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Coming Out Later

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"Jake" has been a friend of my partner Mark since high school. He's now a successful attorney, in his late 30s, nice-looking, smart and kind. Also, he's never had a girlfriend. Also, he frequently posts about pro-gay causes on Facebook. (Yes, I'm doing the same math you're doing.)

"Is Jake gay?" I asked Mark.

"We've never discussed it," he responded.

"Why not?" I countered.

"Too weird to bring it up. Of course he's gay. At least, I think so. Maybe. I dunno. He must be. Why mention it?"

"Um, why not mention it?"

Mark and Jake have been close for over two decades. I believe everyone deserves a zone of privacy. I also believe that gayness is not, and should not be treated as, something unspeakable, a dirty little secret that dare not speak its name. Maybe Jake's closet door is stuck, and he's just waiting for someone to toss him some WD-40. Maybe not. It shouldn't hurt to ask.

I decided to make my move when Jake was in town for Thanksgiving weekend and the three of us were out to dinner. Our waiter was particularly handsome. As he left the table, I turned to Jake and said, "He's cute. If you like that sort of thing. What do you like, Jake? We've never had that conversation."

"You're right, we haven't," Jake said, perking up. "Interesting that you ask, because..."

And Mark changed the subject. Seriously. Not once but twice.

Eventually I redirected the conversation back to where I wanted it, and Jake blurted out, "Yes, I'm gay, and I'm actually just starting to come out."

We chatted about it for a moment, and then Mark inexplicably changed the subject again.

Side note: Mark and I have been together for over 11 years. Like most long-term couples, we've developed ways to convey discreet messages. For example, there's a secret hand signal we use at cocktail parties if one of us needs to be rescued from someone rude/boring/smelly/whatever. Unfortunately, we do not have a signal that says, "You fool! Can't you see that we've almost got this closet door open?! Stop changing the damn subject!"

When I later confronted Mark, he claimed that he had no idea that he had been doing it. Perhaps he was so accustomed to Jake's sexuality being unspoken that, subconsciously, he didn't want to rock the boat. Or perhaps it was his way of conveying, "Hey, it's no big deal."

Except that coming out is a big deal.

It's a big deal at any age, but doing it later has particular challenges. For one thing, it requires going through adolescent growing pains while dating non-adolescents. Remember how awkward (and exciting!) your first kiss was? Now imagine experiencing that in your late 30s. Now imagine experiencing that with someone who, unlike you, has a couple of decades of experience under his belt -- and who may mistakenly assume, given your age, that you do, as well.

What's more, given people's tendency to treat heterosexuality as the default setting, coming out later requires correcting people's long-held assumptions: "No, I'm not just a straight guy who's been 'married to his work' all these years. I'm gay." Such corrections can be jarring.

I have a friend in his late 40s -- let's call him "Steve" -- who also figured out his gayness later in life. Unlike Jake, Steve decided that "later" was "too late." He feared that this "new fact" about him would eclipse all others in people's minds, that instead of being Steve, he'd now be "Gay Steve." It's not that he thinks that there's anything wrong with being gay; it's just that he doesn't want to spare the emotional capital that coming out would require. So, despite encouragement from the small group of friends (like me) who know his secret, Steve has chosen to remain closeted.

I don't want Jake to end up like Steve. Yes, coming out is challenging, but the payoff can be considerable. Even if you don't find Mr. or Ms. Right, there's the simple pleasure of being able to speak freely, the burden of the closet lifted. At a minimum, coming out is liberating; at its best, it can be joyous. (At its worst, it can be dangerous, but that doesn't appear to be the case for Jake or Steve.)

There are some lessons to be gleaned here.

The first is that even if someone's coming out is no big deal to you, it does not follow that it's no big deal to them.

The second is that patience is a virtue. That's true for those who are coming out, for those who are supporting them, and (perhaps especially) for those who are dating them. If that successful, 30-something professional acts like a teenager when it comes to dating, maybe it's because he is a teenager when it comes to dating.

The flip side is that sometimes people need a little gentle nudging, too.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that people come out at all ages. That will likely be true for some time to come: It's not as if the popularity of Glee means that, from now on, all LGBT folk will come out as teens, surrounded by a supportive, talented and ridiculously good-looking show choir.

We're making great progress on the equality front, as the recent election results made clear. We still have a long way to go.

John Corvino is the co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage (Oxford University Press, 2012). You can find his marriage-equality short-video series at his website.