Growing up in New York City with liberal parents and attending a school with the word “progressive” in its mission statement is probably the best-case scenario for any young gay man. The standard stories of American homophobia – with bullying, suicide and violence – were not reflective of my New York life in the 2000s and early 2010s. In my corner of the Upper East Side, coming out was not the life-shattering event it can be elsewhere. I was safe from familial disowning or any threat of violence.
My grandparents had and continue to have Rolodexes full of gay coupled friends, and my parents never once made a comment that any reasonable person would misconstrue as homophobic. I can’t cite a single expression of bias from a teacher, athletics coach or school administrator. While boys in the locker room – many of them my football or lacrosse teammates – regularly called each other, and often me, “faggot” or would pejoratively say “that’s gay,” I never saw the outright rejection of or subjugation of anyone with same-sex attractions.
Yet I remained in the closet through middle school, high school and the first half of college. I did so because I had no interest in metaphorically cloaking myself in a rainbow flag, fearing that doing so would alter my friendships and family relationships.
Upon coming out, gay, lesbian and bisexual people are often judged exclusively through the lens of their sexuality. As a teenage boy with traditionally masculine interests in hip-hop and sports, I had no interest in being defined as “the gay friend.” I didn’t want to break boundaries or dismantle gay stereotypes; I just wanted to be a normal teenage boy.
Even now, telling people that I’m gay and a fan of the oft-maligned website Barstool Sports elicits responses of “that’s surprising” or “so you’re not really that gay,” as if enjoying sports or politically incorrect humour is in conflict with same-sex attraction.
In my mind, coming out in high school would have suddenly overridden all other aspects of my personality. I didn’t want friends or family to define me as “the gay friend” or “the gay relative” and thrust certain expectations on me. So I stayed in the closet.
Friends from similar upbringings have expressed the same concerns. One told me:”Even in the most progressive environment, with parents and extended family who would support me no matter what, I was still too afraid of what others would think to come out.” This friend didn’t come out until college because he feared his sexuality “would be my descriptor from now until the end of time.”
“For whatever reason, I was – and sometimes am – uncomfortable when defined by my sexuality,” he added.
These fears – of stereotyping and changed expectations – shone through in the Oscar-nominated film “Call Me by Your Name.” The film explores a same-sex summer romance between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer), with the notable deviation from most films dealing with homosexuality in that nobody is punished for same-sex behaviour.
Still, Elio never comes out to his parents or friends. In fact, when his father tells him he is aware of Elio’s affair, the precocious teenager quietly asks: “Does Mom know?” And he is noticeably relieved when his dad confirms that, no, she does not.
Throughout the film, Elio’s parents resolutely affirm their son and non-heterosexual attraction, as evidenced by the scene in which a gay couple, friends of the family, visit their idyllic Italian home for a dinner party. Before their visit, Elio mocks the couple, both in his rhetoric and through purposefully cartoonish feminine gesticulation. His father angrily chastises Elio’s intolerance, imploring him to accept everyone for who they are.
While no LGBTQ person can escape stereotypes and fears of discrimination, Elio’s situation – being born into a family of progressive academics – is the near-best-case scenario. It’s a situation that many queer people might wish for. Even so, like me and those I spoke to, this type of context is not always enough to make someone feel comfortable coming out. The closet can still feel preferable and, frankly, safer.
However, once I did come out at age 20, I saw that my fear of being defined by my sexuality was largely misplaced. Since coming out, friends and family have gone out of their way to make it clear that they’re comfortable with my sexuality, often to the point of my own embarrassment. My mother was a little too willing to recommend David Hockney’s recent exhibit to me as “an early and incredible portrayal of gay love.”
Friends have behaved similarly, albeit lacking the same rhetorical force and clarity as my mother. Earlier this year, I visited a friend at a large, Midwestern research university. On the beer-soaked Saturday football game day, I trekked halfway across the country for, a woman approached my friend’s fraternity house and, while I was present, disparagingly referred to a neighbouring party as “gay.” My friend, presumably because of my presence, was irate, and in seconds he nearly forcibly removed this woman from the porch of his fraternity house.
A longtime close friend from another university recently sent an out-of-context text to a group chat normally reserved for politically incorrect memes and derision over sports teams. “I got our (fraternity) house to get rid of the word faggot,” the text read, asking semi-sarcastically “are you proud?” Seconds later, in his classic self-congratulatory nature, my friend added: “I’m doing God’s work over here.”
In my life, even the most-stereotypical straight adolescent and young adult boys – now men – have come to accept me for who I am. My family has been similarly receptive. My sexuality is simultaneously included and ignored in our relationships. And while my own same-sex relationships are topics of conversation, the homophobic stereotypes and expectations that often follow are noticeably not prevalent.
Though “Call Me by Your Name” takes place 30 years in the past, the film reminded me of my own childhood difficulties with my sexuality and of persistent, similar contemporary concerns. Just because it might seem easier to come out in some families than others, even in 2018, it is never easy.