Coming out can ruin careers. Just ask actor Rupert Everett, who recently told BBC Radio that since he disclosed his sexuality, he hasn’t had a job in Hollywood. He now wishes he hadn’t.
And coming out to homophobic family or friends can be traumatic, leading to isolation, depression and even suicide.
The stakes are even higher in South Africa, especially in the black community. Gays and lesbians have been assaulted and killed. The term “corrective rape” has even been coined for the practice of men raping lesbians to “cure” them.
Neo, a black lesbian activist, told Verve that she has been attracted to females since the age of seven, but did not disclose this because she feared people would get “ideas”.
Then she came out to her mother who, she said, eventually told the street committees “who beat me, chased me away from home and told me not to return”. Neo says they told her she would bring HIV and Aids into the community.
“As a lesbian, you open yourself to the possibility of being assaulted and abused, disowned by your family and church and expelled from school,” she says.
She advises those about to embark on the “painful and isolating” step of coming out to take the time to empower themselves. This means getting an education and their own income and accommodation. You should come out, she says, only once you have achieved full independence.
Johannesburg psychologist Wendy Hay, who specialises in relationships and trauma, says that, cowed by the pressure to be “normal”, an increasing number of homosexuals opt to “go through the motions of adapting to society’s dictates”.
“Young people in very religious or homophobic homes can go through extreme depression, and it can tragically even result in suicide,” she says.
Others get married in the hope that it will take away what they consider to be sinful or inappropriate sexual urges.
“It has a severe effect on self-esteem, because the person believes that they are in some way defective,” says Hay.
“Problems really arise when the person’s gay identity is acted out in high-risk, clandestine encounters.”
In marriages, being in the closet ends with disinterest in sex plaguing the relationship for years, says Hay. Partners can experience low self-esteem from feeling rejected sexually.
Hay says repressed homosexuality can even result in violence, as played out in the tragic ending to the movie American Beauty when a closeted Colonel Fitts kills Kevin Spacey’s character, Lester.
Even when closeted gays or lesbians are in same-sex relationships, denial can play havoc with their lover’s feelings. Jillian, 48, who has been openly lesbian since she was 18, said she found it painful that her last girlfriend was still in the closet at the age of 42.
“It felt juvenile, hiding what was actually a glorious celebration of life and love,” says Jillian. “I think self-loathing and homophobia have a lot to do with staying in the closet.”
Yet it’s tellling that neither Jillian nor Neo were comfortable in using their real names in this article.
But coming out is different for everyone. To some, the experience is admittedly difficult at first, but is ultimately liberating and life-affirming.
“You reach a point when the discomfort of the lies outweighs the pain and fear you have about it, says Eugene “Huge” Brockman.
He knew he was gay in high school, but religious guilt and fear kept him from admitting it to himself. Only when he went to university, learning in psychology lectures that homosexuality was not a psychological disorder, did he begin to make real gay friends and to develop a gay identity.
Still, he wasn’t prepared to come out to his family until a sequence of events prompted him to reveal all to his mother.
“I went to dinner one night with my new gay group. Afterwards we all went back to one of the guy’s houses. We all chatted, swam and had too much wine, then innocently fell asleep,” Brockman recalls.
“My mother called the guy’s house the next morning and told me to come home. When I got there she asked me to tell her if I was gay. I said I was. She called my dad. He rushed over from work and we had a chat. They wanted me to see a psychologist, so I suggested we all go together.”
In the psychologist’s rooms, the discussion then turned to the possibility of the psychologist helping his parents deal with this reality, which they now accept.
“I decided to just tell my older and better friends. One girl ran out, others paid lip service and disappeared, but some of them I am friends with to this day,” he says.
Brockman’s partner of eight years, Henry Bantjez, also took his parents by surprise when he came out. “My father used to be a boxing coach. Need I say more? But it hit my mother the hardest. They had to learn coping mechanisms, and it took time, patience and sometimes therapy.
“But today they are two of the most supportive people in my life,” says Bantjez, adding that they have “adopted” Brockman as their own son.
In the corporate world where he held some senior positions, Bantjez felt it was performance, not sexuality, that determined his success. But he doesn’t hesitate to agree that society is prejudiced against homosexuality.
He said that is why P2-ink, founded by the two men, launched the South African GLBT flag at the Mother City Queer Project in Cape Town last month.
“It was to highlight prejudice and replace it with acceptance and respect, and to offer a platform for those who do face discrimination,” says Bantjez.
Unlike Rupert Everett, there are some celebrities who say that coming out was the best thing they ever did, even if they did struggle at first.
Singer Ricky Martin now says he feels “blessed” and “liberated”. He is raising twin sons born of a surrogate, thinking of adopting more children and is in love. And Ellen DeGeneres has never been happier or more successful, even though coming out years ago put paid to her sitcom, Ellen.
Lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge says: “People think they’ll lose everything if they come out. This did not happen to me at all. In fact, everything came back tenfold.”
“In most cases of coming out, the guys admit that their revelation had less of an impact than they imagined,” says Brockman, which resonates with the experience of gay judge Edwin Cameron, who said in a 2009 interview about coming out to the legal fraternity: “In the first interview I did after becoming a judge we talked about my being openly gay. After that it’s never come up.”
In an article on the New York-based www.4therapy.com website, it’s stressed that before coming out, it’s important to arrive at “a point of strength”.
“Being able to come from a position of self-acceptance can be key to your ability to establish a strong and healthy stance, so that you’re able to better represent to others how right your sexual orientation is for you,” it says.
A lot depends on the milieu in which you work and socialise, Hay points out.
“A young professional in the arts is going to find it easier than a person in a very religious or traditional society where gender roles are rigid. I always encourage young people to seek out role models in the gay community. It’s important to feel comfortable and supported through the process, to have a solid network of friends, family and a therapist, if need be,” she says.
Therapists advise those who want to emerge from the closet to expect family and friends to go through the stages of shock, denial and guilt before they reach acceptance.
Brockman suggests that after making the initial announcement to parents and friends, keep a distance for a while. “Things tend to get said in a state of shock. Let the news sink in and then pick up the discussion again,” he says.
Hay adds that if parents are very “anti-gay”, it is helpful to find an adult the parents trust to assist in the process. “It needs to be someone who is sympathetic and open, though. I also encourage parents to go through a period of counselling if they have strong objections,” she says.
But don’t expect it to end there, because it’s clear that that coming out is not about a one-time announcement, but a matter of “owning” your status continually.
In the 4therapy article, one person describes it such: “There seems to be this popular belief that you come out once and it’s done. Or that coming out only refers to when you first tell your parents. But coming out is a process, and what really happens is that you come out over and over and over again.” - The Star
l For more advice on “Coming Out to Your Parents”, see the webiste, see www.4therapy.com/life-topics/gay-lesbian