Coming Out or Drawing In?

Come out, come out, wherever you are.

As a young queer creature in the 90s, and an active one in the 00s, I grew up with this mantra.  Come out of your shells, declare your differentness, have your family of choice take you in with big open gay arms.  At 13 I came out to my parents- a triangle pin on my leather jacket and an anger burning in my belly that I was different, that no one understood me.

I sit here now, 31, a palindrome of my former angry self, and wonder at how much pain I put my parents through.  I wonder at how angry I was, and why I did what I did, how I did it.  I wanted to have my parents love and understand me, a hunger to not hide these key elements of myself from those who purported to love me.  And yet, I did it from a place of anger.

Anger does not grow love.  Anger is a powerful emotion, one often anchored in a desire to connect, but it does not grow gardens, it does not bridge the divide between us.  It expands that divide- and I divided my parents from me by how I came out.

When we communicate with another human being, it takes not only knowing our own mind and desires, but their mind and desires.  When words leave my lips, they reach across an open space and find the other set of ears.  Those ears take in my words and run them through the filters of a life lived.  What is heard and what were intended, let alone said, are often far different beasts.

“The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”
-George Bernard Shaw

In my early twenties I found myself in New York City, on my way to a kinky sex conference.  I had devoured breakfast early, but friends had not, so I sat with our giant heap of luggage while they ran into a greasy spoon.  A while later they came out, and I was in conversation with a petite African American woman in her 70s or 80s, beautiful and grey haired.  She asked where we were going with all this luggage.  One of my friends started to speak up, but I beat them to it by saying “We are off to a relationships conference, to go learn about how to better communicate with the folks we love.”  The woman was so happy- her husband of 50 years, rest his soul, and she had to work at it all the time, and good for us for starting young to learn that stuff.

After she left my friend was frustrated- how could you lie to that old woman?  I didn’t, I argued.  I just spoke in words she would understand.  If I had said we were going to a kinky sex conference to practice bondage, we might have seemed scary.  Our intent, at the end of the conference, was to connect, communicate, and form relationships (if temporary) with others.  Thus, my intent of going to the conference was communicated, even if the details were different.

A year or so later, also in Manhattan, I was being tied up by my friend Mortis on a subway platform, ropes flying in all directions as he bound my elbows back.  Dov was shooting pictures of our escapades when a couple in a similar age range as the woman before asked him what was going on.  He paused and said- “You’d call it a Happening.”  The woman lit up- “Oh honey, I haven’t been part of a Happening since the 60s- we are part of a Happening!”  Long before flash mobs, happenings were guerilla art and performance.  Dov spoke in her language, because “we are doing a bondage photo shoot” would not have parsed with their life experience.

These are not lies.  This is communication in the tongue of the listener.

So when a young man a few days ago asked me how to come out to his family as being both queer and kinky (though he thinks his parents already knows he’s queer), I asked him why.

Why do you want to come out?

Well, to be honest with them, he said.  Because I want to be closer with them.

And what do they know about queer stuff and kinky stuff, I asked?

Well, I don’t know.

So this young man and I teased out what he knows they know.  And how to build upon their framework to express what he means to express (that he is a well adjusted college kid who enjoys a variety of experiences) rather than what could easily be perceived (he is part of a cult, he is a self-injurer, he is crazy, he is an outsider/freak, he is leaving them to be with new family, that he is just like scuh and such famous person, etc).

Those who care for us want to know we are okay.  If our personality, behavior, dress, demeanor, name, pronouns, and more shift dramatically (for them) overnight (or what seems to them like overnight if they have not seen us in a while), it can feel like someone abducted their child/friend/colleague/family member and replaced that person with a changeling child.  Even if I have been sitting with my gender/sexual/spiritual/personal/cultural/emotional/etc identity for years- if I just started wearing it on the outside, it may be the first time those who care for us have seen it.  And if its spoken in our insider language, words like Top, Bottom, Gay, Queer, Trans, Poly, Kinky, Leather… we can alienate using insider words, cult words.  We may alienate, or we may paint a picture based on whom else has used that word- saying we are Kinky painting a picture of murders on CSI for example.  When we use niche words, those words can act as a wall, a barrier- or a filter that is hard to see “us” on the other side of.  When I become a Gay Man, or a Queer Man, or a Poly Guy… in English we put the adjective before the noun, as if someone must see the gay, or queer, or poly- before they see the man on the other side of those words.  We put our adjetives, our labels and identities, before our human-ness.  And for some, this can be hard to work past and through.

In addition, when coming out, in a desire to be heard, I have sometimes overshared.  The reality is that my mother never needed to hear about the details of my piercing play.  Ever.  My intention was good- to connect with her and share my life with her.  But I could have stopped with “I got to have an amazing retreat weekend with my husband,” rather than hearing that it was a group sex party weekend.  No, really, Mom did not need to hear that- even if she is understanding.

So come out, if you are called to.

But what really needs examined?  What needs highlighted?

Will wearing a giant rainbow pride flag tee shirt really make my grandparents get my personal journey and struggle, or does it make me look like a cult has taken away the individual they once knew?

Have I embraced my “new family” in such as way as I have put up a wall with my old one?

I am not trying to belittle the experience of those who were kicked out- who came out and were told to leave.  Your embracement of a new family, a new life, a new journey is real and powerful and beautiful.  But as I look at gay/queer/poly/kinky/trans/other sexual population stuff… I wonder what power we gain in alienating ourselves from others.  In explaining our journey only in our own niche words of cis, mono, les, bi, fluid- words that sound medical and other.   In creating ghettos and corners of the world where we have to eke out an emotional existence surrounded with only our sexual population peers, rather than being full thriving individuals in the world at large, with our sexuality only a part of who we are.

I have flown my rainbow flag, my blue black red and white flag, my pink and blue flag, my infinite love flag… I love them.  I love the sense of community and pride they have given me.  And yet, when my flag becomes all who I call to stand with me- is that me being the authentic and full creature I am?

I don’t want to come out.  I want to draw others in.  I want to have them hear my story, by speaking it in their tongues, in their words, so that I create commonalities, bridges, and connections with the world at large.  With my great aunt.  With my mother.  With the old couple on the subway.  With the woman at the bus stop.  I feel like coming out, pride parades, gay neighborhoods- it’s a segregation that enforces my identity as other.  As freak.  And yes, freak can be a fun flag to fly.  I’m not against flags.  I’m not against coming out.  I just wonder if it serves my intent.

My intent to build love, rather than build anger.

So I am moving towards a voice of drawing others into my story, to find what we have in common.  Because we have something in common.  Every one of us.  We just need to find it, and use those supplies to make the world a better place- for all of us.


If so moved…




Lee Harrington

Lee Harrington is an internationally known sexuality, relationships, and personal authenticity educator. Having taught in all 50 states and in 6 countries, he brings a combination of playful engagement and thoughtful academic dialogue to a broad audience. An award-winning author and editor on gender, sexual, and sacred experience, his books include “Traversing Gender: Understanding Transgender Journeys,” and "Sacred Kink: The Eightfold Paths of BDSM and Beyond," among many other titles. He has been blogging online since 1998, and been teaching worldwide since 2001. Welcome to his world, and your chance to expand your mind and heart alike.


  1. This is exquisitely written and captures so much that I’ve been struggling with in how I live vs how I’ve lived. Thank you so much.

  2. What a lovely way to put it. Thank you. I have a friend and mentor who spent years when I was a teenager trying to get me to understand exactly this message. I was far too angry to hear her. Then I saw first hand how her belief in love brought people together and opened hearts, and it was life-changing to me. I still try to do this work in all of the communities that I live in. I’m thirty five now, and I still try to teach this and live this.

  3. This cuts me some slack and removes my desire to tell my mom about my kink lifestyle. I have felt like I wasn’t being honest. She knows about my kink friends, she just thinks I belong to a few queer groups. She’s even met a few of my friends and thinks they are lovely people. I may have to tell her someday because she keeps trying to get me to bring her to an event. Maybe I’ll take her to TBC next year.

    Thanks for articulating this.

  4. As always, you challenge my previous beliefs. I wish this had been written sooner… thank you for the new perspective, a new lens with which to see.

  5. Wonderfully said. I used to take this approach with Evangelical Christians after I came to practice as a Pagan, often with surprisingly good results. Instead of just being unsuccessfully marketed to, I had some interesting interfaith dialogues by listening and sharing what was behind the labels. I was surprised by how often that approach resulted in sincere mutual respect and understanding.

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