In contrast to the ideals of love, care and acceptance often associated with ‘the family’, feminist and queer critics have since the 1960s highlighted its ‘dark side’. As Voller has suggested, ‘Nowhere has the hostility to homosexuality been more frightening to large numbers of gay men and lesbians than in their own families, forcing them to feel like a minority in their own homes’ (cited in Muller, 1987: 140). Little wonder then that a strong narrative of lesbian and gay life has been about the extent to which coming out entails estrangement from given family and distancing from the heterosexual relational contexts in which lesbians and gay men grow up in. There is a wealth of work on the links between emotional estrangement and geographical distancing. Moving away from the family and community contexts they grew up with has, for many lesbians and gay men, been central to creating a sense of same – sex relational possibilities (Cant, 1997; Chauncey, 1994; Coyle, 1991; Cruickshank, 1992; Davies, 1992; Weston, 1995).
‘Coming out’ has been linked to expanding the historical and personal possibilities open to lesbians and gay men for self and relational invention – for transforming the givens of the self and relationships. For Blasius, coming out is more than as an initial realisation: it is a lifelong process, ‘the continuous process of individual and collective empowerment in the historical context of heterosexist domination and homophobic subjection […] the creation of an ethos’ (1994: 211). Blasius sees this as involving an ethics of self-invention in the contexts of affective communities and erotic friendships, which is fundamentally challenging to gendered-heterosexual ideologies of incompleteness that shape heterosexual ways of relating and living:
With this [heterosexual] truth regime displaced as the foundation of erotic relationships, the possibility of a new relational ethic emerges: reciprocity [. ] lesbians and gay men need not look for the ‘other half’ to complete themselves.
Blasius (1994: 211)
At the heart of Blasius’s argument is that coming out involves an estrangement from the heterosexual relational contexts that people grow up in. It involves social relocation and the accessing of resources – friendship networks, support groups, self-help materials, virtual or face-to-face connections, fiction, art and so on – that provide supports for a new and empowered sense of self and how it is possible to relate.
However, our own study suggests that the contemporary contexts in which many members of same-sex relationships imagine and articulate their sexualities make the issue of coming out more complex than Blasius suggests. One of the most notable features of the young partners’ relational biographies was the extent to which, compared to earlier generations, coming out was not a universally pivotal feature of personal histories. In narrating their relational biographies, roughly one-third of the women and half of the men made little – and in some cases no – reference to their initial coming out as a critically significant moment in their lives. Indeed, it is striking that Hanna and Tammy’s and Kathryn and Louise’s relational biographies were for the most part devoid of stories about the struggles of ‘coming out’ (see Chapter 2). Theirs were fairly straightforward stories of ‘just’ being gay (a term often used by women and men) and of having relationships on that basis. In narratives like these, minority sexual identities seemed to have very little to do with the ‘ups and downs’ and ‘ins and outs’ of their relationships with others. These are stories about sexual identities and same-sex relationships that did not seem to require explanation or justification, and appeared to have been more-or-less straightforwardly accepted by family of origin and personal communities.
About one-third of the women and a quarter of the men talked about initially coming out in a way that suggested they had assumed and experienced it to be unproblematic. For some, more often women than men, same-sex relationships were spoken about as if they were an unproblematic matter of personal choice in the context of meeting the ‘right’ person:
I never really had […] this kind of big realisation that I’m gay, or discussions with people […] I don’t see it as an issue […] I hadn’t really thought too much about what I wanted or anything and then when I met Stacy I knew that that’s what I wanted.
Finally, about a third of women and a quarter of men had experienced coming out as difficult or as problematic. Some women and men had been sure of their ‘orientation’ from a very young age and had struggled to be open about it. This could be linked to a fear of rejection, humiliation and prejudice. Some did not want to be ‘gay’, and others said they did not know how to go about coming out or meeting others like themselves. Some partners, like Nancy quoted below, saw this as a ‘personal’ problem, while others, like Veronica and Jeremy quoted below, linked it to the circumstances in which they had grown up and the limited choices these presented for coming out.
I’ve never been confident like in coming out […] even though my mum was really fine and my dad he’s fine as well […] he’s like ‘whatever makes you happy’ […] he hasn’t appeared fazed at all and my mum’s really supportive of everything I do.
I’ve known I was gay for just as long as I can remember pretty much. When I was about twelve I got involved in a church group at school at around the same time – [I had] a bit of a difficult time with that – it took me a long time to get over feelings of guilt about my sexuality because of all this baggage associated with, with Christianity.
I got the job managing the pub next to where my parents live. That’s where I met Stewart and things just sort of went from there really but, I mean beforehand it wasn’t something that I ever dreamt was possible […] I didn’t think that I could ever, in my wildest dreams, come out in [Place] […]. I don’t think I actually existed really, until I came out to my parents […]. That was quite hard, for a lot of my years growing up.
While many young women and men were supported in their coming out by their family or origin, friends and networks, others experienced less than positive initial responses in the form of shock, hostility or disappointment. However, irrespective of how they came out and initial responses to this, the majority of partners told positive stories of (eventual) acceptance by family of origin and their close and wider social circles. As Iris (122b) puts it:
[A]s soon as I kind of actually admitted it to myself that I thought […] I’m gay it just […] all this sort of flood of emotion and excitement about actually being able to talk to people about it, but scary at the same time because I wasn’t sure, you know I had lots of friends that know me as being straight […] and it was a bit scary, I felt like they wouldn’t accept me for who I was now. But […] generally on the whole everybody was really good about it, especially my family, my family were much better than I expected them to be.
Despite the changes that have taken place with respect to the visibility and apparent acceptance of sexual diversity, it is clear that at the time of their coming out many younger women and men had experienced and/or internalised the stigma associated with sexual-minority identities and same-sex relationships. This is not surprising as many of our participants would have been coming out in the late 1980s and 1990s, and as a general rule the more recently partners had come out the more positive initial reactions were likely to have been. However, irrespective of when partners came out or how intensely difficult this was or the negative nature of initial responses, partners only rarely made straightforward links between coming out and the enduringly radical disruption of their family of origin and close relationships.
It is clear from young partners’ narratives that we cannot assume coming out to be a ‘shared’ or ‘common’ experience as Blasius does. The specific historical and relational contexts in which people come to know themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer matter. For many of our partners, like Jeremy, ‘assumed heterosexuality’ and the ‘heterosexual panorama’ still mattered in constraining their imaginar – ies of non-heterosexual living and relating. For others, like Theresa, the weakening of these assumptions and panorama opened up considerable opportunities and choices. However, the point is that in a new context of relative acceptance among heterosexual family, friends and personal communities the sense of radical self and relational disruption is lessened. This can imply less of a perceived need or desire for social relocation, and less perceived need or desire to become a wholly ‘different’ person. Instead of the sense of estrangement that previous generations tended to associate with coming out, for young generations coming out could be experienced as relatively uncompromising for a sense of connectedness to ‘given’ family and close relationships.
In such contexts, the need to form or turn to critical communities could also be lessened. Only a very few participants indicated that they had been involved in LGB community activities other than commercial scenes, or that they had sought out the resources and supports that such communities might provide. If partners referred to sexual communities, they tended to use ‘gay community’ to refer to commercial scenes and to (physical and virtual) spaces where friendships and relationships might be formed. There was little evidence that such scenes were the focus of self-reinvention or a self-consciously politicised sense of self. While they were often cast as spaces where identities and relational practices could be tested and experimented with, they were most often cast as transitional spaces en route to ‘mature’ couple relationships. Where gay scenes were explicitly linked to specific relational ethics, this tended to be framed in less than wholly positive terms:
My experiences on the gay scene and things like that were very different from what was right for me […] what I would class as sort of stereotypical, sort of gay bars and things like that where there’s a lot of people who weren’t sort of similar to me, they were […] extremely sort of masculine women and things like that. [I was] thinking well ‘I know I’m gay and I like women but I’m not like that so what am I?’ It felt like I was another breed.
everybody else that I’d gone out with had spent probably years going out on the gay scene and their life revolved around the scene, or gay people that were on the scene, they were all a bit messed up in some way you know. I think it’s probably different now because it’s so much more accepted but I think my generation and people older than me […] I mean I did when I first came out as well, I just suddenly became very gay you know, I mean if you went out you went to a gay place or, and your friends were gay people […] and they had a little bit of being messed up, and I think without exception I’ve cheated on every one.
the gay scene was always, it was kind of a means to an end, it was where you found gay men. It wasn’t somewhere you went, ’cause "oh isn’t that cool", it was cool ’cause there’s lots of gay men there. It’s mate finding. And once you’ve found the mate you kind of don’t need it anymore, is my personal reading of it.
the gay scene [here] is very bitchy, you will always get the younger ones [who] are worse than the older ones, you’ll get the newly, well what we call the new people that have just come out, that have to be perfect, that bitch people, that put people down that has to ruin people’s relationships, you know, they’ve got a stereotypical view of a gay man and that’s how they are, they know that a gay man should be bitchy and this that and the other and loved by all and that’s what they’re trying do and they don’t care who they hurt in the process.