More years ago than I care to count, I contributed a video to Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project. “It gets better,” I emphatically told the camera. “I am not special. I am not some sort of exception. I promise you.”
Coming out was a liberating experience for me, as it is for most LGBT folks. Yet judging from social media’s scathing reaction to Joy Behar’s recent comments encouraging folks to come out, you would never know that.
“I’d like to suggest to everybody out there, come out to your family this Thanksgiving, just come out. See what happens,” she said in an episode that aired last week. “If you’re gay, come out. Meaning: be your authentic self.”
Behar goes on to speak from the perspective of a wise elder — she is 79 — by telling young gay people who may be listening that life is too short to care what others think: “Don’t let anybody tell you what you have to be in this life.”
Let me say up front that I reject out of hand that Joy Behar, of all people, was trivializing the coming out process. This is a woman who for decades has been a staunch LGBTQ ally; a woman who has spent 25 years defending gay rights on national television; a woman who won the GLAAD Excellence in Media Award. Anyone who thinks for a minute that she had anything but the best of intentions is not thinking very hard at all.
Beyond this, though, I believe what she said is excellent advice. Gay people should be encouraged to come out. Yes, coming out can be scary. Yes, it can be difficult. Yes, some people will have negative reactions. But I don’t know a single LGBT person who will say that life is more miserable after coming out than it was before.
There’s a reason for this — one that Behar hits on: Being your authentic self is liberating. There is a relief in coming out, like exhaling after holding your breath for too long. Though it is now more than 20 years ago, I can still distinctly remember the feeling that a physical weight was lifted off me as I came out to my parents. That level of catharsis, of freedom, cannot be overstated.
So why are so many keyboard warriors gunning for Behar? Ostensibly it is because she trivialized the process. “Coming out isn’t a funny subject,” one person tweeted. “How dare you take a very important and sensitive moment in someone who is part of the LGBTQIA community and turn it into a joke?” another asked. Meanwhile, the journalist Nico Lang pleaded with people to “please come out to your family when it feels right to you (maybe it never does, and that’s not your fault!), not because some lady on The View tells you to.”
I mean… surely that goes without saying, right? Given how momentous coming out is, I doubt many — if any — people are going to come out because Joy Behar told them to. She’s hardly coming to Thanksgiving dinner and holding a rainbow gun to anyone’s head. People are free to come out on their own schedules, in their own time, or even not at all. Nothing Joy Behar says changes that. Indeed, the people panicking over Behar’s comments concern me more than her comments themselves.
In an ideal world, no one would need to come out. However, I recognize we are not yet there. A 2019 study reported on by Tim Fitzsimons of NBC News found that parents of LGBT children who come out often have a difficult time adjusting, but much of this is down to a lack of education and resources, not outright bigotry.
Speaking to Fitzsimons, Stacey Feintuch discussed the fears she had when her daughter came out as a lesbian. Feintuch was afraid her daughter’s life would be hard, but her daughter was more circumspect about it. “She’s like: ‘It’s not like how it was when you were growing up. There’s a lot of kids in my school who are gay. It’s not a big deal,’” Feintuch told Fitzsimons. “I had to get it through my head first, and get it through my mind: ‘This is how her life is going to be, and it’s going to be fine.’”
The truth is that things are remarkably easier for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people now than it was when I came out in 2001. Back then, barely half of Americans polled by Gallup thought that same-sex relations should be legal. Now, same-sex marriage enjoys broad popular support across the nation and one in six Gen Z adults identifies as LGBTQ. Suicide rates, while still higher among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths than their straight peers, have also fallen — no doubt as a result of increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships.
The world has changed and thank God for that. What has not changed is how miserable life in the closet can be. A 2013 study by the Centre for Studies on Human Stress in Montreal found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who come out of the closet “had fewer signs of anxiety, depression, and burnout (i.e. emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of personal accomplishment), and lower cortisol levels, than those who were still closeted to friends and family”.
Which makes the faux outrage over Behar’s comments all the more troubling. Dan Savage didn’t start “It Gets Better” for no reason. Life truly is better on this side of the closet door. We should want and encourage our closeted sisters and brothers to come out, not scare them so bad they retreat so far back in the closet that they wind up in Narnia. It is the height of irresponsibility to use Behar’s comments to fuel fears among closeted people — many of whom are already frightened enough by virtue of the lonely isolation the closet inculcates — that they will not be accepted or should not come out.
We in the commentariat should be providing context to Joy Behar’s comments — and that context indicates that there has never been a better time to come out. Toss aside the forgotten Christmas presents and old jumpers, folks. It’s not only because of the mothballs that you’ll breath easier out of the closet. It really is better out here.