Having combed the Internet for 10-plus years for relevant content, I know that there is more than enough material about coming out as gay and how to do it: live videos of people coming out to friends and family, support forums and news articles with both uplifting and soul-crushing stories, and countless networks to help people who are about to take the plunge.
But what there is not is a good, comprehensive FAQ that prepares the receiver of the coming-out conversation to respond. Well, that's just a bit unfair! So, from the mind of a gay guy to the straight world around him, here is a guide to what I'm thinking, how I hope you'll react, and what this all means for me in the context of our (platonic) relationship.
Not all gay people are the same, but having waited until 29 years old to come out, I have a lot of experience in the mentality of a gay guy pre-coming-out through the lens of actually, finally, coming out. Here is a compendium of thoughts that have been running between my ears in the years, months, days, minutes, and seconds prior to telling you that I'm gay.
My hope is that, when a friend does finally choose to come out to you, the notes below will help you be more comfortable with it, and that you'll understand what he or she has been going through up to this day that shapes the conversation in his or her head.
And if you've already had that conversation with someone and it didn't go well, feel free to use this piece and just say, "I didn't know!"
1. My biggest fear is that you'll walk away. Or, worse, that you'll say to my face, "It's cool," and then slowly walk away over the next couple of days, weeks, or months. This is the reason that I haven't told you until now. I love you to death as a friend/brother/sister/mom/dad/other, and I couldn't imagine confronting a reality like this head-on if everyone walked away from me. The worst-case scenario in my head was too awful to fathom ever subjecting myself to it.
2. I'm coming out now because it's finally too much to handle alone. I have been agonizing over this for years, but always inside. Finally I've reached my boiling point. Whether you're the first person I'm telling or the last one, you're hearing about this not because I have to tell you, and not because I want to. Who wants to tell someone something like this? I need you to know this so that it's not a barrier to my ongoing relationship with you. I need you to know this about me because I cannot stand not sharing the whole truth with you, changing pronouns in the stories I share with you, making up excuses for not hitting on that girl in the corner for yet another decade, and never really being able to take my whole guard down around you. I am coming out to you because I want you in my life -- my complete life -- as a friend/brother/sister/mom/dad/other.
3. I have suffered this a lot. Remember your first "thoughts" about the opposite sex? Yeah, since that same day in my life, I've known I'm gay. And yes, relationships have pretty much sucked since that day. It was easy to fake or ignore for a while. Then it wasn't, and every day of my life it has taken more effort. It has kept me up nights. If I turned the channel on the Matthew Shepard story, it was out of fear, disgust, pain, and absolute agony at what the world around me was telling me about who I was. If I made a homophobic comment, it was a moment of rock-bottom in self-defense. If I didn't tell you for a decade or more, it was because I've spent every day since I've known you, at least once a day, wondering what you and others would do if you knew. The stress has sucked more than I can explain.
4. I am certain about this. Please don't ask me if I'm sure I'm not just bi. Trust me: I've tried. And trust me: If it were in my power to choose my sexual orientation, this clearly wouldn't be the road I'd take! I wouldn't just blurt out something like this that could cause me to lose my job, lose all my friends, estrange me from my family, make me a social pariah, and make me uncomfortable in public for fear of being a target, if I weren't really damn-sure about it. I'm telling you now because I've finally come to terms with who I am in this area.
5. It's not about you. I haven't kept this from you until now because of you. It was because of me, because of everything that I just listed above: the fear, the pain, the shame, the questioning, the attempt to change it, the desire to be normal, etc. The only part that was about you was that I didn't want to lose you. Please don't be angry with me for not being open about this. Every day that I didn't tell you was a day I wished I could tell you but was too afraid of what you would say, or how far you would walk away, or what would happen if this fact got out beyond your own ears.
6. This isn't a gender-identity issue. Just because I'm attracted to people of my same gender does not mean that I want to be the opposite gender. For some this may be the case, but homosexuality and gender-identity issues are two very different things. Some people just have to deal with one, some people both, most people neither. Mine's just the gay thing.
7. I am not a pedophile, and I'm not into incest. I'm just gay. I like people of the same gender. Don't lump all this other stuff into it. Don't ask me if I'm now attracted to your kids of my same gender. That's just creepy. That's like asking you, as a father or mother, if you're attracted to your own son or daughter. Please be sane about this, and think a bit before responding with something like this.
8. Just about any response is OK. When I tell you I'm gay, any response will do that is not (A) leaving, (B) berating me for being gay, (C) lecturing me on why it's wrong to be gay, (D) asking me when I chose to be gay, or (E) hitting me in the face. Feel free to make a joke, laugh, cry, say it's cool with you, tell me you had suspicions before now, tell me you never would have guessed, share a story of your own along the same lines, order another round of drinks and toast my newfound freedom, give me a high five or a fist bump, joke about sex, introduce me to the nearest hot guy (after we've chatted it through a bit!), ask about my current relationship status -- anything! I'll be thrilled with just about anything that shows me that you understood it, and that it's not a deal breaker in our relationship. And the more fun you make it, the more chill I'm going to be about it. You having any relatively positive reaction will take a 1,000-pound weight off my shoulders, and you may well notice the change in my posture right away.
9. It's never easy to come out. I may be as straight as an arrow in your eyes, or I may be the most feminine-acting guy on the planet, but it's not easy for me either way. And although it may be easier now than ever before to come out, it wasn't always this way. We've watched kids get killed for being gay, kids around us be bullied under suspicion of maybe being gay, employees be fired for being gay, an entire nation debate whether or not I am human enough to be allowed to get married, live with someone of the same gender, or raise a child. So even though now it's a lot better, please don't cheapen this process by not recalling that it has not been an easy decade or two for this type of thing.
10. I have gay friends you don't know about. Hell, I may have even been in long-term relationships that you didn't know about. If I've told you about relationships in the past, I may have changed the pronoun and told you anyway because I needed your input, wanted your advice, just needed to talk to someone, or wanted to be as close a friend as possible without giving away my secret.
11. This has been on my mind every day of my life for as long as I can remember. I've lost sleep over this more nights than I haven't. This isn't an issue that I'm going to ignore after I come out to you. If you're uncomfortable with having a follow-up conversation about this, I may seek that elsewhere, because I need to talk this through. That's fine; just don't disappear and never talk to me again. Tell me it's going to take you some time, take your time to talk it over with others or just think it through, and we'll have another chat when you're ready.
12. I'm not any different than what I was before, minus this one thing. If I waited this long to say something to you, it was because I didn't want something that I see as such a small part of who I am to overshadow everything else about me. My sexual orientation is just that and nothing more. It's not my personality, it's not my character, it's not my heart or soul. Those things, if we're close, you already know. This is only about whom I date, whom I sleep with, and whom I'm going to fall in love with.
13. I may not do this whole coming-out thing perfectly. Please be forgiving with me over the next few months. It's a new reality to try to keep relationships on the even keel while I update people on this aspect of my life. I might need few days to myself, maybe a few successive nights of late-night chats, or maybe even to talk it through with you several times over the next few months. What I would really appreciate is if you'd just be willing to be there for me and check in on me occasionally to make sure things are going OK. Coming out isn't just the day I tell you; it also involves adapting to the reality that my whole world now knows about this, and coming around to new public realities.
14. Don't worry about the gay jokes. I've been hearing them as long as you have. Yes, up to now each one stings a little bit. But just like you remember everything that your massive crush has ever said, I remember everything that has been said around me about gay people prior to coming out. So I know some great gay jokes myself. And now that I'm out, I will probably laugh at the good-humored, non-vicious ones, and that'll be a moment for us to connect. Don't cringe when something comes on TV around me; remember, I'm not new to this! Now more than ever, I can just laugh it off or have a real chat about it. I won't make it weird if you don't, I promise. Oh, and my new response to "You're so gay" is "Yeah, and?" And that's always going to be funny to me now.
15. Thank you. For not walking away. For being an amazing friend/brother/sister/mom/dad/other for caring about me up to now, and for years to come. For listening to me now. For understanding. For caring enough about me for this small part of me to not define who I am in your eyes.