When Coming Out Goes Wrong
Welcome to another Queering the Narrative! This week we’ll be finishing up our series on writing coming out scenes by talking about when a character comes out and isn’t greeted with love and acceptance.
This one’s gonna be a bit heavy.
I want to preface this discussion by making it clear that I haven’t had this experience. Not everyone I came out to reacted perfectly, but my experience overall was positive. As such, I’m not writing from personal experience here (which is also why I tend not to use this in my own writing.) I have, however, known several people whose loved ones did not react well to their coming out.
This is a very real thing that queer people still experience, and because anxiety around this experience is a major part of a lot of aspects of the LGBTQ+ experience. If you’re going to write about queerness, it’s important to understand this aspect of it.
Anxiety with a source
Coming out is a beautiful experience. It’s a moment of discovery, a statement of self-worth, a way for someone to start living their truest life.
However, there’s a lot of fear in the queer community around coming out. In all media featuring young queer people, there’s tension around the idea of coming out to their parents, fear that they won’t be accepted.
This extends to adult characters, too — Shitt’s Creek and Master of None are just a couple of the many shows which feature characters who have hidden their identities from their parents into adulthood, out of fear of rejection.
I am an advocate of happy queer stories. I want to read a mushy lesbian rom-com, or a high fantasy with a casual trans character. I want fiction where queer people are simply accepted, because I want reality to someday reflect that sort of fiction. However, unfortunately, that sort of wonderful fiction is not always realistic.
Sometimes, you come out to the wrong person, or someone reacts in a way you didn’t expect, or they react in a way you did expect but you were secretly kind of hoping that they’d surprise you. People who have had this experience deserve just as much representation as the rest of us. An overly happy queer story might feel alienating to those who feel trapped in their closeted existence, because they can’t see a way for those to translate into their real-life experiences.
It’s important to present varied portrayals of queerness in fiction. There simply isn’t a wide breadth of LGBTQ+ literature and media out there, and a lot of the fiction that does exist presents a rather unilateral depiction of queerness. In non-queer fiction, you get depictions of people from all walks of life and backgrounds, often giving a nuanced view of the characters.
That’s not as common in queer fiction, often because there’s only one or two queer characters in a given piece of fiction (with the second sometimes being only a poorly-defined love interest). This limits the scope of possible depictions in this literature, and can give people — especially young queer folks — a warped perception of how coming out can affect their lives.
It’s immensely hurtful, as a self-sufficient adult, to feel rejected by your family for your queer identity. But for a minor, that rejection can be deadly without a proper support system. Having multiple experiences to draw on can help give a young person a more varied idea of their options, allowing them to both find comfort and acceptance in fictional characters while also understanding how their own situation differs.
This is particularly effective when there are multiple queer characters in a work of fiction, and those characters have different experiences with their queerness. A good example of this is I Wish You All The Best by Mason Deaver, which has multiple nonbinary and queer characters who all have different experiences with their identities. Early in the novel, the main character is encouraged to come out to their parents — and is kicked out of their home. They are able to find a new home with their sister, but there is still an important message here: coming out requires critical thought and a consideration of situations. As an author, you should bear this in mind and take it into consideration in your work.
The fear that a lot of queer people feel around coming out — especially for the first time — has its roots in some truly unfortunate realities. How should this affect your writing of a queer character?
First off, if you’re going to directly include a terrible coming out scene in your story, you have to know where you’re coming from. If you’ve experienced this sort of situation and want to write about it, more power to you — we need more accurate and authentic portrayals of all queer experiences in fiction, even the bad stuff. If you haven’t experienced this situation, but have a close friend/family member/etc who has and has confided it in you, then MAYBE you can draw on that knowledge. But make sure you get permission and make sure you understand it, and use extreme caution.
If you have no experience with this situation at all, besides maybe watching Shameless and thinking that one scene with Mickey was just heartwrenching, then you probably shouldn’t include this sort of scene directly in your work. This includes queer folk!
You have a bit more leeway if you want your queer character to have had a negative coming out experience in their backstory, but that is not a scene you actually depict in your narrative. This can be accomplished respectfully with adequate research and possibly a sensitivity reader, and is a great way to showcase differences between different queer peoples’ experiences. There’s nothing wrong with a queer character having a negative experience in their past — it happens in real life, after all.
However, try not to dwell on it more heavily than the tone of your story requires. If you’re writing a happy queer story, you can have someone share the trying ordeal of being shunned from their friend group for coming out as queer, but that shouldn’t be the entire focus of that character. I can, however, be a wonderful moment where your character opens up and receives love and support in return. Just make sure that not all your queer characters have tragic backstories. Being queer does not automatically mean that you’ve suffered!
At the very least, understand that this is why so many people are scared of coming out. It’s scary because you’re never completely sure what the reaction is going to be. This is especially trying when people feel pretty certain that they are going to receive a negative reaction — this can lead to a lot of stress and sadness in a queer person’s life, and rightfully so, as they may not feel that they can ever live their true selves. And, even if your character isn’t put in danger by a negative reaction, it’s likely to be devastating for a friend or family member to refuse to acknowledge their identity, espouse hatred about it, or otherwise shun them.
Remember, too, that someone reacting negatively to your queer character coming out will fundamentally change your character’s relationship with that person, even if the queer person is not put out on the street or otherwise abused. It might be hard for your queer character to trust or respect that person going forward, or your queer character might “go back in” the closet, at least around that person.
Sometimes, however, the person who reacted negatively slowly grows and learns to accept the queer character, which is something that happens in real life but is not as often explored in fiction, where the queer experience is often reduced to the moment of coming out. Though this will surely lead a period of distress, mistrust, and discomfort for your queer character, a story of someone coming to accept them for who they are and repairing a damaged relationship could be extremely powerful. You can find examples of this in If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo or in Netflix’s One Day At A Time.
That’s it for this week’s Queering the Narrative, and for my little mini-series on coming out. Sorry to end it on a heavier note, but these are important things to consider when writing a queer character.
Please note that these things do not negate anything I’ve said in previous posts. Characters can still be casual about coming out, they can still have really wonderful experiences, or you can build a world in which all of this anxiety simply doesn’t exist. But in this world it does exist, and you should be mindful of and knowledgeable about it if you want to have queer characters in your narrative.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!