Coming Out in a Small Town
National Coming Out Day (U.S.) was Sunday, October 11 2015. Created by the Human Rights Campaign in 1988, this day was designed to support LGBTQ people and their allies in becoming more visible, with an optimistic promise of improved acceptance. In honor of this, I sat down with my friend and colleague, George Dukes III. George is one of the principal board members of North Star, the local LGBTQ center in Winston-Salem, NC. George knows what it’s like to come out as a gay man in a small, Southern, largely conservative town. The following interview includes his guidance for other gay people who find themselves in a similar situation.
L.J. Kelley: Did you always know you were gay? How old were you when you realized you were different?
George Dukes: I didn’t always know I was gay, but that was mainly when I was really young. I realized I was different around age 10.
L.J.: How old were you when you came out?
G.D.: I got ‘outed’ to my mother when she came across some strong clues at my apartment in college, about the age of 20. It didn’t go well; she was very conservative and very adherent to Southern Baptist teachings. She chose, though, to ignore it rather than discuss it; something she refused to do until her death regardless of my repeated tries to have a discussion about it.
I never got the opportunity to tell my father as he was killed in a car accident before I found the courage to tell him.
Otherwise, I started being fully out in my mid-30’s; I know to some that may be late, but we all come out in our own time.
L.J.: What was/is the scariest thing for you about telling people you are gay?
G.D.: The scariest thing for me telling people that I’m gay is not knowing exactly how they’ll react. While most of the time the reaction is positive or neutral; there have been times I’ve been told that I’m “going to hell” or I “will die from HIV” or another STD.
L.J.: Did you try to hide being gay for any length of time?
G.D.: I did try to hide it through most of my 20’s. I had watched others who had the courage to come-out be bullied and harassed in high school, beaten in gym class, and some who had been sent to reparative therapy. I was out to a select group of friends in college and through the rest of my 20’s but living in a small conservative mountain town at that time, it was not something I wanted to advertise.
L.J.: Do you have any advice for young gay people growing up in smaller, conservative towns?
G.D.: First off to stay strong. Smaller, conservative towns are usually not welcoming or safe spaces for LGBTQ youth or adults for that matter. With popular culture today many teens are eager to ‘come-out’ to their friends and family. I tell them they need to keep in mind a few things:
- Will my family accept me if I come out as LGBTQ?
- If yes, will they be supportive?
- If no, will they cause you mental anguish (bullying/harassment/verbal abuse including sending you to reparative therapy programs)?
- If no, will they immediately throw you out of their house?
- If you feel they will throw you out of their house; Do you have the means to support yourself or do you have somewhere safe to go LONG TERM if you’re thrown out? Too many LGBTQ youth end up homeless in unfamiliar urban areas where they fall into drug-use or getting involved in prostitution (which leads to exposure to HIV/STI’s), being taken advantage of by others, or other dangers.
- Look for regional LGBTQ/Diversity Centers or LGBTQ Youth programs. Some have outreach into surrounding communities or can help you get in touch with people that you can talk to. There are also national organizations with very informative websites which have 1-800 support lines (the GLBT National Hotline number is 1-888-843-4564). Do these searches where your parents won’t be able to review your search history and make calls from numbers your parents can’t review.
- If you have a close friend that you’re already ‘out’ to; talk to them when you’re feeling the most challenged.
- If you are in an environment where expressing your orientation or gender identity puts you in danger of harm; consider toning your expression down. I hate saying that, because I truly want everyone to be who they are, but I’m most concerned about the individual’s safety in their current situation. Always be aware of your surroundings. If you feel unsafe, get to somewhere that is more public and feels safer to you. This is true not only in small towns but just a rule in general.
- If you feel that your family and friends would accept you; take small steps towards coming out and gauge their reaction. Maybe just bringing up current topics related to the LGBTQ Community or discussing a LGBTQ character in popular media. If you can use that to start a dialogue; you may help break the ice to the ‘coming out’ discussion.
- If your family/friends do accept and support you for being LGBTQ, start being an advocate for change in your community along with your family/friends. Sometimes it takes knowing someone and their challenges for people’s opinions to change.
L.J.: What inspired you to start North Star?
G.D.: I’m not the founder of North Star; Teresa Carter is. I took over as Board Chair in January of this year. What has inspired me to become so heavily involved and invested in the center is that there are so many in the LGBTQ Community who need a safe and accepting place as a refuge and guidance as they make their way through life. Being LGBTQ adds challenges to our lives regarding relationships, employment, health-care, education, housing, and more. One of North Star’s goals is to help educate the local community to help empower them in their journey by offering support groups, classes, fellowship, and resources to the Triad area LGBTQ community.
Seeing the emails from area parents, school counselors, and those in the LGBTQ community wanting to help others who are struggling with their orientation/gender identity as well as just their life struggles with being LGBTQ demonstrates the needs for North Star in the Triad area.
L.J.: What is your vision for North Star’s future?
G.D.: I would like to see North Star grow into a true regional LGBTQ hub, serving all the Triad area counties with hopefully support groups and activities. I also see us bringing all the area high schools together to help strengthen the GSA (Gay Student Union) groups in the schools and helping those students become a true force with a voice in the community. Senior issues are also a growing part of our vision.
In ten years’ time, I’d like to see North Star to have expanded to 2-3 locations, working with other accepting and affirming organizations to offer a wide selection of programs and groups easily accessible to all in the LGBTQ community. I also hope that we’ve partnered with other LGBTQ organizations in the area/state to help get a LGBTQ youth homeless shelter started to deal with the ever-growing issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness.
L.J.: Any final thoughts?
G.D.: While we’re still a young organization; we’re envisioning a big and bright future. Winston-Salem and the other major Cities of the Triad (Greensboro, NC and High Point, NC) are generally accepting areas for the LGBTQ community. However, that drastically changes when you get into the outlying counties and rural areas. We need to help support the entire region to become an accepting place for all. Only through being visible and supporting our diverse population in the Triad region will we be able to achieve this. We’ve gotten a good start, but there is much more work to do…
L.J: Thank you so much, George, for taking the time to answer our questions and give some advice for our LGBTQ youth or anyone of any age struggling to come out. Story64 wishes North Star much success!
**To learn more about North Star, please visit http://www.northstarlgbtcc.com/
Other LGBTQ resources:
GLBT National Help Center http://www.glbthotline.org/hotline.html
The Trevor Project http://www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/local-resources