Owen Jones: When 'coming out' ends, equality will be total

There's a sense that if you are born gay, you have an automatic responsibility to take a stand about it

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The Independent Online

Stick two gay strangers in a room for a few hours, and the conversation will inevitably drift to how they came out. "Coming out", however lacking in trauma, is a seismic, "before" and "after" turning point in the lives of all gay and bisexual people. It's a process, rather than a one-off event, and indeed you don't have to come out once; you have to come out all the time. The first phase – and often the most fraught – involves coming out to yourself, which can involve alternating moments of denial, disgust, panic and fear of an uncertain future quite different from that mapped out for everybody else.  

Two high-profile outings this week were indicative of the state of play in the struggle for gay equality. The 24-year-old US R&B singer Frank Ocean opted for a short Tumblr blog in which he managed to come out without using the terms "gay" or "bisexual". It was a moving piece, not least because it challenged the still widespread prejudice that being gay is a kind of sordid fetish centred on the exchange of bodily fluids, rather than about the defining – sometimes crippling – feeling of human existence, love. "By the time I realised I was in love, it was malignant," he wrote. "It was hopeless." 

But he revealed an experience that is often as traumatic for gay and bisexual teenagers as the accompanying process of coming out itself: falling for a straight friend who will never reciprocate (in my own case, I threw in evangelical Christian for good measure). "He patted my back. He said kind things. He did his best, but he wouldn't admit the same." 

The other outing – CNN's star anchor Anderson Cooper – was far more troubling. There are limited grounds for forcing a prominent individual out of the closet. If a politician or religious figure uses their position to attack the rights of gay people or to incite homophobic prejudice while masquerading as a heterosexual, they are fair game to have their reputation shredded. But Cooper simply avoided publicly discussing his private life, leading to a co-ordinated campaign to "out" him by users of the Gawker gossip website, among others. In a sickeningly self-righteous diatribe entitled "I don't regret outing Anderson Cooper" this week, Gawker journalist Brian Moylan bragged about his "personal crusade to nudge Cooper slowly out of the closet, whether he wanted to come or not". 

It comes from a sense that if you are born gay, you have an automatic responsibility to take a stand about it. Don't get me wrong: well-regarded, prominent individuals coming out challenges the stigma of being gay, and they should be commended when they do so. But individuals cannot be castigated for betraying the struggle for gay rights because of what details of their private life they fail to place on public record. In any case, it is a false view of how LGBT people are emancipated: not through a few celebrities setting an example by strutting around in the public gaze, hand-in-hand with their lovers; but rather through the struggle from below to transform attitudes and change unjust laws. That famous people feel increasingly comfortable about stating their sexuality without fear of their career crashing down around them is the product of the sacrifices and struggles of LGBT activists over decades. 

But the very fact that coming out – whether you're a TV anchor, pop star, teacher or train driver – remains such an event shows how far the struggle for equality has to go. My first boyfriend came out when he was 15; he was promptly sent to a pseudo-doctor to be "cured". Others have sent me their stories, many of which reveal just how hard coming to terms with sexuality remains in modern Britain. Andrew Emmerson was outed by a tormentor as a teenager, lost all his friends, and his victimisers made his life "thoroughly miserable". Zach Roddis, 21, came out to a friend on an instant messaging service: "I never got physically hurt, but the name calling and exclusion was bad," he says. Being "othered" as something alien at such a young age can cause a lifetime of self-doubt. 

This week, Stonewall released a disturbing report exposing the sometimes agonising experience of LGBT pupils in our schools. Nearly all heard "gay" bandied around as an insult; more than half had suffered direct bullying; and a stunning 41 per cent had attempted or thought about taking their own lives. Schools were failing to protect young LGBT people: three out of five reported teachers who witnessed homophobic bullying failing to intervene. "Coming out" remains a deeply stressful process that invites ridicule and rejection. 

But though Stonewall is right that schools must do more, teenagers are merely projecting prejudices incubated from society around them. We will have achieved total equality when "coming out" is completely abolished as a process. Being gay will not be seen as a separate, defining identity. The frequent social segregation of LGBT and straight people will be ended. It will come about by overcoming not just homophobia, but sexism, too: I recently saw a poster in Berlin which summed it up – "Homophobia: the fear of being treated by gay men the way you treat women." It's not simply the stigma of being gay that will be abolished. One day, R&B singers will blog about a same-sex lover and no eyebrow will be raised, let alone a headline written.