Thursday, May 19, 2005

Out on a Limb

When is it appropriate to "out" one's self, if self is so inclined to do such things? As part of my interests and profession, I do not infrequently give presentations. I also teach a class. And, despite being an out and proud gay man, I often find myself wondering if and when it is appropriate to disclose my sexuality.

I am a firm believer in my need to be an example and role model to any gay men who may not already be out: that is ok to be out and that you can lead a happy, productive, fulfilled life as an out man. I also want any gay men in my class or workshop to feel like he has someone to talk to or ask questions to, if he might be looking for somebody else to connect with who has shared his experience: you can't tell who is gay just by looking at them, so connecting with each other can be difficult.

I don't, as a matter of course, just blurt it out. My sexuality usually only arises when doing some type of personal disclosure icebreaker or when I'm teaching on diversity or leadership. In class, I like to disclose realitively early because I'm about to spend a long few months with these people and if my sexuality is going to be a problem for a student, I'd like to save us both some small amount of trouble. Also, it provides me some shorthand; I don't have to back up when the person asks me during a casual conversation, "did you just say your husband?"

Of course part of me feels like it isn't anybody's business and certainly they don't have a right to know this about me. Some people would argue that it is inappropriate to disclose my sexuality; after all, heterosexuals don't flaunt their sexuality in class. But of course they do. They can talk, without thought or hesistation, about their girl/boyfriend or husband/wife. I, on the other hand, frequently think about what kind of ramificiations talking about my husband will have on the situation at hand. Announcing that I am gay has actually helped prevent some awkward situations. Of course it creates some too, but then I'm prepared for that and the perverse side of me enjoys the controversy I've just caused.

A recent uncomfortable moment happened when I was talking with a college student who mentioned that he had recently earned his Eagle Award as a Boy Scout. I was congratulating him and mentioned that I had been a Cub Scout, never taking the initiative to be a Boy Scout, butthat my husband was an Eagle Scout too and so I knew how much work went into that. The previously engaging conversation went stone dead at that point. The student became noticeably uncomfortable and so did I; I admittably was trying to put out there the message that gays are Boy Scouts too, but I was trying to be casual about it. Instead, I got the sound of crickets and an atomic bomb at the same time.

Outing myself early can produce interesting results: More often than not, I receive words of support and encouragement; sometimes people tell me about parents, siblings, or other relatives that are gay or lesbian.

Opening avenues for discussion on several levels is good, but what doI lose, if anything? Does outing myself early cut me off from people who would otherwise hear my message? Am I forgoing a relationship that could truly change a person's perspective later on after mutual trust and respect has been established?

Obviously, no easy answer exists. Appropriateness, motive, safety, educational opportunites, and convenience all converge to create a puzzle that must be solved differently on an almost daily basis. Being out involves regularly stepping out on a limb, hoping that you make a higher connection with people without the branch snapping under your feet.


DJ said...

I just tend to bring it up in conversation just like straight people do - when talking about my partner. Just like you mention your husband. I feel like if I out myself first before mentioning my partner, its like I'm making an issue of it. If I just bring it up, it forces the other person to be an ass if they so choose to make it an issue.

Of course there will be issues whatever way one chooses to come out.

Michael said...

I definitely think that's generally the way to handle it - at least in polite conversation.

I tend to have my idea of outing myself in a presentation (as appropriate to the subject) reinforced, as I have tonight, by people who appreciate I had the conviction to put it out there but not dwell on it. Additionally, it helped generate some questions and dialogue - even helping some people sort out some issues.