Q&A: Filmmaker Captures Reactions of His Family and Friends in Coming Out Doc
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In his directorial debut, Coming Out, Alden Peters tackles an issue that seems to be losing some of its relevance these days with the younger millennial generation — officially coming out as gay.
The documentary will be released worldwide, via Wolfe Video on Oct. 4 on VOD, across all digital platforms, including iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, and WolfeOnDemand.com, and will also be available on same date in the U.S. and Canada on DVD, via Wolfe Video and many major retailers. A shorter, appropriate version is available for high schools from WolfeOnDemand.
More and more, we are experiencing a younger generation of LGBTQ folks who don’t make official coming out announcements about their sexuality or gender identity, but rather make a choice to begin to live out their truths organically and hope everyone around them will catch up or bugger off. As consciousness shifts to the normativity of homosexuality and trans identities, seemingly, so does acceptance.
Of course, it still has a lot of shifting to do and even though in North America, the Canadian and U.S. governments have legalized gay marriage and LGBT folks can be in the Army; it doesn’t mean that in the private homes of younger folks everywhere that the very real consequence of uttering the words “I’m gay/transgender” could mean you become homeless, that you are subjected to violence, that you are ridiculed, that you are at risk of suicide or even, that you are sent to a conversion camp so that you can be “fixed.”
When I came out at 17, which was in 1991, coming out was a right of passage in the LGBTQ community. We all had our story. In fact, when you met someone else who was gay, it was usually one of the first questions you’d ask “When did you come out?” followed by “Did your parents and friends accept you?” It was a big deal. Such a big deal that when Ellen Degeneres came out on her sitcom Ellen in 1998, all us gays rallied around the TV set and sat with a glow in our hearts and pride in our bones. That is, until the show’s ratings started to decline due to “too much gay content” and Ellen was cancelled, leaving Degeneres the first person to ever officially come out as gay on a TV sitcom and the first gay woman to lose her show because she came out as gay on a TV sitcom. She was without real work for five years after her coming out in real life as well.
It was a huge realization in how far we had to go to be seen as people deserving of equal rights and societal respect and how homophobia could destroy a person’s career and life overall. They were different times.
I came out twice, first as a lesbian and then as a transgender man. Both were horrifying experiences for which I completely expected to be abandoned by family and friends. In both circumstances, I completely misjudged the outcome. I was one of the lucky ones. I was accepted, loved and supported. I had a few bumps with some people, but nothing that I would deem traumatic or that had such an immense impact on me that it left me not feeling grounded in my truth. Not all my friends were that lucky.
I knew a trans woman who had come out to her family at 19 and her father kicked her out of the house the same night. She ended up sleeping on park benches and community centers until she found help. Her mother and sister wanted to speak to her, but feared the father would find out, so they abandoned her as well.
I also knew a young gay man who had left his small Northern Ontario town and moved to Toronto because his parents didn’t want him to be the talk of the town and embarrass them, as the town had discovered his big gay secret. He was my neighbour for about a year. He used to drink a lot and would self-deprecatingly call himself “the faggot.” I woke up one morning to walk my dog and there was an ambulance outside our building. He had killed himself that night.
These were some of the consequences of coming out as gay when I was younger and seemingly, still the consequences for some present day, even if it has become safer and more widely accepted to be gay or trans.
Coming Out documents Peters’ own coming out to his family and friends and through his personal narrative, you come across many of the elements of what many gay people face in their own struggle. You see Peters as a child, in family home videos, dressed up in feminine garb, mom’s high heels and being flamboyant as he performs in drag, essentially. Then, as an adult, he expresses how he was hindered in coming to his truth because although he was starting to realize he was gay, he didn’t identify with the gay community.
Although a personal documentary, this film hits a universal nerve in its delivery and even though Peters focuses on many of the positive coming out stories all over YouTube by younger folks, he doesn’t completely shy away from those that did not have a positive outcome.
Peters currently lives in New York City. I spoke to him for Samaritanmag about his experience and why he felt it was important as a filmmaker to document his coming out as gay.
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched the Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Shmidt. There is this hilarious, yet very stereotypically flamboyant gay man named Titus Andromendon. He abandoned his wife at their wedding reception to move to New York to live as a gay man, but he never had a chance to actually have an official coming out, so when he meets his new beefy Italian construction worker boyfriend who decides he needs to come out to his family, Titus, who has a penchant for the dramatic, revels in what he feels will be the hysterics of a Roman Catholic family hearing that their butch son is a homosexual. He even has a dramatic monologue prepared that is geared towards them not accepting him. When his boyfriend finally lays it on the table, his family is completely accepting; there is no drama. The result is Titus feeling ripped off because he didn’t get his dramatic scene and that he missed his window to his right of passage as a gay man. It seems that more and more, being gay specifically is becoming more widely accepted. There was something that you touched on your film, that many people don’t have official “coming out” stories. It seems many allow themselves to move into their truth and see where it goes without official announcements. Why did you feel the need to have your own official coming out? Was it necessary for you to feel it was official so that you could move forward?
For me, it felt like it was momentous and that’s why I felt like it required doing something like that. For me, it wasn’t simply being gay and just telling family members because they didn’t know. I was actually very actively trying to repress it for a long time. Trying to be straight for as long as possible. And so to counteract that, I felt like it was going to take a big moment. So that’s partially why it was something big because it was, for me personally. And then in terms of why I wanted to do a film, I was watching a lot of coming out stories online. There was a few of people coming out live on the phone or something, but when I started looking for a documentary or something that showed the whole process on camera over the span of years so I could get a sense of what was about to occur, it wasn’t there. It didn’t exist. I was in film school at the time and I thought I was already filming everything with my family on holidays, vacations anyway that I could potentially just film my own coming out process and turn it into that film that I really wanted to see.
You mentioned in the film that you used the filming of your coming out to make you feel less vulnerable. Did it actually help? Did you in fact feel less vulnerable or were you as horrified as you think you might’ve been had the cameras not been around?
There is no way I could have ever done it without the camera. Guaranteed. I think for a couple of reasons. One was, the camera’s there, the sound was recording, everything was set up. It was like I didn’t know when I was going to get this family member or friend on camera like this again so I had to do it, whereas if that wasn’t part of it, I probably would have said, “Oh, I’ll wait ‘till tomorrow” or there will be a better time to tell them, and who knows how long it would have taken. So it forced me to actually say it. And then, it also subsequently forced us to have a lot of conversations for the sake of having them on camera for a film that really put it in a pressure cooker and made these things happen faster. If it wasn’t for the film, I could’ve come out and then tried to ignore it for as long as possible and not have wanted to revisit it, but instead I was reprocessing and wanting to continue the conversation. And the second reason why it was really helpful was because I didn’t know how anybody was going to react and I could potentially lose somebody very significant by saying that and by telling them that I’m gay. So having a camera there made it a lot less vulnerable for me because it gave me a little more power in that scenario, whereas if somebody had disowned me, like a family member, at least I have footage of it. No matter what happens after, I was getting something out of the situation from either a supportive family member or good footage, I guess.
That was going to be the second part of my question, which is being able to use the process of filming their reaction as a way to check people on their action and to be more thoughtful of their reaction because if they’re caught on camera, basically being homophobic, that’s something they will have to carry themselves. Do you think that your choice to do it this way is specifically because film is your medium or do you think you would have chosen to film people either way?
It’s definitely because it was my medium. It’s the way that I express myself the best. I am a filmmaker, I studied film, and it’s what I do. But I’m just like, I don’t speak as well, or write or convey myself as well, as I would if I’m making a film. That’s just how I think about things. I think about them through a camera lens so that’s why it definitely happened in this way.
You had these videos of these younger folks on YouTube coming out to family and in context to how you did it as well, there seems to be an element of trying to document it to keep yourself safe. If you had to give advice to other people in how to safely come out, and as some of the YouTube videos show in your film, not everyone has a positive experience, what would you say is the safest way for younger folks to come out to family and friends?
It’s very tough because as you know, everybody’s situation is very different and I don’t think there’s much blanket advice you can really give other than find somebody who is supportive and start there. Have a rock and a foundation just in case, whether that be a friend or a gay/straight alliance group at your school. I think generally that’s safe advice to give to anybody, to first find that one person that you know is going to be supportive and can help you through the rest. For me, it was my older brother. I told him first. I knew that he would respond well and he was really there throughout the whole process. Other than that, some of the best advice I got, in the film I’m talking to Greg Hinckley, the sociologist, and I ask him a similar question, what do I do? And his answer was, “The first thing you need to do is stop asking people what you need to do and figure it out for yourself.” And in this context, that sounds like tough love, but it’s one of those personal processes and it’s so specific to you and to your family and to your community that it’s you having to navigate that in the way that you know is best.
I loved your brother’s reaction and I also loved that there’s this beautiful moment where he tells you that he has never felt as close to you as he did in the moment when you told him you were gay. Would you say that in not being open about your own sexuality or someone else not being open in their own, that there’s no capacity to be fully genuine or do you think there’s possibility to be genuine even if your sexuality is closeted?
Oh, I certainly think that it’s possible to be closeted and genuine in other contexts. At least I would like to believe that. I don’t know. I’ll ask my family. I could be wrong. But I’d like to believe that I was generally a decent person before coming out and that I wasn’t completely terrible until then (laughs). But on the flipside of that too, there is so much more depth to, from my experience anyway, to compassion and my understanding of others and patience that I just didn’t really have before, I don’t think in the same way. So I think I was more or less genuine; it’s just in this one specific aspect, I was not.
I came out twice to my family. Firstly as a lesbian when I was 17 and then again as a trans man when I was 32 and I honestly got reactions I was not expecting. Meaning, that I was expecting the worst and I honestly don’t know why. Perhaps it was my fear guiding me, but my family and friends were all amazing and accepting. You mentioned in one part of the film, towards the end, that you remember the horror you felt by the thought of telling your loved ones. What were you expecting from your family and friends? Did you have any scenarios in your mind that you had conjured up when you told your parents that kept you from moving forward and telling them? Was that horror present and was it released as soon as you realized that they were all ok with it? Were you expecting something different?
I didn’t really know much of what to expect. I was worried for sure and most of my predictions of how people would react were the opposite. So those that I thought would not necessarily have a completely catastrophic reaction — but even certain friends on and off camera, who I assumed would be totally fine with it, took a lot longer to process than I would have assumed, than those that I thought would immediately need more time — were immediately supportive. So it was difficult to predict and part of that reason was that the only stories that I had heard were negative ones. The coming out narratives that float to the surface tend to be really, really traumatic ones and for good reason because it’s still a huge deal. Kids getting disowned, taking their own lives, getting bullied. These things are still going on, so it’s good that we’re telling those stories, but one of the unintended consequence of that was that I just assumed that was the norm. That by coming out that therefore meant that somebody was going to disown me and I was going to lose somebody close because that’s what goes hand in hand with the process. So that was certainly a surprise. It wasn’t an immediate relief though because in those moments I was in such a daze of emotion that it didn’t quite settle until months later watching footage of it really, that I was able to reexamine what I was going through at the time.
And you can see it. From the beginning to the end, and I don’t know if you saw this in yourself but there’s a vibe about you, an energy about you that you can see that transformation from dark to light. At the end, you can see how you are shining through, something I found really impactful.
My favorite thing though is going when it’s playing at film festivals and showing up at the end. I never do introductions for that very reason, so that the first time people see me I go onstage and from the person that you see at the end of the film to the person you see now, is another huge leap. I always find that really fun that the story continues, even after we stop filming.
Absolutely. It’s transformative to become your genuine self. There’s one more thing that I’d really love to touch on because it really resonated with me as a trans man and the trans community. You made a statement that you felt like you were “gay by default,” but that you never truly identified with the gay community. Do you feel since coming out that that has changed for you or do you still feel as though you’re on the periphery of the gay community?
No, that’s absolutely changed and the reason for that is just more experience, that when I was on the outside looking in, I was saying “the gay community;” I wasn’t saying or even acknowledging that we were an LGBTQ community, that we are a coalition of communities and within each of our communities there are subsets within those; it seemed just like this behemoth monoculture, which rises to the surface of the queer community in general and that was something specifically that I didn’t identify with, but I live in New York, and I‘m really lucky to be in such an accepting space for the LGBTQ for the most part, that I could find friends and a community that I am really close to and am absolutely a part of. But that’s just time and that took experience and that also took coming in to my own and figuring out who I was, not just necessarily as identifying as gay. This process of your identity and who you are is just this ongoing recurring process throughout life and, in ways that have nothing to do with my sexuality, I have learned more about myself since then, and that has helped facilitate better relationships with the community, with friends and with myself.
Beyond your own personally journey being documented, because there was more in this film than that, what would you like this film to accomplish for others?
Very specifically, I’m hoping that this film can be used to challenge the notion of certain parents, especially, that think it is okay to disown your child for being queer in any kind of way. I experienced this; the film premiered in Utah. It was my first realization or inclination that the film could do this because I was very worried that it’s a positive film; it’s uplifting; it’s funny; I am a white cisgender gay male and there’s no way that this film could really do much — until I was hearing from people in Utah that there was nothing that was challenging their thinking and that that was okay and that when we talk about these negative coming out stories too — and we need to be talking about them and I absolutely would never say that we shouldn’t be — but also that positive stories have a place too because they can specifically challenge that notion. That if that parent can see a family embracing their child and growing stronger because of it, they might think, “Huh, I guess that’s a possibility.” So I’m hoping that the film can do that. Also, there’s a shortened version on the DVD that’s censored for some content so that it can be played in high schools, and that’s available on WolfeVideo.com and all the streaming information is there too, but I think that’s it’s important for not just queer youth and their families but for straight kids as young as possible to learn something about this experience in a way that’s funny and light hearted because the film is. And it’s a way to plant a seed for compassion later in life just by understanding one of the foundational parts of our experience in the LGBTQ community.
I know I don’t know you, but I wanted to say that I’m proud of you and I think it’s wonderful that you did this for yourself.
Oh wow. Thank you so much. That’s one of the most wonderful compliments I could receive.
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