The Importance of Being Earnest

5 March 2014

My latest post for the Huffington Post – a meditation on the significance of coming out, and the search for truth and authenticity in writing. 

For the last year or so, I’ve been working in a novel that’s based on my 20-something years as one of a posse of young gay things living in the Big Smoke – Sex and the City with testosterone and towel flicking where the handbags and shoes used to be, if you will. My friend Mark, who’s kindly intentioned towards my literary aspirations, commented in passing last week that I might be best suited as a memoirist. He quoted a blog piece I wrote a few years ago in which I described attempting to attend two events back-to-back on a sticky summer afternoon: a by-invitation-only underwear party packed with hot boy-next-door types, and a female colleague’s engagement party packed with conservative pearl-wearing relatives of the groom. The piece was, Mark said, my best work yet: funny, perceptive, poignant, and above all, expressing my authentic self.

I explained to Mark that I’d removed the post from my blog, largely over concerns that it would be read by family, workmates or friends to whom I didn’t want to be seen as That Kind of Boy. Mark commented, kindly but firmly, that this was a cop-out, and that I owed it to myself, my readership, my readers-to-be and the citizenry at large (especially those who’d never been to an underwear party) to speak my own truth.

Therein lies in a nutshell the enduring power of personal testimony, both as a literary form and as a political statement. Personal narratives persist, despite all the naysayers who claim that social media is making us dangerously solipsistic and unable to connect with each other. Ash Beckham’s marvelous TED Talk on coming out scuppers the naysayers definitively. What could be more powerful and carry more potential for inspiring change than a spunky coffee-making lesbian speaking her truth in an online forum that’s bounced into living rooms bedrooms and closets all over the world?

We still need our fictions, our storytellers and our dreamers. For a writer, fiction is often a useful way of taking our uncomfortable truths, clarifying them with the benefit of a little time and distance, and transfiguring them into something poetic and transcendent. I’m reminded especially of Oscar Wilde, the great flaming pimp daddy of queer consciousness, whose elegantly phrased epigrams in The Importance of Being Earnest present ideas of startling authenticity amid a froth of dazzling artifice.

We also need the Ash Beckhams of the world, who with wit, truth and beauty, speak their own truths. For LGBTQ folk, the coming out narrative is our community’s foundational document – the gay Magna Carta – in which we define ourselves, take a stand against the authority figures in our past who told us that we’re unnatural, and shine a light on the toxic shame that we’ve accrued around our understandings of ourselves. We continue to tell these stories to build connections between ourselves and our LGBTQ comrades, to encourage empathy from our straight friends, and to inspire others to find the courage to speak their own truths.

The consequences of speaking our truths are often uncertain. Ash refers to “throwing a grenade”, which feels appropriate. A grenade makes a lot of noise and lands with a bang (we hope), but as we never know exactly where it will land, we’re unsure as to who it might hit or how much damage it might do.

Sometimes, as with Ash’s delicious wedding story, the grenade turns into fairy dust and reveals acceptance where we had expected to encounter only hatred. At other times, it unleashes all the monsters that we feared might be hiding outside the closet door. (At this point in history, it’s hopefully clear to all concerned that homophobia doesn’t just exist inside the heads of closeted gay people. It lives in the real world – see Uganda, Russia, Alabama, Arizona et al for further details).

It’s this unpredictability that makes launching a grenade scary, and keeps many of us in our closets for what seems like inordinately long periods of our lives. If you’re potentially going to be faced with social ostracism, physical attack, jail and possible death, why wouldn’t you stay in the closet? Ikea and Muji do wonderful things with modular shelving in cramped places.

So why speak our truths at all? Because, as Ash states so powerfully, the closet is no place for anyone to live. Failure to speak our truths will more likely than not end with our own destruction. “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance,” Wilde wrote in An Ideal Husband. By speaking our truths, in coming out narratives or in any other difficult conversation, we’re loving ourselves just a little more, and ensuring our own survival and happiness for another day.

I’m still unsure exactly what to do with my party blog. It’s part of my sexual coming-of-age narrative, but I’m still thinking about whether it’s a grenade I want to relaunch into the world. Wherever it ends up, I’m grateful to Ash and Mark and all the other grenade throwers, for encouraging me to keep it real (or, as Wilde would say, to continue to be earnest).

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