is “coming out” done?
How the rite-of-passage is changing and finding a new place in the 21st century.
As society becomes more enlightened and high-profile figures such as Miley Cyrus and Kristen Stewart tell us they don't wish to "label" their sexuality, it can feel as though the idea of "coming out" is slightly old-fashioned. Why should we brand ourselves "gay", "straight" or anything else at a time when the latest research tells us sexuality is a sliding scale, not a binary choice? A recent study from the University of Essex's Department of Psychology suggests most women are bisexual or gay anyway.
It's an argument which Wayne Dhesi, founder of the award-winning RuComingOut website, accepts as valid but counters with cold, hard facts. "Even though we have marriage equality now, that doesn't mean life is fine and dandy for every lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans person in the country. It really isn't," insists Wayne, who has recently been named the UK's 15th most influential LGBT person by the Independent On Sunday. "Suicide rates are still much higher among the LGBT community. Life is still more difficult for a young person if they identify as LGBT - we know this from many different studies and reports. So until we get to a point where an LGBT person is no more likely to be bullied than a non-LGBT person, many of us are going to feel like we need to go through this process of coming out."
But the process of coming out is definitely changing, says Matt Horwood of leading LGBT rights charity Stonewall. Where once people may have been motivated to proclaim their LGBT status for fear of being "found out", they're now more likely to open up about their sexuality on their own terms, when they feel the time is right. "There are more options for people looking to come out today, and some people tell us afterwards that they found it therapeutic," Horwood says encouragingly. In recent years, this progress has been demonstrated by some of the most visible members of the LGBT community. Tom Daley and Ellen Page came out in a YouTube video and a speech at a Human Rights conference; they weren't "outed" by a tabloid newspaper. Years & Years singer Olly Alexander never really said, "I'm gay"; he simply spoke about being attracted to other guys as and when the topic came up.
Whenever a high-profile figure such as Page, Daley or Alexander decides to discuss their sexuality publicly, Horwood says it's still "hugely impactful". Kids struggling with their sexuality are likely to embrace them as role models, and non-LGBT people can gain a better understanding of what it's like to be LGBT from what they say. But celebrities who consciously choose not to label their sexuality, such as American Horror Story actress Sarah Paulson, who's enjoyed relationships with both men and women but says she won't "let either experience define me", are helping the conversation too.
"Anyone who stands up and says, 'I don't fit into this heteronormative idea of simply being a straight person,' is very important," Horwood says. "And it's also important when someone comes out as pansexual or gender fluid or non-binary, because it enables people who don't necessarily identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans to discuss and question whether there are terms and labels that do represent them, especially if those terms are less well-known."
With our understanding of sexuality and gender becoming more sophisticated, Wayne Dhesi says he is working to diversify the range of real-life coming out stories on his website. At the moment, the majority come from white people who identify as gay living in London. "I've got this resource which is being really well-received and now I feel like it's my responsibility not to just sit here and wait for stories to come to me," Dhesi says passionately. "I need to go out there and make sure the website is as representative of our amazing community as obviously it can be."
Dhesi is in the process of making RUComingOut a registered charity, which will enable him to apply for grants and corporate sponsorship to fund coming out videos representing every corner of the LGBT community. He also wants to produce an RUComing Out book which will be sent out to schools throughout England and Wales. "I guess ultimately my dream would be for RUComingOut to become the first port of call for anyone who's struggling with coming out," he explains. "I want this to be a place where people can go and read about coming out without having to talk to a real person until they're ready. The point of the site is to show that for the majority of people, when they come out, life gets better. I've met hundreds and hundreds of LGBT people in my life and that's overwhelmingly the case."
The idea of coming out doesn't seem as explosive as it once did, and for the lucky few born into super-liberal communities, it may not even be necessary any more. But for many young people who identify as anything even slightly different from the norm, it's still an important and beneficial rite-of-passage, one that points to a happier and more self-determined future.
Text Nick Levine
Photography Elvert Barnes