National Coming Out Day is here. It’s a time to celebrate who we are—no matter who we want to have sex with, or how we speak, move, and act, or how we identify. But as righteous, thrilling, and important as coming out is—and it is!—it is equally important to take in. (I’ll get to what I mean by that in a bit).
As a culture we tend to burden LGBTQ people with the demand that they accept, own, contextualize, announce, navigate, and explain who they are and what they need—often all on their own. Indeed, as soon as a queer person comes out and socially identifies as LGBTQ, the onus is usually on her to instantly become her own spokesperson to the world, to make sense of herself for others. It’s like a movie or TV show in which an alien lands on earth and confidently tells all the humans what it’s like to come from his planet. Except most queer people—particularly those who are still young children or teens—don’t always know what it’s like to live on Planet Queer.
And why would they? Young LGBTQ people have little or no experience being themselves in a social context. In most cases, parents raise their kids with the expectation that they will turn out straight and gender conforming, even if they get signals from their kids suggesting otherwise. In rare cases, of course, a child may take a risk and, in the face of these expectations, deliberately and assertively tell his parents exactly who he is. But even in such a case, the burden is still on the child to be an immediate expert on his own untapped gender identity or sexual orientation.
Ideally our primary caregivers pay such close attention to us as infants—when we cry, play, and explore—that they can eventually anticipate what we need, what we want, and how we like to be. Ideally our caregivers learn to accommodate us with a range of toys and narratives that help us express who we are. This does not mean that by permitting our choice of truck or doll, our caregivers are solidifying us as boy or girl, straight or gay. It simply reflects the fact that parental attunement of this kind encourages us to develop naturally, through a multiplicity of gender expressions, based on the interaction between our drives and our early environments.
There are numerous social pressures that can make this process of attunement challenging for parents of LGBTQ kids. And though some manage better than others, we can’t expect all parents to create the perfect world in which a non-straight, non-gender conforming child can grow up. But what we can do, at least, is take the pressure off of such children to be the experts of their own orientations—especially before they’ve even had the opportunity to discover multiple and various versions of themselves.
And similarly, for those who are discovering they exist somewhere between L, G, B, or T, they can find ways to nurture their true selves, even in the absence of parental attunement. These children and adults can prepare to navigate the world around them before they are ready to come out, through a process of what I call taking in.
Taking in is when we recognize the potential others see in us and let ourselves make meaning out of it. From the very beginnings of our lives, taking in is what we do as babies when our parents feed, kiss, smile, and otherwise attend to us. We absorb the message that we exist and that we are special. As we get older and develop personalities, we look to caretakers to continue this process with us; we seek reflections of our behaviors to validate who we are. The responses we get are sometimes encouraging (“You’re mama’s tough guy,” “Look at you flirt with the ladies”) and other times discouraging (“Boys don’t wear dresses”). And when we become too discouraged, or overwhelmed with images for which we have no use—macho superheroes, or super-skinny helpless princesses, or the heterosexual kissing in everything from cartoons to commercials to movies to…well…everything—we stop taking in and shut down.
But giving up on our selves in this manner is not the only option. We can stay on our own sides and consciously seek information, images, and stories that validate us. And most importantly, we can consciously take in people who inspire us to develop an authentic sense of self.
That was a challenge for me as a lonely effeminate boy growing up in a small rural town in the 1980s and '90s (without the Internet!). There was no access to images of people like me having social lives or becoming happy adults or living out loud. There were no people talking about or encouraging such developments either. I was fortunate enough to have parents who bought me the Miss Piggy toys I wanted to play with at home. But playing outside—beyond the private confines of my family—was another story.
Good thing I was introverted. I would’ve gotten beaten up regularly if I had tried to express myself in the way Madonna told us—well, those of us who had crushes on men—to do at that time. So I silently dragged my awkward, effeminate, little body through life, while I daydreamed of actually living.
But along the way a few adults observed not only my struggle to fit into the world around me, but also my creative interests and potential. They didn’t necessarily know how to help me to navigate the thorny maze of social norms any better than my parents did. But from where they stood, they could do their best to nurture my sense of self, and give me the opportunity to take them in.
Ms. Cook, the band teacher and theater director, was one of those people. When I was ten, I had to cross the street from my school and wait at the high school for my father to take me home. He was the high school principal at the time (lucky me). It was nothing new to have to entertain myself for long stretches of time as I waited, but Ms. Cook had a better idea. She decided to let me assist her on the high school plays she directed, some of which—like Agnes of God—contained extremely dark, mature content. I loved it. I felt included in something interesting and important. I felt special. In addition to giving me a safe, secure place in which to exist, Ms. Cook had effectively anticipated my hunger to be an artist, something I had not yet fully realized myself. I took her in, and I developed this part of myself. This gave me a sense of self-security years before I was ready to come out as gay. And Ms. Cook never asked anything of me in return.
This is crucial to remember about taking in: if we are to grow through taking in a caregiver, we must not owe the caregiver anything. When parents feed their babies they certainly don’t expect the baby to feed them in return (at least not for many decades). Mentors like Ms. Cook, whose relationships to us have clear boundaries, are the best kind of adults to take in. If you ever feel taken advantage of by a mentor who seems to have good intentions, limit your contact with him or her, and look to someone with whom you feel safe and do not feel beholden.
As I inched my way out of the closet during my teenage years, my aunt Connie became another key person for me to take in. Like Ms. Cook before her, Connie observed my struggle to find myself, and untapped reserves of creative expression within me. An actress herself, she offered to take me on auditions for local plays and educated me about theater during our rides in the car. I felt special again, empowered as I began to develop an authentic part of myself under the supportive and watchful eye of an adult. Years later, I found that the identity I developed as an actor, along with the safe relationships I formed—with adults like Connie—gave me something secure to stand on when I eventually began to use the word “gay” to describe myself.
Another thing for young LGBTQ folks to remember is that there may be adults around you with whom your contact is limited, but whom you can take in nonetheless. You may get only a glimmer of positive recognition from them, but even that can be incredibly nurturing if you allow it to be.
I’m thinking now of Leslie Davidson, the Dean of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, which I attended when I was sixteen (an attempt by this girly-boy to find a better fit than my small-town high school). Leslie was a resident director at the time, and she was one of the adults who intervened during a serious breakdown I had—no doubt related to my identity. She saw me at what I thought was my most vulnerable, ugly, and messy. She offered warmth and support, and just enough practical advice to get me the concrete support I needed—including psychotherapy. I did not interact with Leslie again during my time at that school, and I was ashamed, fearing she must have thought of me as a loser. But if I knew then what I know now, I would have instead held onto the glimmer of recognition in her eyes when she offered me help. She very briefly conveyed an understanding of my struggle, but also a belief that I would eventually get to the other side of it, and find my way. This proved true decades later when Leslie asked me to speak on a panel during a fall Parents’ Weekend at the college. She had held me in mind all those years, and followed news of my life and career as it developed. And, as it turned out, she thought of me as an adult (and alum) worthy of presenting to a new crop of anxious parents who were about to release their kids into the wilds of college life.
So come out if you’re ready—if you have people whom you trust, and more importantly if you have a strong sense that you can trust yourself. Having a strong sense of who you are and the urge to make it known is a wonderful thing. A thing to be celebrated. But also keep in mind that coming out is a lifelong process. There will always be new aspects of our orientations, identities, and modes of expression that we will discover and eventually want to share with the world. And in the meantime, we can nurture those developing aspects of self by taking the right people in.
Copyright, Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R
Coming Out Resources:
GLSEN: Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Network
It Gets Better Project
The Trevor Project
Institute for Human Identity Therapy Center
Human Rights Campaign
The LGBT Task Force