Life After Coming Out Before Coming Of Age: The Gay Gen Z Challenge

"I’m glad that we now live in a world where young gays and lesbians can be brave enough to come out earlier and be happier in the aftermath."

In the second episode of NBC’s revival of Will & Grace, Will had a date with a 23-year-old who was comically over the top in his cluelessness. He’d come out when he was eight, and his primary concern 15 years later was getting it on before his Lyft arrived to whisk his hard-on home. LOLz.

Over on How to Get Away with Murder, we recently learned that ex-lawyer-in-training Connor Walsh came out at age 12 to so much parental acceptance that it inspired his father to bust out of the closet, too. Well, that explains why Connor has always been so openly and unapologetically gay.

Good for him, but perhaps it also partly explains why he’s so comfortable using sex as a weapon or to score legal points. He’s always been the brash, nasty one among the so-called “Keating Five,” Viola Davis’s student hangers-on at Middletown University? Did his abbreviated gay-identity crisis – his, in a sense, gay post-millennial privilege – help create an apathetic, self-centered monster? His boyfriend Oliver is older, Asian, and HIV positive. For him, the underdog struggle has always been a way of life... and he’s so much kinder, always thinking about others.

Hold the reality check. I know these are fictional characters. However, judging from my interactions with Generation Z – post-millennials born from the mid-‘90s on – they’re rooted in reality. As growing up gay has gotten easier, many of the beneficiaries of the new normal seem to have gotten harder, and not just on hook-up apps.

Look around any gay bar that still exists. The 21-and-under crowd, some of whom have been out for at least a decade, are no longer cowering in the corner, all timid and nervous. They’re working the room, cockier, far more jaded, picky, and entitled than gays their age were in the ’90s.

That’s not long before some of them were coming out of the closet. If the plethora of gay teens using hook-up and dating apps is any indication, my much-younger ex Shane’s relatively recent struggle with coming out might already seem like an antiquated condition from the not-so-distant past to guys even younger than him. (He’ll be 29 next month.)

Thanks to modern technology, sexual experimentation and expression are a lot easier. They’re literally at your fingertips. Gay teens aren’t collectively hiding in the shadows, desperate to connect with someone who understands. They’ve changed so much since my fortysomething peers and I were coming of age. Back then, before gay marriage, antiretroviral therapy and Prep, the world outside the closet was far less hospitable and being HIV positive felt like a death sentence.

How outdated “It gets better” and, to an extent, even “safe sex” must feel for them as they post their XXX pics online for everyone to admire. They’re out and proud, and I’m happy for them – especially since their parents are often much more accepting of them than previous generations of parents were of their gay offspring.

If only being less angst-filled about their sexual orientation meant being more “woke” in other ways, to use a millennial buzzword. And before the rotten tomatoes start coming my way, I want to acknowledge those who come out early and still grow up to be enlightened and “woke.” But too many of them don’t.

Will (Eric McCormack) and his millennial date (Ben Platt)
Will (Eric McCormack) and his millennial date (Ben Platt)

Will gave his date a lecture on gay history and how young gays need to realize they have it easier because previous generations had it harder. I’m not sure if the young man got it, but it’s a message that needs to be sent out to every 21-and-under scrolling/swiping through Grindr/Scruff/Tinder looking for “fun.”

I don’t want to downplay the struggle that many gay boys and young men still face, but coming out at eight or 12 – or even before you could legally drink – was practically unheard of in my youth. I was 22 when I came out, and one of the first guys I dated was a 36-year-old grandfather-to-be who had only come out a year or so before meeting me.

I’m glad that we now live in a world where young gays and lesbians can be brave enough to come out earlier and be happier in the aftermath. Sometimes I wish Shane had been born a few years later. We never would have dated, but perhaps he might have been spared lots of internal drama over being gay.

His fear of coming out and his reluctance to be publicly “gay” were big factors in why we didn’t work out. But maybe the universe’s timing was just right. I like to think that his struggle with his sexual orientation and the bravery of his subsequent coming out in his mid-twenties will make him a stronger, better person in the future.

I, for one, credit my awareness and my tendency to root for the underdog to my lifelong experiences as a gay black underdog. In my own clueless youth, activism borne of necessity and consciousness borne of lifetimes spent feeling like outsiders were cornerstones of gay culture. In a sense, we were raised to root for the underdog because we’d been there.

Gays who come out as tweens to parental acceptance will have to acquire empathy that doesn’t necessarily come from experience. It’s great that “It gets better” is coming true earlier. It’s what we’ve been striving to achieve. But I worry that complacency and outright apathy have been unfortunate by-products of our gains. You don’t know what you’ve got if you’ve always had it.

Maybe the online etiquette of older gays is partly to blame. We’ve gone from consciousness and conscientiousness to announcing our prejudices on hook-up apps. The proliferation of “Masc4Masc” and “Caucasians only” suggests the sort of exclusion that many of us suffered under and apparently have forgotten. We’ve laid the groundwork for a better life, but we haven’t set a blueprint for being better men.

Look at how our gay icons have changed. Several years ago, it was all about Lady Gaga. These days, Beyonce is the gay prom queen. It’s a telling shift. We used to embrace ugly-ducklings-to-swans (Judy, Liza, Barbra). Now mainstream “I woke up like this” glamor is aspirational. It’s evident in every “straight-acting” on Grindr, and it’s setting a terrible example for young gays who won’t have the benefit of struggle to make them more open and accepting.

As the current political leaders are trying to prove, all the ground we’ve gained in recent years can be lost. Now is not the time for apathy. It’s imperative that, as a community, we remain aware and united, not divided by the attributes that make us horny.

I hope all those “18 to 25 only” and “Not looking for a dad” boys aren’t cutting out mature gays when they’re offline, in “looking for”-free zones. Generation Z may be brave enough to come out before sex and romance really matter, but these guys could still learn a lot from our experience. If you don’t know and respect the past, there’s little hope for your future.

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