To most of us, coming out is commonplace now. Most families can count at least one person who's come out, and we all have friends or coworkers who are GLBT. It doesn't feel shocking or different anymore. The world, it's clear, has radically changed in the last 15-20 years.
But whether it's Anderson Cooper, Jodie Foster, or high school senior Jacob Rudolph from Parsippany, New Jersey, who just came out to his whole high school class at an awards ceremony, the task is still a really scary one for a lot of people. In Jacob's case, he represents so many kids who are still growing up in a most unfriendly world, who do still "need" to come out. We have not yet arrived at a time when kids can just casually mention their sexual orientation in primary school and be themselves at junior high school dances.
The greatest problem--perhaps as it's always been--is that there are two fronts out there, a friendly one, and a most unfriendly one. How do you come out, no matter how many supportive friends you have, when your safety and well-being at home could be compromised? Safety and housing have always been two of the biggest worries of anyone scared to come out. If you're depending on your family for housing, or find yourself in an unsafe environment at home, school, work, or anywhere out in the world, your safety trumps your truth. That's not how it should be, but no matter--stay alive please!
Still, celebrities and many regular people can come out without any worries to their safety or well-being, and they still don't. They just aren't ready (no matter how old they are). And that just sucks. It sucks that they're not braver, yes, but look at how the world has beat them down emotionally into believing they cannot be themselves. A secret is what you think of someone, or what you do in the bedroom, but your sexual orientation is who you are. It's your eye color and your height and your skin color. Sexual orientation is part and parcel of the very fiber of your being, and should've never been anything other than a natural truth we all share as we grow up.
I've actually been struggling lately with the question of why people don't just come out already, especially as they get older. But then I found a three-page coming out letter I'd written in late 1997. The 22-year-old "me" of 15 years ago reminded me:
"It isn't easy to talk about much less come to terms with, but it's true, and it has made life in a straight world a very crooked experience. I am twenty-two years old and I've never been able to love or receive love from anyone the way I need to. I can't even talk about it the way any teenager or straight young adult can. No posters in my room, no dating, no prom, no loving relationships, because everyone I know is straight and hush hush about anything even remotely dealing with homosexuality. I need love--not more--from another man. Please don't ask me why, because I really don't have an answer. It's just the way I've always been. I can't even look at a guy right now without the fear that I'll be recognized--found out--de-closeted and an open target to the weapons of homophobia all around me."
So why are people still stuck in the closet? Why are they choosing to stay put for now despite this changing world? Because what my 22-year-old self wrote over 15 years ago is still how they feel. They feel lost and alone.
There's no moral to this story, no happy ending just yet. There's just a sad truth. People still feel this way, and those of us who are either straight allies or out of the closet ourselves need to continually make it clear that we are here for them.
Coming out is still scary, and it shouldn't be. We need to work harder to make this an even friendlier world.