When a person is on the edge between in and out, he is not often faced with a binary decision, either in or out. He is faced with a range of possibilities, only one of which is, in the particular situation, coming out. He may decide to do nothing. He may decide to tell the other person that he is gay and then tell no other person. He may start a process which ends with his coming out more or less publicly. He also may deny whatever circumstances precipitated this event and attempt to go back in the other direction. And he may do any of these things for a whole range of reasons—defiance, search for safety (conceived of in any number of ways), obligations to various persons, cowardice, bravery, or almost anything else, including love, any one of which is powerful enough to drive a person in either direction over the in/out divide.
While a lot of things have changed in the last fifty years, one thing that still seems to be true for all generations of people who experience same-sex feelings is this: people come up constantly against this question of coming out. Nobody who experiences same-sex feelings can really avoid this at some point, and often that person comes up against it again and again during his or her life.
Sometimes, a person hears somebody say, “I’ve always been out” or “I never came out.” But we have a world in which there are many more heterosexual people than there are people like us, and if we don’t constantly tell them to stop, they’ll act as if everyone here at this party is straight. It is impossible for me to avoid the moment when I am confronted with the questions, Should I come out? Must I come out? Can I come out here, without being killed? Have I come out without meaning to, to the wrong people?
We do not live in a post-coming-out world. The death of Tyler Clementi is only the most recent proof of that. The world is complicated, and it is not helped by our being sloppy in our thinking. Nothing matters more to a person who has same-sex feelings than the process of coming out, because the process—whether going in or coming out or maintaining the status quo—gives you an attitude, defines who you are, your relation to your own past, to your future, your relation to your community and to the culture we share.