Coming out of the closet, even just a few years ago, was perhaps a little less complicated because of the absence of something that’s vital to a new generation: social media. In his new documentary, Coming Out, filmmaker Alden Peters captures on camera his experience of sharing the news that he’s gay with his family and friends, and how social media played a big part. In a phone interview with Alden on September 28, I asked him about an aspect that may be unfamiliar for previous generations.
With his film, he said, “We have this digital umbrella of being closeted, coming out and then afterwards finding a community and finding answers to questions.” He describes a scene where he’s coming out on Facebook. “That might seem like no big deal, it’s just changing your status. But really that implies you’re taking very personal information and making it very public. The hesitation there is, who do I think should know this about me? Why is this important for someone to know that I’m gay before I meet them, when it’s really something I want to share person to person?”
Did he receive any backlash for coming out on social media? “No. When I came out on Facebook in 2012, it was the tipping point for my generation. If anyone had any negative thoughts or reactions, they didn’t feel comfortable saying it directly to me. There was overwhelmingly positive reaction.” However, he said, “There is still plenty of very openly homophobic, transphobic stuff being posted, just not posted at me or somebody, but posted out to the world. These are the people I had to ask if I wanted to know I was gay.”
When watching Coming Out, you realize how overwhelmingly positive everyone appeared as Alden told them he was gay. I had to ask him if there were any less positive reactions that didn’t make it into the film. “Yeah, there were a few people for whom this information was more difficult to process, people who reacted negatively, whom I no longer speak with. It did end some relationships. Some of those things happened on camera, some of them off camera. Ultimately, they didn’t want to participate in the project because they weren’t supportive.”
In the film, Alden saves for last talking to his father. I asked him whose reaction surprised him the most. Sure enough, it was his dad. “That was the one I was most nervous about, the one I was most unsure about how he was going to react. His reaction was very wonderful and I didn’t see it coming at all. And my brother, who’s kind of this ‘bro-y’ figure, all ‘Dude’ and talking about gay kids at school, his reaction surprised me also.”
I’ve always wondered in reality shows, how much is scripted or planned. I asked Alden about the technical aspect of making Coming Out. Did he tell people ahead of time he was going to be filming? He’s depicted as someone who grew up making films all the time, so was it not a surprise for them? (Really, I wanted to know if the fact that people were being filmed might create some less than genuine reactions.) He said, “I think in any documentary film when there’s a camera there, it certainly changes reality. That’s just part of making a film out of real life.
“For this film, though, there’s a few things that my team and I did to make sure those reactions were as genuine as possible, that the reactions were on the news that I was sharing and not on the cameras that were present.” Yes, his entire family’s experience with camcorders and filming holidays, vacations, etc. made it all plausible to do in the first place. “Then, what we did to make sure before I came out to anybody, was four, five to six days of filming with them before bringing up this news, to make sure everyone was comfortable.”
Post-coming out in the film, Alden is very conscientious about his next steps, as if there’s a roadmap or plan for where to go or what to do next. Incorporating discussions with developmental psychologist Dr. Ritch Savi-Williams, journalist Zach Stafford and sociologist Greg Hinckley, Coming Out leaves the audience wondering what Alden experienced afterwards. I asked him to share a couple of things he learned at this point in his process.
“The coming out process can be a really, really awesome one for some of us who do it because it can be the first time you really question and challenge and reject the socially-constructed norms… the way that we are supposed to be and the thing that is the ideal. You’re stating that you’re different than that; I’m declaring that I am. The coming out process can hopefully be the start of a continuation of questioning other social norms. It’s all the same issue at its heart, whether it’s racism, whether it’s homophobia, whether it’s transphobia.
“Some people come out and try to assimilate into a new norm as much as possible. I think in terms of identification with the community, that’s where the film ends also, with where do I fit in. That’s part of meeting people, experiencing the community, finding the right community for you, and that process has certainly continued.” This comment reminded me of a part of the film where Alden goes to a gay club for the first time and doesn’t feel like he belongs. I asked him now, over two years later, if has he found a place where he’s comfortable and where he belongs.
“I’ve definitely found where I belong and I think that comes from having gay friends. Up until that point in the coming out process, I didn’t have any gay friends or very many gay people to talk to, and that’s what made becoming part of this community so challenging. Once that happened and I became part of a family, that’s when I started getting involved… going to meetings, volunteering. That really made me feel like I was a part of the community.”
I recommend Alden’s film, Coming Out, as a positive example of what can happen when someone is honest with him or herself and decides to be honest in public. Even though there were some negative reactions that we don’t see, Alden experienced some phenomena that are probably more common than you’d think. First, the process is not going to be as bad as you fear. Some people will genuinely surprise you. Second, many of the people you tell will already know, or suspect, so you’re not really surprising them at all.
That’s not saying the process wouldn’t be awkward. However, Alden has shared something deeply personal, not just with friends and family, but also with the world, that could inspire somebody, somewhere, sometime. You can watch Coming Out yourself on October 4 when Wolfe Video releases it on DVD and VOD (iTunes, Vimeo and WolfeOnDemand.com). It’s an emotional, involving film for not only anyone thinking about coming out, but also for those who may find themselves on the other side of the conversation.