When Coming Out Of The Closet Isn't A Choice Coming out as gay or lesbian is a highly personal decision, and can mean losing friends, family or a job. But the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi is a tragic reminder of the potential consequences when an individual is outed by someone else.
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When Coming Out Of The Closet Isn't A Choice

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When Coming Out Of The Closet Isn't A Choice

When Coming Out Of The Closet Isn't A Choice

When Coming Out Of The Closet Isn't A Choice

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/130492772/130492971" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Coming out as gay or lesbian is a highly personal decision, and can mean losing friends, family or a job. But the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi is a tragic reminder of the potential consequences when an individual is outed by someone else.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

This is, of course, Columbus Day, but since 1988, October 11th is also National Coming Out Day, a day to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in their decision to acknowledge their sexual identity. But some people don't get to decide when or if to make that decision on their own, Tyler Clementi for one. His college roommate secretly recorded Clementi's sexual encounter with a man and broadcast it on the Internet. He later committed suicide.

But there are a lot of ways to get outed. It can be malicious, political, inadvertent, well-meaning. If you've been on any side of that, especially if you've been outed, we want to hear your story. Was it a relief, a nightmare or something in between?

Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website, as well. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the car that drives itself, but first, being outed. And we're going to begin with a phone call. Blake(ph) is calling us from St. Louis.

BLAKE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Blake.

BLAKE: Thanks for letting me on the show. I listen all the time, first time calling in.

CONAN: Well, thanks for that. What's your story. Were you outed?

BLAKE: Yeah, I was. So kind of the short version, it was my freshman year of high school, around November, and this kid who I'd gone to preschool with and everything, known him since I was five years old, decided to bring me out of the closet.

He literally, in our honors English class, sat and blurted out: Blake's gay. Blake's gay. And it was a huge scandal because I was on the football team and, you know, I wasn't obviously gay or anything. So it wasn't like anybody suspected. But as soon as he opened his mouth, all the rumors started flying. I got fag written on my locker, and I became a target just in general, on the field and off. And I ended up having to quit playing sports altogether.

And then so I switched high schools after my sophomore year because it didn't die down. Literally, for two straight years, I went through hell, you know, getting pushed in the hallway. And I'm a big guy, 6'1", 220 pounds. So it's not like I was a pushover...

CONAN: When you went to the second high school, did you go back into the closet?

BLAKE: No, not at all. I actually decided to take that into my own hands. And I was out. And I was actually able to dispel a lot of the ignorance about gay people that can be bred in small-town Arkansas, which is where I'm from. So it - go ahead.

CONAN: I was just going to say: In retrospect, obviously those were two years of hell. Are you angry with your friend to this day?

BLAKE: I mean, the thing was he wasn't my friend at the time, and, you know, he has since tried to apologize. And, you know, I would never thank him, per se, because what he did had malicious intent. But were it not for him, I do not know that I would have outed myself at any juncture anywhere close to that.

That was seven years ago. I came to college in St. Louis and decided to be out. And all those decisions to be out stemmed from being outed. So it kind of was a double-edge sword that I ended up falling on.

CONAN: So a double-edged sword. Nevertheless, would you also have liked to have been able to make that decision on your own?

BLAKE: I definitely would have. I mean, it - coming out is so personal, and I was terrified, you know. There could have been a lot worse things that happened to me than what did. And I'm just really thankful that I was able to switch high schools and get away from it because there was a lot of violence towards gays at my high school, and there wasn't anything that any school official would do about it.

I went to the principal, the dean of boys, and, you know, calling someone a faggot is technically sexual harassment, and when I said that to the dean of boys, he laughed in my face and told me to get out of his office. And he happened to be one of my church members. So that lets you know just how pervasive the homophobic attitude was.

CONAN: Blake, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate your sharing your story.

BLAKE: Thanks for letting me share.

CONAN: If Blake's story is your story, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Joining us now is Larry Gross, director of the School of Communications at the University of Southern California, the author of "Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing," and he joins us from a studio at the Annenberg School. Nice to have you on the program with us today.

Mr. LARRY GROSS (Director, School of Communications, University of Southern California; Author, "Contested Closets"): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And that story we just heard from Blake, malicious outing. In a sense, that's the story, minus the technology, of what happened at Rutgers, as well. How common is that?

Mr. GROSS: Well, it's actually very common. And one reason it's common I think now more than it had been in the past is that the existence of gay people throughout society has become just very well-known, very obvious. Nobody grows up today thinking that they don't know any gay people.

The media and changes in our public life have made the case, have made it the case that people are simply more aware of the presence of gay people than they were in the past. And that's a good thing.

CONAN: And that's a good thing. Nevertheless, this kind of behavior, as we've seen, well, Blake said he lived through two years of hell and may have considered, at various times, well, he was the victim, he said, of abuse, physical and verbal abuse. And we saw in Rutgers this can be terribly destructive.

Mr. GROSS: Social change has costs, and people pay those costs. It's never easy. If you look back now, we see all of these retrospective stories, 50 years later, 55 years later, about the African-American students who integrated schools, who went into lunch counters and asked to be served. You know, they bore those costs voluntarily, for the most part, although actually the kids who were sent to school in Little Rock, your caller Blake came from Arkansas, and I believe Little Rock has an important place in our history for that reason. Those kids weren't given the choice of being the bodies on whom social change was created, and I think the same thing is happening now in high schools and even earlier.

One of the consequences of the fact that we as a culture are much more aware of the existence of gay people is that these things have moved from college or even older to high school and I'm sure middle school and even elementary school as kids become more aware of their own sexuality and as they become more aware of other people's sexuality.

So social change happens, and social change happens in the lives of individuals who often suffer.

CONAN: We're talking with Larry Gross, author of "Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing," 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Lisa's(ph) on the line from Los Gatos in California.

LISA (Caller): Hey, I just wanted to share my story. I was in university in Australia years ago. I had a gay roommate. He wasn't out yet. And, you know, we'd lived together for two years, and he was an amazing friend.

He went away on vacation for like a week, and he came back, and he started telling me about this person he met. And I just - you know what, Chris(ph)? Just tell me, what's his name? And he goes: What do you mean, what's his name? I said: Come on, you know, I know. Let's just stop. Let's just stop right now.

Well, actually, his name is, you know, Matt(ph), and he came clean, and it actually freed him. From that point on, he was able to come out to his work colleagues, to everyone. It just let him be who he was.

CONAN: But you still enabled him to make the decision of when to become open with his family, with his colleagues, with the outside world, other than his friend, you.

LISA: Yeah, I did not share it with anyone else. I just shared it with him that I knew he was gay, and you know what? We're still good friends to this age.

So, you know, it was one of those things that I didn't feel it was my place to come out to other people, but I just wanted him to know that I'm going to love him and respect him, whoever he is, and that's exactly how I feel about gay people. They should have the same rights as everybody.

CONAN: Lisa, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

LISA: Thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: Tony D'Augelli is a clinical psychologist who studies the mental health and victimization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth and the consequences of coming out. He's a professor of human development at Penn State and joins us from a studio at our bureau in New York City. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. ANTHONY D'AUGELLI (Clinical Psychologist; Professor of Human Development, Penn State University): Thank you.

CONAN: And again going back to the Tyler Clementi example and what Blake was talking to us about earlier today, these can have terrible consequences.

Mr. D'AUGELLI: Oh, I think Blake's example is really an incredible almost paradigm of what can happen when somebody's identity is essentially taken away.

Young gay people carefully orchestrate the way they disclose their sexuality to friends and family. They may spend even years trying to understand how their friends will react, how their mothers and fathers and siblings and so on will react and in a sense create a safety net for themselves, which may be somewhat fragile, or it may not.

In this situation, we have someone who is thrown into what might be considered a spider's net, actually, that's not even of his own making. And the dangers that are there are somewhat unpredictable, to some degree. Nothing good may necessarily happen except later on, as Blake's case demonstrates, that some resilience can come from this and tremendous growth, and the dealing with one's sexuality can certainly be accelerated.

But the reality of it is we all want the control of our own lives. And young people - and we know younger and younger people are coming out and dealing with their sexuality - certainly are in a much more fragile situation in terms of having that control taken away from them.

CONAN: And in speaking with Larry Gross, he was telling us that indeed, this is happening more frequently because, well, gays, lesbians, transgendered, are more a part of our lives. Is this happening more frequently, do you think?

Mr. D'AUGELLI: Oh, absolutely, and it is happening, as Larry said, at an earlier age. We find people on average feel that they're different in some ways at about age eight and then start to label themselves as not heterosexual, you know, at age 14, 15, 16. Now, they don't tell anybody else, if they choose to tell, until about 16. But not everybody even tells at 16. Those are the rare people who are out in high school. So, you know, Blake's being out or being outed was quite unusual in a certain statistical sense.

CONAN: Well, that was seven years ago, so maybe that was a little bit different then.

Larry Gross, when we come back from a short break, we're also going to be talking about circumstances when people feel justified to out somebody. Indeed, in Blake's case, the person who did it maliciously apologized to him later, and indeed, that may be the situation. But nevertheless, there are some people, particularly within the gay community, who in some circumstances argue this is an important thing to do.

So stay with us. We'll talk about that, as well. Larry Gross, the author of "Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing"; also with us is Tony D'Augelli - is the professor of human development and associate dean of undergraduate programs and outreach at Penn State University. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today is National Coming Out Day, a day to celebrate gay, lesbian and transgendered people who acknowledge their sexual identity. Sometimes, though, that moment can be taken away. It's called being outed.

Sometimes it's malicious, sometimes political, sometimes even inadvertent, and thanks to those of you who have shared your stories with us thus far. We want to hear more of your experiences if you've been on any side of this, especially if you've been outed. Was it a relief, a nightmare, something in between?

800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Tony D'Augelli, excuse me, the professor of human development and associate dean of undergraduate programs and outreach at Penn State University. Larry Gross also with us, he's director and professor of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

And Larry Gross, we were mentioning just before the break, there are some gay activists who say if you're in the closet and actively working to promote anti-gay agenda, you deserve to be outed.

Mr. GROSS: That's correct. The history of this actually goes back to the very beginning of the gay movement, which was at the start of the 19th century, particularly in Germany. And the phrase that was used there, when they said they would not out, was that they wouldn't take the path over corpses.

But in fact, there's been a tension and a pressure, as long as there's been a gay movement, that people who are public figures, and let me underscore that. The political outing that has cropped up from time to time has always focused on public figures. There has never been a political argument for outing, say, high school students or college freshmen, or gym teachers or anyone else who is, literally, a private citizen.

But the argument has been made that public figures have an obligation to come out, and this really takes two forms. One form, and the most obvious one, and I think the one you're referring to, is hypocrites.

And I think there's been wide agreement among gay activists and I think in the community and certainly in the media that people whose public lives are visibly and actively anti-gay but whose private lives are secretly gay, should be exposed as we expose all kinds of hypocrisy.

I think, in general, there's a view that one's private life is not necessarily protected when it is at odds with one's public posturing or one's public pronouncements.

So exposing the secret sexual activity of people who are publicly anti-gay I think has been relatively non-controversial. Lately, it's happened particularly in the case of ministers, of anti-gay clergy.

Most recently Bishop Eddie Long in Atlanta has been accused of secret homosexuality, along with his public homophobia. Before that, Ted Haggard in Colorado, and there have been lots of others or members of Congress, other politicians, whose public lives and whose private lives are in contradiction. So that's one kind.

The second kind that is a lot more controversial is the question of what you might call community obligation. And that is to say that if you are gay, you are a member of a community, which certainly not everybody accepts; but as a member of that community, you have an obligation to the community, and being public, as a role model if you like, to demonstrate that people can be openly gay in all walks of life, including people who everyone looks up to, they have an obligation to come out. That is the more controversial part of the outing debate.

CONAN: And Larry Gross, important to recognize that in communities like a university or a college, the idea of who's a public figure and who is not can be, well, questionable.

Mr. GROSS: Absolutely, and at the University of Southern California, where I am right now, every year on National Coming Out Day, which is today, the student newspaper, the Daily Trojan, publishes what they call the out list.

And this is a list of faculty, of members of the administration, of students, of others, who want it to be known that they're out so that students see that there are lots of gay people around them.

There are many other schools, many other universities and certainly high schools, where that kind of list would be unthinkable.

CONAN: Tony D'Augelli, does that happen at Penn State?

Mr. D'AUGELLI: Well, we have an online list of faculty, staff, who are part of what we call an LGBT network of support, so that anyone can go on the Web and look through various departments of the university and find faculty or staff that are willing to sit and chat with the student, or anyone really, who'd like to stop by.

So we've made it much clearer that the university has sources of support that are accessible to students and that are non-threatening.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Sean(ph), Sean with us from Cupertino, California.

SEAN (Caller): Yeah, my - I had come out, years before, to my parents. It was awkward and we didn't speak much about me being gay for years, until I had become a successful photographer and was in charge of photographing a swimsuit edition for the Dallas Mavericks, for the dancers.

And one of the images got picked up by a national dance magazine, and in that, the model talks about how nervous she was, but had felt much better because the photographer was gay.

And it was my mother who called me and read it and joked with me, that it wasn't good enough to come to her, but I had to come out nationally in a men's magazine.

And from that time, we were able to talk and to joke about, you know, all the stress that it had caused earlier in our relationship. And yeah, so, inadvertently, I got outed nationally by a model, and it helped my family tremendously.

CONAN: And inadvertent, her motives were not malicious at all.

SEAN: Not at all. She was a wonderful sweet girl. The organization was fantastic. It was - that's why I guess it was so lighthearted and we had such a good time with it.

CONAN: Well, Sean, thank you very much. I'm glad it worked out for you that way. Bye-bye.

SEAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to John(ph), John with us from Tampa.

JOHN (Caller): Hello, thanks for taking my call. I got outed in the IT industry in New York City kind of maliciously by a competitor who told my boss because he'd seen me coming out of a gay bar.

And my boss confronted me, and this was a guy I used to play squash with and tennis with. And from then, my relationship deteriorated within a month or so. It wasn't - I wasn't fired for being gay, but I was fired eventually for various performance-related things, which were kind of trumped up because previously, I'd been pretty successful and promoted.

And so I was eventually fired, and I was - I fought it, and I was angry. But coming from England, we're not used to lawsuit, and I don't think the infrastructure for defense was set up then. So I left the whole industry and swore I'd never work for anybody again.

And since that time, I've spent the last 20 years as a kind of successful artist, I guess, but it radically changed my life and my view of a lot of things.

CONAN: And you attribute this strictly to somebody who was willing to do this so that they could compete better in the corporate ladder?

JOHN: Yes, I was kind of in the sales and marketing thing, where quotas and things are kind of important. And so it was kind of done with a sense of glee. And I felt pretty bad for a while, angry more than anything else, I guess.

But it's all turned out for the best because I'm master of my own universe now and very comfortable in my own skin and my orientation. So I guess it turned out for the best, but it's a terribly cruel thing to do.

CONAN: Terribly cruel. I think that's a good description, John. Thank you very much for your call, appreciate it.

JOHN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Tony D'Augelli, that terribly cruel, that seems to sum it up.

Mr. D'AUGELLI: I think so in most situations. You know, you have two examples here of a situation where someone is outed, and there's a quite positive consequence within the family, and we know how critical family support is for these issues.

On the other hand, we have somebody who's outed in the world of work for malicious reasons and that has a profound impact on his life in ways that are really hard to know in certain ways but clearly at this point seem very positive.

So it's the unpredictability of what will happen to you when people find out that's the difficult part. And it's essentially, you know, loss of friends, we found, in a number of studies is a very, very powerful variable predicting the degree of which mental health is compromised in young gay people.

And losing friends happens in lots of ways, and losing family, as well. And there's a cascading effect. Just because one member of your family knows and says he or she won't tell doesn't mean that's true or that others won't find out, and as in the case of the second man, people in the industry will find out.

So it's a spreading effect of unknown in particular and possibly fear.

CONAN: And Larry Gross, I guess in the '80s, it may have depended upon where he was as to whether he would have been able to sue for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Mr. GROSS: That's true, but that hasn't changed. There are still many states in this country where there is no protection at all. There has been something called the employment non-discrimination act stalled in Congress for many years. And there are many states in this country, and you could probably figure out, or your listeners can, which ones they are, where there is absolutely no recourse. Senator DeMint from South Carolina, I believe...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GROSS: ...recently said that he believes that homosexuals should not be allowed to teach. This is a throwback to Senator Briggs in California, who attempted to have that view that homosexuality precluded - you know, you couldn't be a teacher if you are homosexual, passed in a referendum in California. He lost.

But it's very discouraging to see Senator DeMint reviving the notion that gay teachers should be fired in the 21st century, although it's a different state. So there is still no legal protection against discrimination on jobs, housing, public accommodations and so forth in many states in this country.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Meg(ph) in Minnesota. My uncle just turned 75. He and his partner have been together for 40-plus years. They are not out. In fact, as my grandmother lay dying, she believed that he would still marry and have a family. It is so very sad. My cousin, same family, is also in the closet. It is hard to understand their unwillingness to share their whole self. But it is their choice and right.

And this is from Allison(ph) who writes, outing for many, including me, is an ongoing process. In order to remain married and be a good parent to my kids, I'm required by my spouse to remain closeted to those we know as a couple. I have outed myself to many who are not in my family. While it pretty has always gone well for me, I know I could be outed to others I would rather not find out right now. I look forward to the day when the kids are grown and I can live with more integrity. Unlike your topic today, I'm very active in promoting GLBT rights as a presumed ally.

And, Tony D'Augelli, we have to remember outing, as Allison writes, is - can be a sequential process to different groups.

Mr. D'AUGELLI: Absolutely. And, again, the dangers are somewhat unclear, as are the rewards. I wanted to get back a bit to what Larry mentioned before, the issue of community obligation. I think there's a tendency among certainly younger gay community folks to feel that one needs to be out under almost any conditions. And if one is not, you know, you're sort of betraying the tribe.

And, you know, my view of all that is that one needs to be extremely careful with these sorts of statements and to realize that you can't really live somebody else's life. The only reason - the only way you can do that is if you're willing to go with the person and follow the person and stay with the person where all the person - people in a person's life can react.

But, oftentimes, counseling professionals have sort of a view that being out is good. Well, generally, it is, but you can't impose that on every single case by any means. In fact, it's quite dangerous. So, you know, you need to simply be sure that the safety net is there. And that's on a personal level as well as if you're working with people in a more professional way.

CONAN: Tony D'Augelli researches mental health and victimization of LGBT youth and consequences of coming out at Penn State. Larry Gross is director and professor of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Michelle(ph), Michelle with us from Dayton, Ohio.

MICHELLE (Caller): Yes. I wanted to say that my father was outed by my mother. It was not malicious at all. Basically, when I was 12, my sister started -she's bipolar. It started coming out. And we were always upset about my parents' divorce because we didn't understand and we just assumed it was my mother's doing because we left with my mother, moved to another state. And when we were 12, my - when I was 12 and my sister was 13, she said, I want to live with dad. My mother felt obligated to explain to us why they divorced.

And she didn't want us to find out from another source in town, because he lived in a small community. And so she told us, and I was all right with it. I, kind of always knew. I just didn't really understand it. And I gave him hell when we moved there, because I blamed my mother for so many years, and I was cruel. We talked about it, and he's very comfortable with it. And now, he - the family understands. They know. He lives comfortably. He's got a good life, and he's with his partner now.

And I just wanted to say that's my experience with it. I'm very comfortable with his being gay. It's not odd to me because I've known for so many years. I'm now in my 30s. And that's been our experience.

CONAN: And was it important that - well, obviously, your sister was coming of age, you know, an adolescent at that point. And did your mother wait until that time to explain something that up until then had not made sense to you?

MICHELLE: Yes, because she felt - they - my parents were good friends for many years, in elementary school to high school. And so she didn't tell us until my sister made her let us move with him because she was just not going to school. She was, you know, being very - she was being a problem, and she - her solution was she wanted to move with my father.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MICHELLE: So we were so close. We were only a year and one month apart, so we both moved there. And my mother felt like she needed to tell us, but she would not have told us - she did not tell us beforehand, and I don't know when she would have told us or if she would've left that up to my father to tell us that part of his life.

CONAN: Well, Michelle...

MICHELLE: But I - like I said, I kind of - it wasn't a surprise to me. I think like it would've been a shock, but I wasn't surprised. I just didn't know anything about it because I was only 12 years old. And, you know, I was still new to the world.

CONAN: Twelve-year-olds think they know a lot, but, in fact...

MICHELLE: Yes, I did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Michelle...

MICHELLE: It was that way, yes.

CONAN: ...thank you very much for the call. And we wish you and your family well.

MICHELLE: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Larry Gross, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. GROSS: Sure thing.

CONAN: Larry Gross, director and professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern Californian. He joined us from a studio there. He's the author of the 1993 book "Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing." And Tony D'Augelli, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. D'AUGELLI: You're more than welcome.

CONAN: Tony studies the mental health and victimization of LGBT youth and the consequences of coming out. He's a professor of human development and associate dean at the Undergraduate Programs and Outreach at Penn State University and joined us from our bureau in New York.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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