Coming Out: “The Big One”
Hello Everyone, and welcome back to Queering the Narrative! This week we’ll be continuing our series on coming out with a discussion about a particularly emotional type of coming out, which I’ll be referring to as a Big One.
A “Big One,” in terms of coming out, is a moment when you tell a larger group of people whose reaction you aren’t totally sure of. It’s a raw emotional moment for a queer person, the time when they actually exit the closet, and is often surrounded by a lot of nervousness, anxiety, or even fear.
Basically, it’s the Big Emotional Moment that’s in, like, every piece of coming-of-age queer fiction ever.
A Big One is a special moment. It’s often more emotionally intense than Casually Coming Out, more far-reaching than the First Time you come out, and may itself encompass an Explanation. The fact that it’s so big is what lends it to portrayals in media — you want emotion in your art, and there’s nothing like a Big One to drive that.
Still, as a queer person, I’ve got some… issues with some of the common tropes surrounding this. These will come to light in the discussion to follow, but I don’t want to just focus on what I dislike about popular portrayals of Big Ones — I want to give you a holistic idea of what this sort of coming out is like, so that you can put more authentic and nuanced scenes like this in your own fiction!
Most of the time, a Big One is going to be a HUGE emotional moment for your character. As such, it deserves a HUGE response!
There’s a whole lot of coming out scenes in media where the queer character a) gets beaten up/kicked out/disowned or b) gets the “I always knew” or “alright whatever” responses.
A) is problematic for obvious reasons, in that it’s distressing. Also, sometimes, authentic; people still get kicked out and disowned and hurt for being queer, and that’s an important reality to bear in mind when writing queerness (especially as a source of fear a character might have), but it’s also really challenging to read. Also, happy queer people exist.
B) is also problematic, in my opinion . Your character has been struggling with whether or not to share this part of themselves for so long, and they deserve a real show of love and support. If you want someone to have that response to your character, please consider: why wasn’t your character comfortable coming out to them sooner? Why did it take this big emotional moment between them, and why is that emotional moment being minimized? This isn’t unrealistic, but it also isn’t as ideal as so many people seem to think it is.
Keep in mind, too, that the reaction that your character is expecting is not always the reaction they’re going to get. This can be where option b) comes into play — but again, think about why your queer character was scared. The answer to that may just be the culture surrounding coming out and queerness, but consider it.
In my opinion, the gold standard for a happy reaction to a Big One is loving support. Make sure, however, that this support is not portrayed as conditional or in spite of their queerness. “I love you no matter what you are” isn’t always a heartwarming response — it implies, somewhat, that queerness is a reason to deny love, but the person saying that has risen above that.
Loving support may not always be the best approach, but you don’t have to swing to the other extreme (ie — beatings, disownings, etc). My second-favorite reaction to a Big One is when a character comes out and at first people are upset or do not understand, but eventually come to accept the queer character and, in the end, everyone’s life is better for it (especially the queer person, who gets to live their truth). This is an extremely powerful narrative, and one that I think deserves to be seen more. If you want some good examples of this, check out If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo or the coming out arc in Netflix’s One Day At A Time.
All that being said, keep in mind that a character’s goal in coming out might be for it to be no big deal. If a character decides to come out by simply mentioning at dinner that she’s dating a girl, then the appropriate reaction from that character’s parents might just be “Cool, thanks for letting us know.”
Media has a tendency to distill all queerness into a handful of specific and interchangeable experiences, and The Big One is an easy example of that. It was once extremely common for queer narratives to explore only negative ramifications of coming out — abuse, neglect, disowning, and all the other things that can be distressing to read about for a queer person (but also were and are completely real things that happen to queer people.)
These days, coming out stories are usually happier. The world isn’t looking for sad LGBTQ+ stories — acceptance and celebration tend to be the default. The heart-warming moment that all media leads up to is a mother smiling and saying, “I love you no matter what.”
And that’s great! Positive portrayals of queerness and acceptance are so immensely important for people to see. But, at the same time, there is a lot more nuance to coming out, especially in such a big emotional moment as in a Big One. Portraying all coming out as the same can make it extremely difficult to help people — especially queer kids — understand the intricacies surrounding the experience.
In the broader literary world there’s innumerable stories to connect with and messages to take home. However, that’s not the case in queer literature. Because of this, queer kids reading your story are likely to connect with your characters on a deep emotional level, because they might not have seen themselves in any other characters before. However, that also means they have no alternative messages to take in around them.
This means that if you write a story where a young person comes out and is harshly rejected by their families, the real-life person reading the book might decide not to risk coming out, which can negatively affect their life. It also means that if you champion coming out and living your truth no matter the odds or consequences, someone might get hurt.
This doesn’t at ALL mean you can’t write these stories — you should! Normalize queerness, celebrate queerness, tell stories of pain and overcoming adversity and heartwarming surprises. We NEED those stories, and especially queer kids need them. Just make it clear that your character’s experience isn’t everyone’s experience. Not everyone is in a situation where coming out is safe, and those people shouldn’t feel alienated by your story.
On the other hand, though, don’t make coming out be a big doom-and-gloom event. There’s a balance to strike — writing queerness isn’t easy, especially if you aren’t queer! A good trick to make this easier is to write more than one queer character with more than one experience so your reader can find multiple narratives to connect to.
Coming out is always complicated — that’s why this is my fifth post on the topic. And when it comes to the media’s favorite flavor of coming out, there’s a lot to unpack. Just remember that everyone’s experience looks different, feels different, and is different. Strive to reflect that in your narrative. We need rich, diverse, expansive, and deep queer representation. Think critically about what you’re trying to say, treat your characters with respect, and when in doubt, get a sensitivity reader.
And that’s it for Queering the Narrative this week! Check us out next week for the wrap-up of our coming out series. And until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!