I came out as gay for the first time in 1991 to my best friends in Rome, Italy, when I was 14. As of today, in 2021, I have been coming out to people for 30 years. I feel it’s time to come out to you too, as a person and a business owner.
Let’s start with my own coming out, then let’s expand to the topic of coming out more broadly.
What was my coming out like?
There is no one coming out I can talk about. I’ve started coming out to individuals in my social group and at work since I was 14.
I always knew I was attracted to men, and some of my earliest memories include a gay viewpoint. So my trouble wasn’t about understanding what I wanted. Instead, I lacked any model or example.
I had two possible models. There were societal norms based on the Italian f-word widely used by anyone in Rome. The f-word is used so widely that, at times, it’s hard to avoid using it negatively even as a queer person.
The second model was looking at the media. And the only out fictional character coming from the media at the time were Ugo Tognazzi and his partner Michel Serrault in Il Vizietto (La Cage Aux Folles in original, “the little vice” literally in Italian). But Tognazzi and Serrault are called to portray a camp, effeminate, and over-the-top caricature of gayness. I couldn’t identify with it as an angsty teenager wearing all black and listening to metal and grunge.
I was living between these two extremes. I neither wanted to be a slur, neither effeminate and flamboyant.
At age 13 I knew for sure I liked boys, but I was also quite certain I wasn’t gay (as not f-word gay neither flamboyant gay). I thought I was one of a kind. So there was no category for me. Without a category, there was no coming out to do. I didn’t belong. At all.
At age 14, I found a book. It was called “Boys that love boys” (Ragazzi che amano ragazzi, Piergiorgio Paterlini, Feltrinelli). The author had compiled a list of interviews of gay adolescents. Each story was only a few pages long and sometimes told of hardship, sometimes of love and companionship, often of both. It’s been 30 years since I read this book.
It changed my life. I existed. I was a “boy that loved boys.” Paterlini gave me someone to identify with. A current reference in society, an anchor, a navigation point to identify myself. I discovered that I could be gay, without being old, flamboyant, and effeminate. I could be a gay kid. And I used this knowledge to come out to my peers.
It was fun, and everyone was super understanding. Even proud that their friend was gay. A few friends rejected the notion, as if they wanted to be friends with straight Matteo rather than gay Matteo. With them it was pretty easy for me to pull away.
What’s it like to come out in 2021?
In 2021 it’s not hard to come out in Berlin, Germany. I found myself startled a few times when someone recently assumed I was hetero, and it threw me off balance. I got so used to a non-normative (or maybe homo-normative) environment that the fact that someone could show the “usual” assumptions caught me by surprise.
In 2021 I still expect to find widespread heteronormativity in Rome, Italy. I expect to have to make a more considerable effort to come out in there.
What has your coming out to do with your business?
In 1997 was working in a small and somewhat crazy internet service provider that attracted quite a few outcasts and a certain number of LGBTQI* individuals. I was known internally in my team as the webmistress. This was my first, lighthearted coming out, and it did come with a bit of confrontation from the rest of the company. But nothing that 20-year-old me didn’t thoroughly enjoy.
In 2001 I found myself coming out in a different work environment. I was working at a telco provider called Ipse 2000. I found myself in a room with a male individual using many offensive expletives about gay people, something quite ingrained in male-speak in Italy. The insults weren’t directed at me, maybe at a competitor. The use of the f-word was maybe connected to a soccer team, I can’t remember. My face alone revealed my anger and disappointment at hearing that offensive language in our shiny offices, but I said nothing. Until the person in front of me said, “Why the angry face, are you gay?” where I responded, “Yes.” A long silence followed this.
After that episode, I was a victim of textbook mobbing. I stopped being invited to meetings. I had no work assigned to me. I stopped receiving email from my team, and I was at my desk without anything to do. Mobbing is one of the many shapes of homophobia.
Fortunately, something good came from this homophobic episode. Another team leader noticed the situation and recognized my value. “If you don’t give work to Matteo, I will,” she confronted my homophobic boss, and he didn’t budge. Thank you!
A male homophobic alliance in all my team didn’t allow anyone to speak up for me. Even if straight cis males saw the wrong, they felt they didn’t have the power to break the system. They could not break loyalty to the male pack. A woman leader didn’t have such loyalties. As she saw and experienced misogyny, she understood my plight. Thank god this awful company doesn’t exist anymore, as it was mercifully dismembered at the will of Telefonica.
Following this episode, I didn’t come out publicly at work in my next posting at Warner Bros.. I rather came out to individual colleagues but made sure to be closeted to the highest-ranking individuals.
In the twenty-tens, I was out to all of my social circle, but I still lacked the recognition at work.
Now that I look back, one of the reasons I chose freelancing is not to deal with the office politics of coming out (or not). As a freelancer, I started almost immediately thinking about the concept of coming out. My earliest talk about the topic is dated November 2012. In those years, I started toying with the idea of creating a social media platform for Coming out called OUT as YOU.
This idea developed over the years, and today OUT as YOU is my training on diversity and inclusion.
Why am I coming out today?
I am finally coming out to everyone on my website and on social media for personal and societal reasons.
I feel stronger all around as a person: I have gone through my third psychotherapy, crossed the infamous mid-life crisis, and finally bloomed both as a person and as a professional.
I feel supported by society: I live in a country where gay marriage has been finally recognized into law, where hate crime is being prosecuted (most of the time) and anti-lgbtq propaganda is considered extremist.
I feel supported by the world of business: this year, during pride month, I recognized that embracing diversity and inclusion in the workplace is the norm and not the exception.
I can make more good: I know I can better help LGBTQI* individuals if they know that I am one of them. And that companies can be happy to support an LGBTQI* vendor as part of their diversity work.
What is coming out?
Coming out is the process of revealing something about someone’s identity, choices, or circumstances. Typically coming out has been a tool of the LGBTQI* community to reveal their gender identity and sexual preferences.
You might be revealing something as intimate as our gender identity: exposing oneself as non-binary or trans. Or your sexual preferences: telling if you’re gay, lesbian, asexual, or queer.
You can also use coming out to talk about how you feel about anything intimate about you, such as a medical, mental health issue, or an invisible disability. You can also playfully come out about something simply odd, unexpected, or anti-stereotypical.
Coming out doesn’t require acceptance, praise, or understanding from the counterpart. It can be a simple broadcast message from me to you: “I’m gay, deal with it!” is a legitimate way of coming out.
Ideally, you wish to find a warm, caring, and understanding reaction from the people you are coming out to. Coming out at my high school in Rome, Italy, in 1991 would require me to endure years of charged insults, and that’s why I didn’t come out at the time.
Even though a confrontational coming out is as legitimate and proper as a smooth one, preparing the ground for coming out is very important. The media, artistic works, and societal norms can influence the effects of your coming out. For instance, talking about a third party who is trans* can help you understand if your counterpart is ready to hear that you’re not cisgender.
Where does coming out begin?
Self-exploration about one’s identity and desires is the first step to coming out.
LGBTQI* individuals notice how their interests, desires, and expectations diverge from the norm exposed by the society around them.
As we transition into a more open, accepting, and varied society, this process can become easier. Suppose I have around positive models expressing all the ranges of identity and attraction. In that case, I can use these models to understand if they match my own identity.
Why is coming out important?
You can’t solve a problem you can’t see. Visibility is the only way to challenge the norms and start creating a more inclusive world.
To understand your issues, I need to know who you are. While your skin color and ethnic background might be immediately visible, I still need to learn what stories these bring with them. I need to hear about your experience.
Suppose I don’t know that you’re lesbian. In that case, I have no way of hearing or understanding the difficulties that you may encounter. Suppose I don’t know that black trans* people exist. In that case, I can’t acknowledge that they are one of the groups with the lowest life expectancy in western society.
Coming out sheds light where it’s needed the most. Provides visibility to the person and to the issue. Coming out will be socially disruptive until we have discriminatory norms.
What is a successful coming out?
A voice. All that is needed for a successful coming out is for the person coming out to have a voice, to speak up.
For instance, the person coming out could explain the process that led them to identify as non-binary and, where needed, even explain the concept.
Being accepted is a plus. Coming out can end when your counterpart has heard what you said, even if they have no intention of accepting it.
Why is coming out always different?
Circumstances change. Everyone can have their reaction to our coming out. From dancing at a bar to waking to the train, the values, norms, and risk factors change dramatically.
Each time I come out, I use a different language, use different assumptions, and use an appropriate tone to my counterpart.
I also change every minute. I might feel and see myself differently from one moment to the other and thus would use different words to describe myself.
If I come out to a hot guy, I will be flirty and explicit. In contrast, if I come out to a business connection, I will be argumentative and thoughtful.
Can being single hinder your coming out?
When I was in my teens, I always thought that the key to coming out was introducing to the world my gorgeous boyfriend.
In the current heteronormative society, a single man has kept his option open; a single woman is a failed person. The same goes with having children: the childless man has invested his time and resources in his projects, the childless woman has failed at their mission in life.
Wouldn’t any of that misogynistic shit trickle-down for us gays to enjoy? But yes. Indeed presenting a tall, white, rich boyfriend makes any coming out more successful.
Indeed being single can hinder coming out, and every single LGBTQ* person should stomp on this normative behavior and be proud of who they are regardless.
Does coming out ever end?
Coming out may end when we stop trying to put each other into boxes all the time. Suppose we achieve an utterly fluid society where everyone assumes nothing of anyone. In that case, we can also skip coming out and defining ourselves.
Until then, coming out is a daily tool for the well-being of LGBTQ* from their first coming out to the end of their days.
What is coming out in business?
A gay business is much more than a business that caters to the gay community. Bars, clubs, clothing shops, resorts… that’s the visible tip of the iceberg.
Every business needs to be inclusive: not just the doctor, the lawyer or the therapist. We expect attention and inclusion from everyone, from banks, insurances, and airlines.
Businesses have an easy way to become inclusive: they want to attract LGBTQ* employees. That’s good, but it doesn’t end there.
A white gay male leads the biggest company in the world right now (Apple). That’s important. If everyone in a leadership role came out, we would see how diverse the business world is from the inside.
I can’t think of a company led by a trans* person. That’s important too. Not everyone can go the path of Tim Cook, and we (including Tim) should do everything in our power to make sure that diversity doesn’t stop at old white gay guys.
LGBTQI* business owners and leaders can do good for the broad business community when they are out. They are signaling openness not just to doing business in the LGBTQI* community. They express their openness to all facets of diversity and show they know both struggle and success.
This is my way of coming out. With a lot of words and examples, and with much reasoning and a few how-tos. With some heartfelt stories but also with an optimistic outlook.
I know that as a teacher and coach, my best work is yet to come. The less burden I have, the better I can do my work in the future. And not having to hide is a significant step forward.