why i’m not coming all the way out
The act of coming out is framed as a significant rite of passage in the LGBTQ community. Love, Simon is the latest iteration of the coming out narrative, emphasising its importance. But for some, the consequences can still feel too high a cost.
Coming out: a political existence
Growing up in Qatar, I was keenly aware that the laws and rhetoric concerning LGBTQ people were not on my side. I’m not sure what I would have done if I didn’t have the privilege and opportunity to move to London. Yet, my queer friends that still live in Qatar do have active LGBTQ lives. They have queer friends, pursue sex and develop relationships. However, most are still not out to their own families or the rest of Qatari society. When asked what would happen if he came out, Hamza, who lives in Dubai with his boyfriend, states, “3-10 years imprisonment, which would mean losing my career and life.” My own difficulties led me to quite literally separate myself from my family and Qatari society.
The mainstream LGBTQ media emphasises the importance of coming out without exploring the nuances of context that exist for people and how that can impact their lives during and after coming out. It is an act framed as a crucial rite of passage in the LGBTQ community, one that must be done for the good of all. Love, Simon is the latest iteration of the coming out narrative, emphasising its importance in living an authentic LGBTQ life. But there is an alternative perspective.
"Even when people are well intentioned, it’s a little uncomfortable being given a stamp of approval by a stranger. It can feel othering. LGBTQ PDA is going to be political, even in a famously gay-friendly city like London."
To be a living political statement
If more people came out publicly in the Middle East, queer issues would get more visibility and potentially move towards positive change, but at what cost on an individual level? Omar, who grew up in Qatar, says “My family will most definitely cut me out” and “many acquaintances would also dissociate from me”. It would be admirable, but nobody is obligated to become an activist. It’s not fair to dump that pressure on individuals, especially when it’s much easier said than done. Coming out is never simple. There are challenges for kids growing up queer in places like London, but it can be much more difficult in outwardly unaccepting environments.
Queer lives are inherently political. My partner and I realise that public displays of affection are more complicated for queer couples. We don’t usually show public affection when we are on the streets of London. Reading reports on people being harassed for gay PDA does make us a little nervous, but we are deterred by ‘positive’ attention as well. Once at a concert a group of young women filmed us for Snapchat because we ‘were too cute’; a man at a straight club laughed at us for dancing together, before giving us a benevolent smile and ‘don’t worry about it, it’s all good’. Even when people are well intentioned, it’s a little uncomfortable being given a stamp of approval by a stranger. It can feel othering. LGBTQ PDA is going to be political, even in a famously gay-friendly city like London. Sometimes we just don’t want to deal with any reactions at all, and we should have that right.
"Previous studies have found that coming out generally reduces depression, though they tended to focus on white participants."
Sometimes it sucks to come out
In certain contexts, coming out can have negative consequences. Research has suggested that the environment you’re in determines the effects associated with coming out. One study suggested that people in already accepting environments will benefit by coming out, gaining higher self-esteem. However, queer individuals in more conservative environments may feel safer in the closet than out of it. Previous studies have found that coming out generally reduces depression, though they tended to focus on white participants. A recent study focusing on lesbians, which took ethnicity into account, found similar results -- but they were less clear cut. It determined that, for lesbians of colour, context and timing seemed to matter more to mental health than the sole act of coming out. Experiencing negative reactions appears to have longer lasting effects than positive ones. This contradicts mainstream associations of exclusively positive effects of coming out.
Finding yourself in a bubble
Different contexts mean different experiences of coming out. I’ve had many western friends, LGBTQ and straight, try to push me to come out of the closet. Coming out in gay-friendly places, like here in London or other big western cities can be liberating and improve your mental well-being. Yet, not everyone is in an environment supportive of LGBTQ people, even within those same cities. My partner, a white, gay Norwegian, told me early on that LGB people in Norway don’t face discrimination or even anxiety for coming out, which I found hard to believe due to my own background. He grew up having a gay couple living in his neighbourhood and came out at age 16 without many difficulties. However, his experience, we would later find out, was not universal within the same country. Since then we’ve met white Norwegians who in fact did have difficulties with disapproving families. It's easy to find yourself in a bubble sometimes.
"My out status was a little complicated since I was out to my siblings but not to my mother, and out in Europe but not out on Facebook."
The friends list purge
When I first met my partner, one of the earliest conversations we had as our relationship began to become more serious, was about being out. He told me outright that he doesn’t want to be with someone who is ‘in the closet’. My out status was a little complicated since I was out to my siblings but not to my mother, and out in Europe but not out on Facebook.
That summer I decided to purge my Facebook from anyone who didn’t know I was gay. Looking through my friends list, there were a lot of people I was friends with but I didn’t know well enough; I didn’t want to risk the wrong person finding out that I was gay and reporting it. I don’t really know what that would mean for my future visits to Qatar. Would I face imprisonment? Lashes? ‘Just’ social exclusion? I wasn’t eager to find out. So, I deleted half of my ‘friends’.
I have yet to come out to my mother. We speak regularly, and have big conversations about the world, politics and religion. She is religious and believes in heaven and hell. If my mother found out that I was gay, it would make her sad. I have no doubt in my mind that we would continue to have a good relationship, if a little awkward at first. She supports my siblings and me, yet it makes her feel terrible knowing that some of us are not religious. She is afraid of the divine consequences she believes will fall upon us.
I don’t believe in any divine consequences, but I empathise with my mother. I may be keeping a big part of my life away from her, but there are other factors to consider. Omar too has other things to consider. As he explains, he's surrounded by a culture of shame, and he doesn’t want to cause the "demise of [his] family from a health and a social point of view" by coming out. Hamza says, “My dad is old, a two-time cancer survivor, diabetic, and with Parkinson’s. Why should I add to his pain?” The visibility of the LGBTQ community is essential, but it’s important to understand that some within the community will have to struggle much more than others. We should strive for a society where nobody has to worry about coming out. But ultimately, it’s up to me to decide. LGBTQ lives are political and its important to be aware of that, but not everyone can handle being an activist.
The author of this article wishes to remain anonymous.