Faux pas run in my family. Between us, my family members have made chatty references to leukemia with friends, not knowing that our friend’s sibling had died of leukemia. We’ve bemoaned our pale, wintery “corpse-like complexions”, before remembering we were at a funeral. We’ve impersonated the effects of stroke, to people whose friends just had a stroke. Between us, we have a special knack for saying and doing all sorts of wrong, hideous shit, at the exact moment when people need it the least. I suppose you’d call it a skill.
So it shouldn’t surprise me that when I came out as gay, my family reacted in all sorts of bizarre ways. My mother famously consoled me, telling me not to worry about it. Something had clearly gone wrong in the womb, she said, and it couldn’t be helped. Months later, my father had a slightly different take on things. “I can’t say I’m happy about it,” he said, “but I know it’s a very popular choice nowadays. And who knows? Maybe one day, you’ll decide that you want to be normal.”
For gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks, coming out has always been a fraught process, a delicate art of choosing the right timing (not Christmas) and situation (not public transport). And it’s an ongoing process too: every time we make a new friend or get a new job, we have to somehow subtly convey that we’re not actually heterosexual. Unless we’re draped with a rainbow banner or have pink triangles flying out of our arseholes, we are constantly spelling it out to people, day in, day out. It can get exhausting after a while.
But while we’re feeling exhausted, the people we’re coming out to clearly feel awkward. “I’m gay,” you say. Now watch as their tongues become knotted. Witness their brains melting; their systems shutting down. Only months later, with the benefit of hindsight, will they realise what they should’ve said all along (“That’s okay; you’re the same person to me”), rather than the mumbling, soul-destroying comments they made at the time: “Really?”; “Are you sure?”; “But you’ve dated dudes/chicks before!”; “But you enjoy sports”; and an all-time favourite: “What if you get AIDS and die all alone?”
When my friend Kirk [not his real name] came out to his mother, the first thing she said was, “Never tell your father.” The second thing: “You don’t like little boys too, do you?” Afterwards, his father said how he would have to start thinking of Kirk more as a daughter now. Other friends have stories of parents reading their homo-erotic diaries, before banning them from pursuing drama classes. One mother confronted my friend by printing out all his gay internet porn and reclining on his bed, waiting for his return.
Of course, it can disorientating when your brother, sister, co-worker, colleague or — surprise! — ex-lover reveals (sometimes accidentally) that they’re a bone fide homosexual. But as the receiver of this information, it’s your responsibility to get your shit together. You guys really need to learn how to react better. And while that includes the Rockhampton father who recently forced his 14-year-old son to sleep with a female prostitute after suspecting he was gay, that also means you regular people: our colleagues and siblings, parents and friends.
In the meantime, just to be safe, do what I do: assume everyone is gay until proven otherwise. When they finally reveal that they’re heterosexual, restrain yourself. Don’t be shocked and outraged. Please don’t ask questions like, “Are you sure you’re straight?” Don’t point out that they couldn’t possibly be straight, since they “dress so well”. Because that’s just offensive. Yes, heterosexuality can a challenging and risky lifestyle — they could die during childbirth, or end up in a suffocating, soul-draining marriage they never wanted — but be supportive. The last thing they need is you being judgemental or tongue-tied about it. After all, straight people have fought hard for their rights. Really, really hard.