"So, when did you come out?" is probably one of the single most commonly fielded questions by gay folks, whether it be from new friends, distant family members, dates or your grandma's weird-smelling friend at Rosh Hashanah dinner. The question is largely rooted in two sources: 1) straight people's curiosity about what it's like to realize that you're a 'mo, and 2) other gay people's desire to find shared experiences, both good and not-so-good, in the realization that you're a 'mo. And while it often comes from the most benign of places (usually, if someone is asking when you came out, it implies that they're totally down with your gayness), I've often found it an awkward and complicated query to properly answer. For instance, are you wondering about when I came out to myself? To my mom? To my high school friends? To Jesus? (Side note: I still haven't come out to Jesus.) Whatever the case, the coming-out part of being gay seems to have become a definitive part of what it means to be attracted to the same sex in contemporary society, which, frankly, I find really weird.
Of course, in a broad way, it makes sense: Being straight is still deemed the clear norm, and being attracted to people of the same sex is a less common if increasingly acceptable aberration from that norm. Furthermore, unlike, say, being a member of racial minority, being gay is not a non-normative quality that one can necessarily tell about you just by looking (operative word being "necessarily" -- I'm looking at you, Adam Lambert). But recently, I've found myself really plagued by my own coming-out story, and especially by what the larger concept of coming out actually means to the people who feel compelled to do so. Gay people have often viewed themselves -- and have been viewed by the larger heteronormative society in which we live -- as largely free from the the proverbial "boxes" in which our civilization places the majority of its (straight) members. Obviously, the LGBT community needs a label under which we, as a group, can advocate for equal rights and acceptance. However, on a merely personal, psychological level, I've found myself wondering what kind of brand-spanking-new box we, the gays of the Western world, have willingly shoved ourselves into simply by having to declare ourselves "gay."
My personal coming-out story, while probably on the more standard, congenial side of the spectrum, was still one of the most definitive moments of my life. As a junior in high school, soon after breaking up with a conveniently long-distance girlfriend, I was finally prompted to come to terms with something I had known inside for a long-ass time: I was into dudes. Like really into them. Hardcore. Of course, I had known this fact on some level since the first time I laid eyes on Leonardo DiCaprio at 10 years old, minutes before he departed on his fateful journey in Titanic. The fact that the first time I actually said the words "I'm gay" out loud was to the "life coach" whom my mom had our whole family speaking to at the time is equal parts hilarious and sad (and a story for another time). However, coming out, though mildly horrifying, of course, was one of the most deeply freeing moments I have ever experienced. Having never even kissed a man, I spent the next few months revealing this fact to all my family and friends, to varying levels of surprise but relatively little resistance or judgment. Six months after I'd uttered that phrase to Rachel the "life coach" (believe me, this is a profession that definitely deserves quotation marks), and at the ripe old age of 17, being gay was fully how I defined my sexuality: I was a man who was only attracted to other men.
In retrospect, this notion seems nothing short of ludicrous to me. Looking empirically, very little else of what I held to be true about myself and the world at 17 has remained the same. It turns out that I was not destined to be BFFs with Nicole Richie by age 20, Bush really was that bad, smoking weed with my friends all day was not an acceptable full-time profession, and Chingy never quite reached "rap superstar" status. It also needs to be said that I definitley still see myself as a man who is interested in having sex exclusively with other men. But now, when people ask me about my coming-out story, I like to add this little postscript: "In retrospect, I don't know if I ever would have come out of the closet." This statement is often met with shock and awe, and I quickly find myself having to explain that this does not mean that I'm not still 100-percent a penis guy. But at the same time I continue, life is long, and humans are extraordinarily fickle creatures. (I certainly am.) Our tastes and desires change and evolve constantly as we grow, gain more life experiences and figure out more about who we really are, whatever that may mean. Because I've lived enough at this point to at least know this little fact of life, it bothers me that at 17 I chose (or felt pressure) to set a boundary this concrete in my brain, one that says, "I'm gay, and that's the story for life." In fact, though I know that I'm more attracted to men, at this point I would say that I feel somewhat unsure as to where my natural impulses and sexual boundaries end and where this psychological restriction that I placed on myself begins.
Recently, R&B singer Frank Ocean made waves, both in the hip-hop community and in pop culture at large, when he admitted, in a passionate, beautifully composed post on his personal Tumblr blog, that his first true love had been a man. Without ever using the word "gay," Frank told a compelling story that came across as totally honest and positioned him as someone who is proud and unafraid to express who he is and whom he loves, but without having to say the words "I'm gay." As a lifelong hip-hop fan who has had to cope internally with the rampant homophobia in the genre, Frank's action was incredibly moving to me and, in some ways, helped redefine what I think about what it means to be or not be "gay." Of course, anyone who wants to or feels inherently like they need to come out as gay is more than free and welcome to do so. Everyone is different and has different needs and desires. But by not calling himself "gay," I believe Frank acted in a way that I wish I had had the forethought to behave when I was 17: He just is what he is. At any given moment Frank could be with a man or a woman, and he seems smart enough to know that how he feels and whom he is attracted to today may not be the same tomorrow. That's life.
Look: I am not naive. I know that coming out is largely a function of needing to disclose something that is simply a truth about who you are, both to yourself and to a society that, still in 2012, largely tells you throughout your entire adolescence that this thing about you is wrong, weird or worse. I fully applaud that and understand how important and personal it is. I just wonder whether, in spite of all the good that can come from declaring "I'm gay," there are not also elements inherent in that declaration that create unnecessary sexual definitions and boundaries. I leave it at this: Frank Ocean said this in his letter, "Whoever you are, wherever you are... I'm starting to think we're all a lot alike. Human beings spinning in blackness. All wanting to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to." Indeed, as Frank says so perfectly here, who we are as beings and as sexual creatures is always in flux, or "spinning in blackness," and humans as a whole, gay and straight, are more alike than we are different. I'd like to take this opportunity to come out again, only this time I'm coming out as a human. Whom I sleep with is forever subject to change.