But… How do you know?? On “coming out” and validation.

But…  How do you know??  On “coming out” and validation.

Let me ask you an honest question.  Do you think this conversation has ever happened?

12 year old boy: Mom, I think I like girls.  There’s a girl in my class and she’s really pretty.

Mom: But how do you know you like girls?  Have you ever dated one?  Have you ever kissed one?  You don’t know for sure!

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that such a conversation has never happened in all of the history of all of the world in the history of the universe, yet time and time again parents (and even friends) have conversations with kids who admit to feeling “crushes” on other kids of the same gender.  I find that double standard to be pretty remarkable, so I’d like to sit all of you down and talk about it.

There’s a reality to sexual orientation, and whether you like it or not, it’s there: you don’t have to be intimate with someone to “know” if your sexual orientation is what it is.  This is where people most commonly hurt LGBT youth.  When your child comes to you and says they believe they’re bisexual or gay your answer should never be “Well how do you know?” and should instead be supportive.  I understand that having an LGBT-identifying child might be stressful for you, but understand that the consequences of simply denying their feelings are equally bad if not worse for them.

I always find it interesting how people in general think, if you start identifying as some variant of LGBT, you have to “validate” that in some way.  It’s as if to say that you can’t be what you say you are without experience and time, yet that standard only applies to LGBT people.

When I came out in October of 2012, the reaction was mostly positive.  My closest friends new months earlier than that, but when the “rest” of them were told in October, I was happy in general with how people reacted.  Oh, sure, a few people were jerks about it.  One person turned it into a dagger in a political fight and said that I was carrying my rainbow flag into a political fight when I said I was offended by Dan Cathy and the organizations that Winshape donated to, and another told me that “You aren’t really bisexual because you’re married,” as if the two are mutually exclusive.  When I pressed him on the issue, he said that I would never know for sure unless I slept with a guy.

Sound familiar?

Extrapolating on the logic, if you’re a virgin, you can’t conceivably be, in any way, LGBT, because you don’t have the experience.

Scary!

Recently on Reddit, a 16 year old girl posted this:

I’m a 16-year old female and I recently began to identify as bisexual, as I have realized that women are as appealing to me as men, if not more so(I’m from a very conservative background and was always taught that this was wrong and have only recently branched out). The problem is, I have very little experience with guys and none with girls. Because of this, I’ve been told that I “just want to be different” and “have no way of knowing”. I’m attracted to very few people of either gender that I actually know, which contributes to this because I’m pretty shy and quiet, and not exactly a sexual or flirtatious person. How can I go about coming to terms with my sexuality? Is it even possible to do so without physical experience? Are my friends correct in assuming that this is “just a phase?” I would appreciate any support or advice you have.

Can you imagine finally mustering up the courage to come out to your friends or family and being instantly erased?  This “advice” has caused her to question the validity of her own feelings simply because those she told are not willing to accept that LGBT people can identify as such without having had a relationship that would be considered “experience.”

I responded:

It’s kind of funny that people always say you can’t know if you’re bisexual or homosexual without physical experience, but you never hear anyone say that to a virgin who doesn’t identify as lgbt in some way.

My point is this: you don’t need physical experience to validate your orientation. You may find yourself fluid or even a lesbian at some point. It doesn’t matter which, so just enjoy who you are and what you are attracted to. Pursue whomever you want to pursue (be careful, obviously) but don’t let others tell you the criteria by which you have to define yourself. That’s up to you.

Be you.

Let the rest come naturally.

It breaks my heart when I read stuff like this.

I don’t think people who haven’t had to “come out” can really appreciate what those feelings are like.  The morning I made the Facebook post that told “the world” my deep dark 21 year old secret, I cried.  I was in the shower thinking about how one of my closest friends, whom I had confided in, had just outed me, and I cried.  I cried because I didn’t want to be “out” to the world yet.  I wasn’t ready.  Yet, here I was, sitting there with any mutual friends we had now knowing my big secret.

My wife, as supportive as she was, said “______ just outed you; what are you going to do?” and I answered, “The only thing I can do.  Come out publicly and get out in front of the situation.”  I believed, and still do, that the only thing that kept my sanity during those first few days was the fact that I was the one controlling the story.  I took ownership of it, rather than letting things spread in a way that would allow others to define who I am for me.

That’s not the right approach for everyone.  For some people, it’s precisely the wrong approach, but for me, a person who doesn’t have any qualms about opening up publicly, I had no problem putting myself out there for everyone to see, and when I did it, I did it in the hopes that other people would see me and understand that it’s not the end of the world.  I’m not trying to make myself out to be more important than I am and I know that in the long run very few people probably ever saw or reacted to anything I posted about the topic, but in my mind, I was doing it to help myself and help others.

Coming out is a strange thing for people who have to do it.  You’re essentially taking the most important thing you’ve never told anyone, working up the courage to tell people, and then coping with the consequences, whatever they are.  Many people say “I don’t care if you’re _______, it doesn’t matter.”  Thanks, and I appreciate the sentiment of “it doesn’t change my opinion about you,” but it does matter.  It matters because when you’re closeted for years, you’ve never really felt like you were being honest with yourself or the world.  I’m sure some people would disagree with me and that’s fine, but every person I’ve spoken to who has gone through the coming out process has said some variation of the same thing: it was a major relief when they finally did it even if people didn’t take it so well.

When I see a guy like Jason Collins or Michael Sam or a woman like Jodie Foster come out, I don’t immediately think “Who cares?”  Instead, I think “How cool is it that there’s such a wide range of people who some closeted kid in a conservative midwest family can at least identify with and not feel like they’re some strange isolated freak?

That’s the best part of finally coming out:  Knowing that you might be helping someone going through something similar to come to terms with who they are.

Coming out is a tough process that doesn’t need to be made tougher by being dismissed by those you love, and this is the part where I tie this whole thing together for all of you…

If someone you love comes out to you, they’re trusting you with something that’s such a huge part of them that you should be honored.  You should understand that they’re telling you something that it took them forever and a day to work up the courage to finally say.  It probably took endless agonizing just to arrive at that point.  If it’s a celebrity, you may think you don’t care, and that’s fine, but they do and some LGBT kid watching them do it will probably care also.

But whatever you do, please don’t be dismissive of someone coming out and never say “How do you know?  You’ve never been with a guy/girl?”  It’s just not the right thing to do.  React with love, compassion, understanding, an open heart, an open mind, and an even more open ear.  It’s hard enough to tell people without being immediately invalidated by the people you’re telling.


Header Image by Purple Sherbet Photography

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