Coming Out in a Society That Would Rather You Didn't

Through my LGBT-rights activism I frequently come across people who ask me, in good faith, what use there is in coming out of the closet, especially to work colleagues. They are baffled by the idea of connecting the individual sphere of their sexuality with their professional life. Perhaps one of the first misperceptions that needs to be corrected is that homosexuality is only about sexuality and not about emotional and romantic feelings.

With this article I would like to respond concretely to this kind of confusion, leaving theories to the end, and beginning with my personal experiences and the story of someone I know. I'll start by telling that story using fictitious names, for privacy reasons -- a concept that I will pick up again later on, because we are talking about the importance of coming out (that is, when someone voluntarily reveals his or her own orientation) rather than outing people (that is, when someone reveals someone else's orientation).

Giulia and Sandra are office colleagues, each single, and each wishing for a relationship with the man of her dreams. At some point Giulia notices that Sandra always seems to be in a good mood, happier and more cheerful than usual, her eyes shining with a special glow. Giulia suspects that Sandra finally met someone and starts to ask questions. Sandra manages to beat around the bush for a while, helped by vacations and the company's summer break. But when they come back to work, Sandra's happiness is so obvious that Giulia is sure she's been on vacation with a man. Sandra can't keep it in any longer and admits that she's in a relationship. Giulia wants to hear everything from the beginning and is dying of curiosity to see her vacation photos. But before telling Giulia all the details, Sandra tells her that the person in question is called Monica; she fell in love with a woman, not a man. Giulia immediately turns cold and drily replies that Sandra didn't need to share "that detail," asserting that she could have easily left it out. End of story.

It would be interesting to hear Giulia explain how Sandra could have told her everything about Monica -- sorry, about "that person" -- while leaving out "that detail," and whether she should have, say, used Photoshop to blur out "that person's" face in all her vacation photos, in order to avoid offending Giulia's sensibilities.

This example shows how absurd it is to even think that gay people can or should keep their sexual orientations private in unavoidably social contexts like their workplace, without becoming ridiculous or resorting to lies, considering how short-lived lies tend to be. An alternative that I myself adopted for many years and still am not completely immune to is to never say anything about myself, keeping all relationships formal and superficial. To give just one example, if on Monday morning a colleague at work told me about his weekend with his wife and then asked what I did, if I had spent time with my girlfriend, I wouldn't say so. I would never make any reference to the personal aspects of my life, even if they were the most beautiful and important parts of it. Sometimes we take for granted essential things about our relationships with others.

Without entering into the intricacies of social and workplace psychology, we all know by now (thanks to the overpriced refresher courses in organizational well-being that we Italians are subjected to by law) that workplace efficiency hinges on the quality and warmth of relationships between colleagues. In light of this, it's been demonstrated that coming out of the closet confers a greater energy and enthusiasm for work, if only for the reason that people no longer waste energy veiling and lying about their private lives.

It seems silly, but it's not: American psychologist and psychoanalyst Mark J. Blechner has studied the effects of hiding one's identity. Blechner created a mental experiment that allows heterosexuals to understand the great discomfort people experience daily when social prejudice forces them to hide their homosexuality. He instructs subjects to stop using their partner's name (and substitute the pronoun "we," for example), to speak only of themselves when telling stories about the events in their lives, and to no longer participate in social events with their partners, instead showing up alone every time. People soon feel a sense of isolation and estrangement that can even lead to psychological disturbances.

So coming out doesn't mean just saying, "I'm gay," because nobody would ever say, "I'm straight"; the difference is that, for the most part, straight people speak comfortably about their husbands, wives, girlfriends, and boyfriends, etc., without ever needing to worry about privacy. What I don't understand, and what someone needs to explain to me, is why gay people still deal with the matter of "privacy." It's obvious that gays are staying in the closet because of shame and lack of self-acceptance and/or for fear of others' reactions (remember Giulia), perhaps because they work in environments where they have often heard anti-gay jokes. Honestly, I don't call this "privacy"; I call it being forced into a choice, because the gay person feels inferior and discriminated against; I call it a lack of freedom and a human-rights violation, because it suppresses the right to exist and tell one's own story. If I want to spin a story to myself and others, I would be a hypocrite to call it privacy. Maybe everyone should try Blechner's experiment, to understand how constraining and debasing it is to live in hiding even for a few days, and to understand that no gay person would ever choose that kind of "privacy" if they were free to choose.

Without a doubt, coming out is a complex task of articulation, a deeply personal process that cannot be imposed on anyone. What's more, it takes a lifetime; there's no finish line. Once undertaken, it's never over, and I say this as a person who has talked about it with my family but not all my relatives, who has talked about it at work but not with all my colleagues, who has been in the newspaper and on television, but how many people have read or seen me? Above all, even if they have heard about homosexuality, who knows whether they're disturbed to hear me talk about my partner. Besides that, life keeps bringing new acquaintances, and every one of them presents anew the uncertainty of their reaction. It is a scientifically recognized form of stress called "minority stress." But, as the Afterhours sing on their latest album, "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger!"