Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day. For many LGBTQ+ people, coming out involves sharing their sexual orientation and/or gender identity for the first time. Young people in search of support in their identities can contact The Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeline 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386 or by texting START to 678678.
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I first told a friend when I was 16 that I thought I could be gay.
I remember I cried and cried at her parent’s kitchen table — afraid that they would hear from the room next door.
I think I cried from relief, but also sadness that I wasn’t like everyone else.
Coming out for me felt like admitting a crime — hoping that my friend wouldn’t judge me.
It was only her love and kindness that made me realize otherwise.
What followed was eight years of slowly telling more and more people, until I finally wrote my mother an email (I know!) when I was 24.
That first friend has remained one of my closest. I was so proud to give the reading at her wedding last year.
One of the funnier coming out moments was when I told a very good girlfriend at university … and she was the one who cried!
We sat on my bed in my London flat, and between great, hysterical hiccups with tears streaming down her face, she managed to say, “Oh James, I don’t know — it’s just, I feel like an option for me has gone off the table!”
God, how we laughed.
For me, every interaction I had before I came out was essentially a lie.
That sounds dramatic, but I can’t describe it any other way.
Whether talking about relationships, or buying milk, I just didn’t feel myself, and wasn’t presenting my real self to the world. So it made me feel like less of a person.
That’s part of why I think I dealt with depression in my early twenties — and why I think so many young gay men and women do today. Feeling that you are “less” than other people — that you are essentially worthless — is an obvious route to a mental health crisis.
I could never imagine then the life I have now.
“But James, are you ever scared going to places where it’s not OK to be gay?”
That’s the question I get most on social media, and elsewhere.
The truth is: sometimes.
Being in Chechnya recently, where we were looking into abuses of LGBTQ people, is a good example of feeling slightly on edge — to put it mildly!
But when I’m on a story, I’m conscious of three audiences: the people I’m with in that place; the broader TV audience at home; and the young gay men and women who may see my work.
The first group can be challenging.
I’m keen to be myself, but also sensitive to different attitudes in places where gay rights have a ways to go.
Whilst not legitimizing homophobic views, you just have to be practical in how you deal with certain situations.
If anyone I meet in some far-off place decided to Google me, they’d see I’m gay (shoutout to my pretty incredible — and very patient — boyfriend Alex!).
So the very act of being there and interacting with them becomes powerful in and of itself.
Perhaps on some level I hope that by meeting me, and seeing that I take an interest in their lives, they may be less judgmental of mine.
The audience at home is the second group — and I’m aware there are also anti-gay views there. If in doing my job I break some negative stereotypes, and they too can change their perceptions, then that is a happy outcome.
I’m powerfully aware though of the third audience: young gay men and women who may be struggling with their identity.
When I was growing up, I had virtually no one to look to in the public eye, where I could say to myself, “Wow, he managed it, I might not have to be in the dark forever.”
So if you’re reading this, wherever you are, know that your experience, as unique as it may feel now, has been shared by millions through time.
Some have had it worse, others have had it easier.
But there is a community waiting for you, with love and understanding.
You’ll feel as though your life has only just begun.
Each of you who makes that brave step makes it possible that in the future, the next 16-year-old boy with really bad skin, who wore fleece way too much, would be proud of himself, rather than ashamed.
No more crying in the kitchen, it’s time to go out into the sunshine.
James Longman is a foreign correspondent for ABC News based in the London bureau.
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