how my mental health
has been impacted by
not coming out
written by an anonymous contributor
There are many forms of coming out. When I first came out to myself, at the age of 13, I remember the naive feeling of empowerment. Like I had it all figured out - cool I know I’m gay now, all I have to do is navigate this privately around my family, and enjoy it with my friends. From a young age I recognised the divide between the conservative private culture that my family belonged to, vs the more LGBT- understanding surroundings I had in my public life. Many first generation immigrants who emigrated very young with their parents, or children of first generation immigrants who were brought up with culturally conservative experience a disconnect between the messages that they receive at home, and the influences of everything else outside of the home. This then translates to a rift between parents and their kin. Many immigrant parents fear that their children will reject or forget where they came from, and in turn reject and forget them. They see their children change their taste, pick up the local slang, forget their native tongue, and pick up the liberal rhetoric that bashes most eastern cultures as more backward and un-democratic.
For me this was compounded by that I had been westernized in the worst way - I had been ‘turned gay’. I understood that me coming out would be received like this; it would be less about who I loved, and more about me rejecting my family and their wishes for me. Of course, this does not apply to everyone in my family. My cousins who are my age are much more liberal than half my friends at uni - Azerbaijan has a huge generational disparity when it comes to beliefs about gender and sexuality. But I made a decision from a young age that I would never come out to the elders of my family. This has impacted my mental health in a few ways that I can identify, and I’m sure it’s impacted me in a multitude of ways that I’m not introspective enough to understand
The most obvious of these impacts was on my confused self-identity, which fed into a social anxiety. The decision to be queer with close friends only, fitted in comfortably with my relationship with my family; I already had a separate identity when we visited and when I was with them. This also ironically fitted well with the fact that I go by Nicole in the UK, and Nigar (my birth name) in Azerbaijan. My nan once told me that she does not want to see pictures of ‘Nicole’, she wants to see pictures of Nigar. Nicole drinks, goes out, dresses immodestly and all the other good sins. Nigar respects her elders, isn’t argumentative, and will one day marry and make a family. In reality I’m both, but as Erving Goffman said, you are only truly yourself when you are alone, at all other times you reflect a version of yourself against your environment. This is less evident to people whose environment doesn’t change that much, or who reflect off of it the same way, regardless of whom they are around. I believe that this is what builds confidence of character and allows people to be carefree and open to others around them. They don’t feel like they are playing a character because they mainly have one whose sense of humour, mannerisms and beliefs are the same no matter where they go. It means that they think less before speaking and they don’t sense check everything that comes out of their mouths. These are all things I have to do more often as a result of not being out, and all contributors to my social anxiety. I believe this is the biggest way that not coming out affects my mental health. It can also mean that you fatigue a lot quicker in social situations: when you’re constantly aware of how you are presenting, you’re never really present in the moment, and your social energy gets drained quicker. This is probably what makes me an introvert, since I usually need some time alone to relax and recuperate.
The second, more nuanced impact on my mental health, is the internal shame that not coming out brings. Funnily this is not so much with instances when I’m with my family (since regardless of their beliefs I am in no way ashamed of my sexuality), but more when I’m with a gay network. LGBTQ+ networks celebrate being proud and open about sexuality, the pride flag is a rainbow and is evermore present in the public sphere as a symbol of being out.
Coming from a conservative home, there is an is inbuilt shame from not being ‘out and proud’ - or even not presenting as more queer. My close friend in 6th form once told me that I was being selfish by not coming out because I am not helping create a world that is easier for LGBT people. She told me that she too has to suffer a few passive aggressive comments from her grandmother, but it was worth it, in order to proudly stand by what you believe. I pointed out that there is a wide gap between the passive aggressive homophobia of her grandmother, and the dangerous homophobia of mine who was born in Stalinist USSR where gay poeple were medically castrated and killed.
But more painful than this, is the deep-rooted shame of coming from a ‘backward’ culture and a homophobic family. In the UK, I defend my culture from being slandered and my family from being presented as bad people. There I defend gay people (from an allies perspective) from being talked about as second class citizens or bearers of a mental illness.
Potentially the worst impact on my mental health however, is the denial of unconditional love from anyone. Throughout multiple conversations with queer people, or on dates with other queer people, the thought ‘if you really knew my background or the fact that I’m not as out as you, you would look down on me’ pops up. Or more painfully, amidst candid happy moments with my family, the intrusive thoughts ‘if you really knew me, you wouldn’t love me’. Although this doesn’t play a huge role in the day to day like social anxiety can, I do think it leads to being more closed off in relationships, and can ultimately be quite lonely.
I do think, however, that my my experience as a semi-out queer person has given me a few useful tools when dealing with mentally challenging situations. For example, I’m less sensitive to racial, homophobic and gender predjudice. I can more easily integrate into spaces where this prejudice is prevalent and find conversation with people who believe this. And I think this is from years of being exposed to the bigotism of multiple cultures and realizing we’re all just stupid in our own way and for our own reasons. It became easier to view people's hate not as a personal hate of me, but merely as a scientific accumulation of their culture, their surroundings, their upbringing ect. This is why when I went to a conservative university in the North East of England, some of my closest friends were homophobic. I didn’t conclude that they were just bad people, since I knew that my family weren’t bad people. We spoke, we shared resources, we debated. By facing challenges, my arguments for what I believe in became stronger, and so did my self identity. I think that being present in so many accepting and not accepting groups, and presenting an identity in different forms, I was able to observe their reactions from an almost outsider perspective. This helped me separate my identity from their projection on it, and ultimately gave me a strong core of who I am irrespective of what people think or know about me. I would not change this (probably narcissistic) sense of confidence and self for any of the mental turmoil that I had to go through to attain it.