silent. There is a tendency to want to burst onto the scene and shout your gay status to the world, which is understandable but unwise.
Once burned, bridges can be tough to rebuild. Learning patience and tact is another part of the coming out process. Parents, especially, may require time and education to come to terms with a gay child (PFLAG can be a great help).
A few parents never relinquish their prejudice, though most do. Their process happens simultaneously with yours, and it can fluctuate between heated and icy. Love generally triumphs.
It is probably safest to practice coming out with your peers. Being your own age, they may be less judgmental, and you can better afford to lose them than family members if they react badly to your news. Use the ‘risk and check’ method. Disclose a little and watch the response. If it is neutral or favourable, risk a bit more, but be prepared for negative reactions. Not everyone will support you.
Then there’s the sexual part of homosexuality. Again exuberance reigns. We think that each new infatuation is true love, leading to a string of broken hearts. We easily confuse lust and love. It’s another good reason to become well informed in terms of safer sex techniques and use them!
In matters of the heart, we get better with practice. Dating is not a dirty word. Don’t be too quick to settle down. Give yourself some time to explore who you are growing up to be as a sexually gay person and have a good time along the way.
On a personal level, you may want to alter your appearance to better match your gay persona, especially if you are a butch lesbian, a fey man, or genderqueer. Such seemingly insignificant changes as plucking your eyebrows or cutting your hair can help align your inner and outer roles.
As to where you fit, remember all the diversity you saw at the parade? The naked, silver-painted gym bodies parading alongside the tropical-shirted, poodle-toting execs mingled with the masses that didn’t attract your attention at all. Surely not everyone was gay, but many were. Gay is normal, and often indistinguishable.
Chances are you know other gay people but don’t know they are gay, just as they don’t know your orientation. Coming out involves embracing your gayness all the time without necessarily displaying it, and being comfortable with it. That’s pride.
Being 17 and living in the ‘burbs can’t be easy. Throw in a social obstacle like being gay and stress understandably increases. You will want to find support systems to buoy you through the next few years, and they are available. Consider coming out as a journey you are embarking upon and pack for the trip.
What will you need? What resources do you already have? What can you expect from your family/friends/extended family? Are you involved in a social or sports group that will carry you through? Do you have personal vulnerabilities to resolve before you tackle this (addictions, mental health issues)? What strengths will help you?
True, being different is a challenge, and so is the coming out process. You didn’t ask for this, but it’s yours nonetheless.
There are also great rewards in being different, you know. You’ll find a sensitivity, an appreciation, and a community lost to you if you were not a member of this very special club. You’ll find gold at the end of this rainbow.