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Out and About : OUTING YOURSELF: How to Come Out as Lesbian or Gay to Your Family, Your Friends, and Your Coworkers, By Michelangelo Signorile (Random House : $20; 208 pp.)

June 25, 1995|Torie Osborn | Torie Osborn is the former director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center

"Outing Yourself" is a self-help manual, a 14-step program to guide gay men and lesbians along the coming-out journey. Given the forever-burgeoning self-help industry, this book was inevitable.

The big surprise, though, is that its author is none other than the "king of outing" himself, Michelangelo Signorile, recently seen snarling in now-defunct Outweek magazine about Malcolm Forbes' late-night gay partying and on talk-shows promoting his first book, "Queer in America." That work was an in-your-face, sensationalistic queer battle plan. It delved deeply into the firmly sealed closets of Hollywood and Washington, D.C., prying open some anonymously (like the prominent Democratic senator who recently resigned) and others quite brazenly (like record mogul David Geffen). In the late '80s, Signorile practically invented involuntary coming out--outing--and it was Signorile who outed a prominent assistant secretary of defense.

With this book, Signorile totally reinvents himself. Except for the militant edge to the title, this book is simple and sweet, and also, unfortunately, at times simplistic and self-righteous. It is aimed not at activists but at ordinary lesbians and gay men engaging in day-to-day struggles to accept themselves and be honest with families and colleagues.

This is still important stuff, old story that it is. Like psychologist Don Clark's seminal 1978 book, "Growing Up Gay," and Rob Eichberg's 1990 "Coming Out," Signorile's new book does a service simply by updating the crucial coming-out issue and analyzing, demystifying and reframing it in a contemporary way appropriate to these complex times. Signorile's foundation is confident and muscular: Homophobia, he maintains, is the disease, not homosexuality, and coming out is a big part of the cure.

Most impressive, however, is how accessible and readable "Outing Yourself" is, beginning with the hands-across-the-generations foreword by L.A. dowager lesbian psychologist, Dr. Betty Berzon. The book's tone is gentle, chatty, and warm; often it's illustrated with touching stories: 16-year-old Reed from Brooklyn who, not allowed to travel to Manhattan, discovered a gay world on-line and then came out to his parents. Or 33-year-old Julie, an African-American closeted lesbian who attempted suicide, who finally came out and discovered a "world where there are people just like you, where people do accept you. . . . You just have to find it."

In a world where authenticity seems scarce and a terrible disconnect exists between much political rhetoric (of the left and right) and our everyday realities, this book's grounded simplicity is refreshing. I think of Ted, an energetic, leather-clad, self-identified "queer campus activist" I met last year. He seemed embarrassed as he anxiously pulled me aside after a lecture, and confided that his most pressing questions were "only" about coming out to his parents. Twenty-five years after the Stonewall riots ignited the modern gay rights movement, coming out remains the core issue facing and unifying lesbians and gay men.

On the other hand, "Outing Yourself" goes over the top in its attempt to rigidly codify the complex, life-long process of coming out into a tidy, linear, finite plan. Even though Signorile stipulates that his 14 steps could take six months or 16 years, his insistence that there is only one correct order for these steps (first tell yourself, then friends--gay, then straight--family, co-workers . . . ), as well as his periodic pedantic tone, are annoying: "Parents should be told together," he asserts. Oh, really? An overwhelming majority of the gay people I've met in 25 years of activism strategically approached one parent first, and it worked out fine.

The book gets downright silly in some places. At the end of his discussion of "Step 7: Coming Out to Other Friends," Signorile asserts like some righteous hypnotist: "You are now comfortable about being gay in both gay and straight social settings. You no longer feel you have to hide." As if, presto!, the daily dealings with prejudice and self-loathing magically vanish after one comes out to a straight friend or two! The gay and lesbian coming-out process is far more complicated, and, Signorile diminishes the extraordinary daily heroism of ordinary gay people by not acknowledging just how constant, how confusing, how complicated it is.

I've been "out" for 23 years and that cunning closet can still wrap itself around me like a dark tent if a random social encounter catches me off guard. No; until far more widespread social change happens, instant self-esteem-building epiphanies like "Outing Yourself" will have limited durability.

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