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The ins and outs of coming out

Monday 15th September 2014

About six months ago, some of my silly friends and I got Ask.fm accounts. It was a fun few days of rich and provocative “anonymous” questions like “Would you let Rose shit on your forehead if it saved her life?

But I received one comment from someone who I assume was a fan of my ‘That’s So Gay’ segment on the short-lived but wonderful U-Late: “You’re the reason I’m into guys now. Ha :)”

A screenshot of a question posed to Eli Matthewson on Ask.fm, attributing him with the poster's being out and gay

While I’d love to interpret it as “You, Eli Matthewson, are so beautiful, you’ve altered my entire sexual orientation”, what I think it really means is watching me speak comfortably on television made them realise it was OK to be gay.

A photo of Eli Matthewson holding up a sign that says
Eli Matthewson: “Not very good at being gay”

Photo: Lena Hesselgrave / The Wireless

It was a lovely message to receive, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that I often feel like I’m not very good at being gay. I can count the times I’ve been to a gay bar on one hand. I’ve never been to a pride parade – last year, in fact, I took a job that meant I was out of town for the exact dates of the Auckland Pride Festival, as though I was somehow fated to not be a part of the celebrations. I sometimes pretend I have a girlfriend when hairdressers ask me intrusive questions. I sometimes use the rainbow emoji, but not nearly as much as the two girls dancing.

It’s easy to think that in 2014, in the wake of marriage equality and in a time when everyone’s grandma watches Modern Family, that coming out is no longer a big deal – or even a necessary step. When Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe came out in July, TVNZ newsreader Greg Boyed introduced the story with “What’s the big deal?!”

The big deal is that a man who had been interrogated about his sexuality from his teens right through to his 30s had felt the need to keep it secret so long. If even one young person was positively impacted by Thorpe’s coming out, then I’d say it’s a bloody big deal.

That’s why visible gay role models are so vitally important – for me it was Edward Droste from the band Grizzly Bear. I wonder how many people have watched Wanda Sykes’ iconic stand-up bit about “coming out black” and felt that vital moment of connection.

But I assume part of what makes celebrities like Thorpe want to keep their sexual identity a secret is the fear of being seen as gay first, and in this case Olympic swimmer second.

READ Laura Vincent’s coming out story.

As someone who has felt bad at being gay I can relate to that – I’ve avoided ostentatious displays of “gay pride” for much of my life because of the images associated with it: rainbow-coloured floats, drag queens throwing glitter, Go-Go boys wearing small undies and angel wings. They’re confident, striking and exciting symbols of being openly gay – but they don’t resonate with me, and only in part because I can’t pull off undies and angel wings.

There are some people so afraid of being categorized as the camp, colourful brand of gaydom that even in their most private moments they only desire ‘straight-acting’ men

There’s a very different experience of being gay than the one at vibrant Mardi Gras Festivals or of the well-groomed quintet from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. You don’t need to spend long on the gay hook-up app Grindr to see how valuable a currency being “straight-acting” is. Watch just a little bit of gay porn (go on, I dare you) and you might see gay men deliberately lowering their voices, or straight men closing their eyes as they pretend to be somewhere else. They often begin at the gym or with two men passing around a football – great for people who don’t want to ‘feel gay’ while they watch gay porn, I guess. 

The prevalence of this type of culture seems to suggest there are some people so afraid of being categorized as the camp, colourful brand of gaydom that even in their most private moments they only desire “straight-acting” men. During what I will here refer to as my “transitional phase”, I only watched videos of “straight” men, as a means of distancing myself from my dark secret.

For me, it was only a phase – I’ve come to feel mostly very comfortable with who I am. Many people who experience same-sex attraction don’t. A 2007 study of young people found one-fifth secondary school students who were attracted to the same or both sexes had attempted suicide in the past year, compared with just four per cent of students who identified as heterosexual. The Christchurch Health and Development Study in 2005 found that 28.6 per cent of gay men polled had attempted suicide, and 76.4 per cent had experienced suicidal thoughts.

READ Stella Blake-Kelly’s account of how the passing of marriage equality made a space for her to come to terms with her own identity.

Out role models can play a role in changing these stats, acting as a display of how things can and do get better. Coming out can be a lengthy and emotionally exhausting process, but role models can help people believe that it is worth it. What I don’t think is helpful is speculation about celebrities’ sexuality. Such gossip can make it seem like coming out is an obligation to any queer person in a position of prominence.

A photo of Eli Matthewson holding up a sign that says
Eli Matthewson: Out and proud, even if he’s out of town for the Pride Festival

Photo: Lena Hesselgrave / The Wireless

I read an article in Auckland’s gay magazine Express about The Edge’s breakfast host Mike Puru, praising both his work and his own coming out on air in 2010. “It’s probably helped a few people growing up and questioning their sexuality to be able to say, ‘Oh, he’s a normal dude who just happens to be gay’,” Puru’s quoted as saying – and certainly, amongst The Edge’s enormous audience, there are bound to be more than a few young people for whom this will have been an important moment.

But then Puru goes on to say that he knows several radio personalities who remain in the closet, and singles one out for discussion in particular. Puru’s co-host Jay-Jay Feeney praises her colleague’s openness, before speculating that the unnamed radio personality remains closeted because “he’s not open at all in real life”.

This type of gossip, in my opinion, does not put its subjects in a position where they might feel comfortable coming out. For me, part of the reason it was difficult to come out was that I didn’t want the boy racers who yelled “faggot” at me from their car as I walked down Riccarton Road when I was 16 to find out their assessment was correct. No one wants to validate their bullies, and to my eye publically gossiping about someone in a magazine is a form of bullying.

But as we saw earlier this month, when nude photos of A-listers like Jennifer Lawrence were published without their consent, celebrities don’t always have the luxury of keeping their private lives private. Bloggers like Perez Hilton, trade in such gossip. Eight years ago, Hilton actively encouraged people to snap How I Met Your Mother actor Neil Patrick Harris with other men and in gay clubs, billing it as a public service. When Harris did come out as gay in an eloquent interview with People magazine, Hilton claimed it as a victory, even going so far as to call it “another step towards full equality under the law for gays and lesbians, their relationships and their families”. (Needless to say, I doubt Hilton was on the guest list when Harris married his partner last week.)

For many people, publicly revealing their sexuality is by no means the final step in coming to terms with their identity

The way Harris’ career has been boosted, rather than diminished, by his being out means it’s easy to forget Hilton’s campaign – but there’s nothing positive, or to be proud of, in bullying someone into coming out. (And it’s ironic that Perez Hilton – born Mario Lavandeira – blogs under an online alter-ego so as to keep his private life at least somewhat private.)

And for many people, publicly revealing their sexuality is by no means the final step in coming to terms with their identity; instead, it can present a whole new set of challenges and issues. It seems significant that, in the long history of the team, there’s never been an openly gay All Black. Recently, the first-ever openly gay NFL player Michael Sam was cut from the roster of the St Louis Rams. Sam had played well enough preseason that sports reporter Mike Freeman called the decision “almost unprecedented”, and almost all stories of his ousting have been linked to his sexuality, despite official statements to the contrary.

It seems obvious that especially in this instance we are in the midst of a story that will have a important and lasting influence on the sporting world. When Michael Sam came out it was important. When Ian Thorpe came out it was important. When Ellen Page came out it was important (and inspired by Ellen DeGeneres). All of them took time to find the bravery to do it when they were ready. It’s a hard process, and the disproportionate representation of the queer community in mental health statistics is representative of this. When people are dragged out of the closet by gossip blogs that is not aiding these statistics – it makes it seem like the world is an unsafe place for queer people. It elevates the fear of being “found out”.

People often argue that “sexuality doesn’t matter”, and I think that was probably what Greg Boyed was going for when he suggested Thorpe’s coming out was not a “big deal”. And we do have high-profile gay people in our communities, in our media, in our Parliament – we’ve got marriage equality. But just because more people are out, and can marry, does not mean that people aren’t discriminated against because of their sexuality. We can only say “What’s the big deal?” when suicide and mental health statistics improve, when bloggers like Perez Hilton don’t court clicks with public outings, when terms like ‘straight-acting’ are defunct. Until then, it’s a big deal.

And for the record, yes, I would let Rose shit on my face if it saved her life.

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.



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