Ade: So, 11th October is celebrated as National Coming Out Day and the theme for this year is ‘Coming Out Still Matters’ – what does that theme mean to you?
Darren: For me ‘coming out’ represents something different from the ‘one off’ event many of us consider it. I think that every day we make choices of whether we allow ourselves to be seen and I consider these moments ‘coming out moments’. So it may be talking about our partners, about wanting to find a boyfriend, a book we are reading or even something about a hobby we have. It can be subtle moments where we are faced with a choice – shall I be expressed or shall I divert, go silent, retreat.
Ade: Yes, I really agree with that. It took me a longtime to deeply understand that ‘coming out’ is a lifelong journey; and that at the heart of it, we have an invitation to show up and allow ourselves to be authentically seen – without any armor or mask.
When I was in my mid 20s and in the process accepting that I was gay, I remember making a commitment to come out to a different person a day – I did this over a period of a few weeks. I wanted to do it that way because I was so scared that I might chicken out and continue to hide. It was also a good way for me to get ready for coming out to my mother.
I deeply longed to be seen and accepted. But I also knew that as part of my coming out plan, I needed to be courageous – for allowing myself to be seen, felt like I was opening myself to rejection and shaming, and that felt very scary to me.
Darren: Wow, what a great way to go about it – so rigorous! My coming out is and has been more selective and piecemeal. In my head I like to think that I am a confident gay men – after all I coach and co- lead The Quest with you – but on closer inspection what I see is a very carefully constructed life that enables me to avoid any situations where I feel I may be ‘attacked’. Of course most of this fear is just in my head! So when I step outside of my ‘cocoon’ I can feel very uncomfortable being freely expressed and out. It’s like a complicated dance that I have learnt to master, to choreograph.
Ade: Yes, I did the selective thing too, and with some members of my extended family we still play the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ game.
I was in denial and non-acceptance of me being gay for such a long time and felt so ashamed – felt flawed, broken and damaged. In my mid 20s I started to feel really imprisoned and suffocated; I was really unhappy and I knew that something had to change. I needed to break out…. come out of that cocoon.
I look back now and I am surprised that I was so rigorous in my approach. I remember calling up a former boss whom I had not seen in years – she is now such a dear friend – she was my person to come out to that week and sharing that aspect of me with her really created the space for a significant friendship to unfold. Not everyone welcomed me with open arms, and that was fine – the sky did not cave in as I had imagined, and life simply moved on!
I think because so many people see and hear about the positive changes in various pockets of the world when it comes to sexuality, many think it no longer matters to come out. Also I hear people say, straight people don’t have to come out – so why should gay people have to do it??
Darren: I think the sense of suffocation you describe is so common and it’s common to all human beings. While the idea of ‘straight people not having to come out’ is just a basic misunderstanding of the nature of being a minority in a world that is predominantly straight, I think that straight people feel suffocated in many ways too. For some it is the shame they hold about being dyslexic or disabled or old or from a different cultural background. People are carrying shameful secrets in many different forms. For gay men we have a very strong and common experience of being different in a very specific manner which is why we have chosen to focus our attention on this with The Quest. But the work we do around shame can easily be expanded, as we have seen in the work Brene Brown is doing where she only seldom mentions specific contexts.
Ade: I think a lot of people do not deeply understand the full metaphor of ‘Coming Out’ – which really means ‘Coming Out of Shame’. To come out of the closet is to come out of hiding and break the silence.
Talking about Brene Brown, she says that shame needs three ingredients to thrive and that is – Silence, Judgment and Secrecy. For me during those periods of suffocation, all three ingredients were there and it often felt counter cultural to talk about that hidden aspect of me – because as we both know the natural default when it comes to shame is to hide it.
Yes, the metaphor of coming out is something that goes beyond sexuality. For anyone who does not fit into the majority or the perceived norm – particularly where his or her difference is not visible – will often have to navigate ‘coming out’.
I do feel that if someone intends to cultivate an authentic and fulfilling life, then coming out is part of the process – there are no short cuts!
Darren: I think understanding that all human beings suffer from shame has helped me. When I was at university (too many years ago!) and I came out I became quite radical. I felt that I was special because I had been oppressed and I saw myself as separate and superior. Of course it was a reaction to years of confinement, but it also continued the notion that I was different. Knowing that all human beings suffer from shame puts me within the human race, rather than outside of it. It allows me to feel connected and as worthy as the next person. It also gives me empathy and stops me from feeling superior in my ‘oppression’.
Ade: It is an interesting point, because what happens is that we find some coping strategy/behavior to hide our shame and therefore those we interact with only get to know us through that strategy/behavior – for example, Being a people pleaser, Being controlling, Being funny, Being rebellious or Being inconspicuous etc. These can then sadly get in the way of us cultivating nurturing and satisfying relationships. Going back to Brene, she says we are all ‘hardwired for connection’ and sadly shame and our coping behaviours often get in the way.
So, with National Coming Out day I am thinking that it is an opportunity for already out gay people to find new and expressed ways of being seen in the wider world they inhabit and also to include straight people by asking ‘what secret do YOU have that you have the courage to share?’ because then they might get why coming out is important and they may experience some of the relief and freedom too. What would your message be for Coming Out day?
Ade: My message is similar to yours. It will be encouraging people to allow others to truly see them on 11th October – so revealing (to those who will not shame the shame) something that remains hidden and gets in the way of connection and truly being seen.
And in addition to that, I would encourage people to make eye contact with everyone they come across on that day – on the street, the tube, the supermarket, at work… etc. As we know, the eyes are the windows to the soul; therefore really looking and seeing the other person is a great way to connect and reconnect with one another.
Darren: And finally in the spirit of coming out I would like to announce that I am a fan of ‘The Great British Bake Off’ it’s something not a lot of people know and I am, at last, ready to make that known.
Ade: Oh dear, now I feel pressure to share something too….. here goes – its almost mid afternoon on a weekday and I am still in my PJs – and yes I do feel shame about it!!