By Jeff Walsh
Each school year marks a time of change, from having new teachers and classes to new demands and expectations. For queer and questioning students, it can also mean debating whether or not you will tell anyone about your sexuality this semester.
But deciding to come out, by either telling one special friend or the entire student body, is a major step.
Coming out is a familiar topic to writer Michelangelo Signorile, whose column appears regularly in OUT magazine. His first book, Queer in America: Sex, The Media, and the Closets of Power, assaulted the closet from the Pentagon to the grave as it tracked Signorile's previous"outings" -- making someone's sexuality public against their will. Signorile had outed Pete Williams, who in 1991 was the Assistant Secretary of Defense, and wrote about the sexuality of multi-millionaire press magnate Malcolm Forbes, despite the fact that Forbes was already dead.
But most telling is the book's first chapter, in which Signorile writes about himself as a young boy of five, confused about society's insistence on gender roles and disapproval of a boy having an attraction to other boys.
In his new book, "Outing Yourself," Signorile, 34, of New York City continues his look at coming out and the closet, but this time it's more of a "How To" guide. The book is divided into 14 steps, ranging from"Identifying Yourself" to "Not Thinking About It At All."
"This book is meant to be a loose guide, and more importantly a book people can turn to, because it's filled with so many stories of people going through the same thing," Signorile said in an interview with YAO.
He said the book helps educate readers by example. "There are many stories of other people who've come out, so they can look to see how others did it," he said, adding the book includes "all the preparations a person has to go through before coming out."
"I think the first thing is we all have to come out wisely and in a smart way, making sure it is safe. We all have to think about how dangerous it may be to our livelihood and living situation," he said. "Ifyou are a teen in religious fundamentalist family and you know you will be thrown out, you should then plan for the day that you will come out."
Signorile suggests looking ahead, be it three, five or six years from now, and pick the day that you want to be openly gay.
"Look toward that day with a lot of hope," he said. "That gives you a sense of accomplishment and a goal rather than feeling your situation is hopeless."
But no matter if you come out today, or next year, chances are it won't be easy.
"Coming out is always going to be difficult, no matter what or where it is," Signorile said. "It's never a picnic, but there is a difference between coming out and being in physical danger and coming out and having people that might not like you."
The latter option, however difficult, is something for which a person needs to be prepared. Signorile said he himself did not come out in the best way.
"In coming out to my own parents, I did it in a way that feels right for the moment, which is doing it in an angry way," he said. "You get it off your chest, and it feels good for a second but it really hurts parents and takes an enormous amount of time to heal. If you really love your parents, you really have to be there for them, because at that moment they have no one.
"If I had had someone or a book that told me that, I think it would have been easier for me," he said, adding that for about eight months after his coming out he and his parents didn't talk. "When dealing with family, we have to handle things differently and be more sensitive. These are the people we love and love us."
Signorile recommends that people deal with being gay through reading and learning about the gay community and meeting gay friends prior to jumping right to telling family and friends. Through all the interviews he did for the new book, he found that there is no one right way to come out.
"Some people have come out to their family first and it's been fine," he said. "People who tended to come out to themselves and really come to terms with homosexuality fared much better when they told friends and family. And people who tended to come out to gay people and straight friends first did much better when they told their family, because they had a support group they could turn to."
Coming out is a process that never ends. But Signorile says it can be planned just like every other major step in our lives. "We plan so many things in life that are really important, like where to go to school, our career, but we don't plan our coming out. We let it take us over."
"Outing Yourself" is written in concise terms with a deft mastery of his subject and knowledge of how to best tell a story. It is not youth-specific, but neither is coming out. Signorile's own troubled coming out is also motivation as to why he wrote the book.
"I really wish I had a book like this. One of the reasons I had written it is because there could have been a better way."