A good friend of mine dated his now-ex-boyfriend, who is in his mid-30s, for almost three years before they broke up. Though like every couple they had some disagreements over the course of their relationship, one of the key things that drove them apart was my friend's ex-boyfriend's status as a closeted man. My friend hoped his ex would come out, but his ex did not feel comfortable doing so. Largely because my friend did not feel like he could ever publicly be part of his ex-boyfriend's life and family, the couple made the difficult decision to part.
Many of my friends who knew about this situation considered my friend's ex-boyfriend peculiar for not coming out, and others who live in LGBT-friendly communities like New York or San Francisco might feel the same way. After all, walk down almost any street on the island of Manhattan and before too long you will likely see a couple of men or women holding hands or kissing. New York City is a big liberal bubble, so most people don't bat an eye at such sights. Some will even go as far as to stop the couple on the street to tell them how cute they are.
People in the rest of the country increasingly don't seem to bat their eyes either. Twelve states have passed gay marriage, and support is growing in others. Gay characters like Kurt and Blaine on Glee, Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family or Callie and Arizona on Grey's Anatomy are given prominent, complex roles that are far removed from previous cartoonish depictions of gay people on shows like Will & Grace (though the show was a pioneer of its time). Gay celebrities and public figures are becoming increasingly open about their sexual orientation as well. Consider Ellen DeGeneres, her wife Portia De Rossi, Anderson Cooper, Neil Patrick Harris, Zachary Quinto, and Jason Collins, just to name a few.
With such rapid national progress energizing an already liberal community like New York, there is immense pressure here on people to come out before they're ready, a pressure that comes from both LGBT and straight people. Many of my friends of both orientations look at my friend's ex-boyfriend and others like him as at least semi-tragic figures. They wonder how people who live in New York and should be comfortable with themselves by their 30s can continue to choose a life of hiding and dishonesty. (Their words, not mine.)
But consider recent events in our normally diverse, welcoming metropolis. Over the past few weeks, several gay men were beaten throughout lower Manhattan, even in the West Village, one of the most gay-friendly neighborhoods in the world. The most horrifying attack on May 17 resulted in the death of 32-year-old Mark Carson, who was brutally shot in the face while walking through the West Village simply and only because he was gay.
I do not mean to suggest that such violence is common or that people should remain in the closet because of it. Despite these terrible hateful acts, New York remains one of the safest cities in the country for all people, gay and straight. And the city is responding to this wave of hatred by increasing police presence on streets and offering members of the LGBT community free self-defense classes. (Nevertheless, some people may choose to remain in the closet out of fear for their physical safety, and that decision should not be criticized.)
However, although physical violence against gay people may not be common, the recent horrors in New York indicate that if fear and hatred can exist in even one of the most open and accepting places, they also exist in the rest of the country, most of which is historically far less welcoming to LGBT people. While most may not turn to violence, many people still shun LGBT people and actively work to exclude them from both public and private life. Religious leaders shame LGBT people in Sunday sermons and public statements, politicians want to deny them equal rights in marriage, immigration, adoption, and job security, and lots of ordinary folks still scoff at the sight of LGBT people every day. Just last week another gay friend was called a "faggot" right outside his New York City home.
Things are getting better, but we cannot yet say that LGBT lifestyles and people are no longer stigmatized. New Yorkers may have it easier thanks to big LGBT and LGBT-supportive communities and strong laws that ban discrimination, but even New York obviously has its challenges. Moreover, though many New Yorkers like to think of ourselves as citizens of our own separate city-state, we are in fact not very far removed from other communities and events that shape the entire nation.
Amid the national climate of change and uncertainty, even people who live in New York might choose to remain in the closet to shield themselves from scorn or the repercussions of losing friends or loved ones. Many may argue that friends or family who do not accept LGBT people are not worth having in their lives, but necessity sometimes requires people to keep certain personalities in their lives even if those personalities are problematic for one reason or another.
The reason(s) someone chooses to remain in the closet is irrelevant, though. Part of why we might pressure someone to come out is out of concern for his or her happiness. The common wisdom is that an honest life is a happier, healthier one, and we want to see our loved one prosper. But for some people, honesty might, for whatever reason, instead open the floodgates to more pain.
We should respect that.
The decision to come out of the closet is intense and deeply personal. Everyone should be given the chance to do it on his or her own terms, in his or her own time. All human beings are tasked with a lifelong journey to self-acceptance and happiness. We should help each other along the way, but not by pressuring people to act on something before they're ready. I urge LGBT readers to consider their own coming-out experiences. You or someone you know undoubtedly felt at least some apprehension, and not every case of coming out probably ended well.
I sympathize with my friend's frustrations about dating someone who was and remains in the closet. But I also respect and cannot judge his ex-boyfriend's decision not to come out.
Follow Daniel Davidson's blog, Pulse of My Nation.