Editors' note: Alan Schwartz, M.D., a member of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, is also Co-Editor in Chief of the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health. He is a psychoanalyst at the William Alanson White Institute and has a private practice of psychiatry in New York City.
"Coming out" should not be mistaken for the older reference to the announcement of a debutante's eligibility for marriage, although comparisons have been made. The modern experience of coming out for a gay person, unlike that for a debutante, is often fraught with fear of rejection, hatred, condemnation, discrimination and even violence, or at least the possibility of these reactions.
Now consider a new option available to lesbians and gay men--same-sex marriage. In five states, gay people can now legally marry their partners and New York, New Jersey and DC may soon follow suit. This opens up previously unimaginable possibilities for lesbians and gay men.
That's what happened to Michael, who shared some stunning news with me last week. He and Bill, his partner of 20 years, decided to get married next month. However, that was not Michael's biggest news. A few days after deciding to marry, they were watching TV. Bill suddenly excused himself and left the room. He came back, it seemed to Michael, a different person. He stood taller, seemed lighter and walked with a spring in his step which Michael had never before seen. Bill then announced he had just called to tell his parents about their upcoming wedding.
Why was this announcement so startling? While Michael has always been open about being gay to his circle of friends, family and colleagues, Bill has been more circumspect and never directly told his own family. Although the family knows Bill and Michael have lived together for two decades, the exact nature of their partnership has never been openly discussed. Michael always assumed Bill would never tell his family. Bill always thought of "coming out" and telling his family as an embarrassing disclosure. In other words, Bill felt comfortable coming out to his family with a marriage announcement of his relationship, rather than "confessing" a "dirty little secret" about his sex life.
All this, in contrast, is routine for heterosexual couples. For example, last weekend, my nephew called. On the phone, along with the woman he has been dating for several years, they proudly and delightedly informed me that they had just gotten engaged two hours earlier! We were all ear to ear smiles sharing this exciting news.
Unlike my straight nephew and his fiancé, gay couples historically had to hide their relationships. Yet numerous studies have shown that exclusion from normalizing social institutions like marriage can have adverse mental health consequences for lesbians and gay men. Creating the opportunity for gay men and lesbians to openly share their joyous moments with family, friends and co-workers can heal the very painful wounds of exclusion.
Once, a gay person might have come out to a parent by saying, "Mom, Dad... I will never be getting married." That is no longer the case. Today, the definition of "coming out" has swung full circle and, as in the case of heterosexual debutantes, coming out to one's community may serve as a prelude to marriage.