“Yep, I’m Gay!” was the headline sprawling across the April 1997 cover of TIME magazine, with a beaming Ellen Degeneres crouched on the front cover.
Two weeks after the monumental reveal, Degeneres’ character on the hit sitcom Ellen came out as a lesbian, mirroring her own reality.
Her sitcom was soon after cancelled as sponsors began to pull out, and Degeneres found herself struggling to find work for years before rising to immense success as the host of The Ellen Degeneres Show. It’s been nearly 30 years since the scandal rocked Hollywood, but is coming out still a big deal?
Many people we spoke to said they believe that coming out is still an important right of passage for queer folks. Others said that coming out has become less significant in recent years. For some, revealing one’s sexuality or gender identity, or “coming out of the closet,” is a life-changing event. For others, it’s a highlight in an otherwise uneventful day.
We hit the streets to see what some 2SLGBTQ+ Canadians had to say.
“I think for a lot of people it is, but for me, it wasn’t as big of a deal as it was for other people,” Rowen, a young transgender man from Toronto, shared. However, he shared that it was still a crucial moment.
“It’s great to be able to express yourself, and it’s great to have other people relate to you in a way that you’re comfortable with.”
Michael explained that he came out as gay in 1998 at 14 years old, and also felt that it was not a big deal. He said that having a supportive family who loved him unconditionally made it easier to navigate the world as a member of the 2SLGBTQ+ community.
“It’s important to have an ally to tell, someone to trust… If it feels right, share it. But if that little voice inside you says maybe not, hold on to it, then listen to that inner voice. It’s trying to protect you.”
However, we also spoke to two young men who explained that growing up in Muslim families made it more difficult for them to come out as gay.
“I would say that coming out should be about protection. If it’s about visibility, by becoming visible, backlash can increase [by] ten times. People should protect themselves when coming out,” Hanna said, adding that he believes coming out is a big deal.
Hanna told Queer & Now that as a young man in Syria, coming out as gay was very difficult as it was not culturally accepted. Hanna’s friend Leo said he had less of a negative experience when he came out in Las Vegas. He believes that society puts too much importance on sexuality and gender.
“We should take life simply and do what pleases us. I think it’s the social norms that play a big deal in making it hard for people to come out,” Leo said.
But Leo shared that he worries stateside, things are becoming more and more divisive. He explained that he blames politicians for using freedom of speech, or freedom of religion to promote homophobia and transphobia.
“Like using ‘religious freedom’ to say that a baker’s religious freedom is violated by being forced to serve queer customers, and politicians allowing that,” he explained, adding that he believes this type of behaviour encourages the public to perpetrate violence and discrimination against queer Americans.
Discrimination and violence is not an issue far from home, either. Data from Statistics Canada reveals that the number of hate crimes committed against someone due to their sexuality is on the rise. There was a 64 per cent increase in police-reported hate crimes against people due to their sexuality in 2021 alone. Looking at the numbers, that works out to be 423 hate crimes, which is an all-time high, up from the previous record of 265, which was reported two years prior in 2019.
Pflag: SUPPORTING THOSE LIVING THEIR TRUTH
In the first and second editions of Queer & Now, people who identify as 2SLGBTQ+ shared the importance of finding community as a queer person. For this edition, we sought out an organization that builds community for queer people who are coming out.
Toronto Pflag is a charitable organization that supports both members of the queer community and their loved ones through a variety of programming in the city.
“The “coming-out” process can be a critical time for families. When the adjustment period is particularly long or painful, relationships can become permanently damaged, resulting in a lifetime of emotional scars,” reads the Pflag Canada website, adding that a lack of acceptance can be devastating, and even deadly.
Toronto Pflag was founded in the 1970s by mothers Pauline Russell, June Tattle Goss, and Anne Rutledge, all of whom have queer children. Pflag’s work consists of providing resources for 2SLGBTQ+ people and their families and friends, including campaigns, public events, educational engagements, and support groups. The organization also has groups for the specific needs of various members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community, including the East Asian Support Project (EASP), which is led by Pflag board member Jaden Peng.
EASP was created in 2022 to provide resources, such as support groups for East Asian members of the queer community.
“Because I am a newcomer myself and queer myself, when I moved to Canada I felt like everything was very open for the queer community,” Peng explained, adding that this can be a culture shock for people of colour who immigrate to Canada from countries where being queer is not culturally accepted.
Peng shared that soon after the pilot of EASP began, they started to receive emails from parents in Canada with East Asian backgrounds who had queer children.
“Many cultures are not as open [as Canadian culture] and in a lot of Asian countries, same-sex marriage is not legal yet… So with families and parents, they don’t know or accept different gender identities and it can be very hard for them to understand.”
Peng explained that many youth end up leading a double life, where they are out to their friends, but not their families. She shared that in her experience, this is common within many immigrant communities, who will share their gender identity or sexuality with their family in Canada, but not back home.
“Especially when those cultures prioritize family, and then you get lots of shame and guilt.”
Peng said that this puts a strain on relationships within the family, and being forced to hide their truth can cause queer people to resent their families. This is something that Pflag aims to address by providing supports for both queer people, and their allies.
Pflag also operates services specially curated for transgender people, including the transfemme and nonbinary support group which was founded in 2022. Stephanie Woolley is the Vice-President and Education and Advocacy Chair of Toronto Pflag, and the lead facilitator of their transfemme and nonbinary support group.
Woolley shared that the program saw an influx of people coming out of the closet during the pandemic when she says people had more time to sit with themselves and reflect on their lives. She explained that in her experience as a queer transgender woman who works within the 2SLGBTQ+ community, coming out is still a big deal for a lot of people.
“It’s a scary thing to come out to your partners, your parents, your employer. Even in 2023, you don’t know how they’re going to react.”
“Coming out can take so many different forms. I know people who’ve come out by putting a post up on Facebook or Twitter and having thousands of people see it. I know people who come out very gradually. They start by telling a few people they trust and move forward to ever wider circles. It’s always going to be a time of vulnerability.”
At 62 years old, Woolley believes that it’s even harder for older people to come out.
“I was 50 when I came out,” Woolley shared, explaining that when she was 12 years old she realized that she didn’t identify with her gender assigned at birth, but in the 1970s there was a lack of positive representation for Woolley to identify with.
“I struggled with that for a long time,” Woolley said, explaining that it was not until she met other transgender women her age that she felt compelled to take the plunge and reveal her identity.
Woolley also shared hope for the younger generation of queer people finding their way in the world.
“Coming out is always scary, but in the younger generation in their teens and twenties, so much of that generation is very accepting and what we see in family support groups is so many of their inner circle are OK with it.”
Adding that community is vital, and planning is key, Woolley advises anyone looking to come out the closet to make sure they are in a safe place, and then to live their truth.
“If you feel you understand who you are and that is not cis and straight, there is joy in living authentically. It can be hard, there is still hate and discrimination, but there is such joy in being yourself that it’s usually worth the struggle.”
“Coming out has been radically life-changing for me and I found a happiness that I did not know could exist.”
Note from the columnist:
Pride Month is so close we can taste it! All throughout June Queer & Now will be publishing weekly columns that highlight the importance of the season, featuring real stories, good news, and profiles of queer trailblazers! Make sure to let us know what you’d like to see in future editions of Queer & Now by sending a note to email@example.com