Two little words can cause more anguish than virtually any others in the English language. Michael Clarke finds help is at hand for those who are having trouble saying 'I'm gay'
Coming out is a risky business which can have disorientating effects on relatives, friends, neighbours and colleagues. Despite many undoubted improvements during the last two or three decades, homosexuals in Britain are still not considered worthy of equal rights and protection, as the illogical and unenforceable Section 28 of the Local Government Act alone makes clear.
All these books acknowledge that homophobia is still widespread, its pernicious effects at work in the family, school, church, military and parliament, and so deeply internalised by many non-heterosexuals that some endure tormented lives filled with self-loathing.
Homophobia is so pivotal an issue for the American, Michelangelo Signorile, that he suggests it is best thought of as a contagious, if ultimately curable, disease. Step 2 in his 14-point guide to outing oneself is focused on recognising and overcoming self-loathing.
Homophobia is a recurrent issue, too, for Terry Sanderson, who parallels its symptoms, like increased heart-rate, trembling, and anxiety, with other phobias in his consistently sympathetic account. For Sanderson, prejudice is an even more difficult thing to eradicate, and he identifies the three most resistant types as the orthodox religious believer, the deeply conservative and the macho-man. Denting their prejudice on a personal, emotional level, as could happen when a loved-one comes out, is the only hope.
Positive thinking and acting are promoted by Signorile and Sanderson. Whatever the obstacles, however great the pain or length of time it takes, they are convinced that ultimately coming out is better for all. Although they approach the issue from different directions, they agree on the importance of demystifying, enlightening and opening up routes of communication through personal contacts and wider social networks, as well as adopting a cautious, one-step-at-a-time approach. Achieving empathy with those considered to be a threat is an essential stage in the move towards reconciliation. Strategies for achieving this are the spine of both Outing Yourself and A Stranger in the Family, although Signorile offers a more clear-cut model for outing yourself to yourself, as well as the wider world.
Sequence and timing depend upon individual circumstances but, like Sanderson, during periods of great stress and anxiety, he suggests therapeutic exercises to help sustain the momentum. With a much more reactive position to deal with, Sanderson is appropriately concerned to steer those in a state of shock through the multiple stages of anger, disbelief, revulsion, rejection, blame and, in the case of death from Aids, to a more reasonable, informed acceptance.
Signorile and Sanderson use the opinions of therapists, counsellors and researchers to interpret and extend the personal statements. What is more remarkable, is the degree to which both demand reflective behaviour from both sides of the equation. While Signorile exhorts gays to "summon the courage and patience to deal with [homophobia]", reminding them that in coming out they are telling others "something that they are not prepared for", Sanderson advises against panic, suggesting you "talk endlessly to your son or daughter about what it is like to be a gay person" and recommends that "coming out to your family friends as the parent of a gay child may be stressful, but it helps in many ways".
That Signorile and Sanderson manage this difficult task with humour is to be welcomed, whether it is the former assuring us that "There are no confirmed cases of heart failure induced by disclosure of a child's homosexuality", or the latter quoting Isherwood's lampoon on the strong motherweak father explanation for male homosexuality. "If my mother was responsible for it, I am grateful". But it is not always intended. For English readers, the game of Monopoly is inappropriately recalled when Signorile advises, "Go to Step 8 should your parents discover you are gay for themselves". A more serious limitation is the fact that all the support agencies and many of the books he refers readers to are unavailable here. Worse still is Signorile's apparent minimising of ethnic and religious factors. Sanderson spends several pages discrediting Christian bigotry in both the white and black communities of Britain but deals only perfunctorily with problems among Jews and Asians.
If you are the mother, father or even teacher of someone who has just come out, Joy Dickens' book could prove invaluable. After more than 10 years running Parents' Friend and its subsidiary PASTELS (Partners and Spouses' Telephone Support) and the mother of a non-heterosexual child herself, she is in a good position to know. Her anthology of letters written by parents of gay, lesbian and bisexual children is a moving and persuasive account on its own but it is her commentary that contributes significantly to the overall coherence of the book.
All these books use personal statements to reassure readers that whatever their reactions, however well or badly they are coping, they are not alone and can benefit from the experiences of others.