“It’s a feature-length documentary about coming out of the closet,” I say when people ask me about my film. There’s a smile and nod of mostly feigned interest.
“It’s a personal film,” I add.
Their eyes glaze over. Oh, another gay boy talking about how hard it was to come out, their faces seem to say.
When I came out, I filmed everything live as I told my family and friends, then kept following up with them to see how their opinions would change over time. With hours of VHS tapes from childhood, I have decades documented to sculpt a coming out process that spans my entire life, from the perspectives of my entire family and friends.
I used to watch coming out stories alone in my dorm room. When people talked about coming out, they usually mentioned two basic story points: coming out to yourself, and coming out to others. Some always knew they were gay and had no “moment,” but usually that singular event—the act of saying “I’m gay”—is what people talk about. But what about all that time spent confused and uncertain, searching anonymously online for answers? What about the time I spent wondering if all the connotations of the word “gay” applied to me? Those moments of uncertainty are usually skimmed over in coming out stories.
While I was coming out, I was experiencing those uncertainties. I spent years trying to explain away my gayness, and tried everything I could to act straight. Those years of uncertainty were an integral part of my coming out process: they are the buildup to the moment of finally telling myself, and my family and friends, that I’m gay.
Back then, I wasn’t out to a single person. It was about to be an enormous shift and change in my life. So, what would I do afterward? Once I told everyone, what would come next? That, too, was part of coming out. I could feel it. Yet when I would watch coming out stories, none of these questions were answered, let alone asked.
Then an idea surfaced. I could film my coming out and add these crucial coming out moments to create a documentary film that I desperately craved. I didn’t want to hear people’s thoughts and interpretations told in hindsight, I wanted to see raw, honest moments in real time.
So I created a plan. I started thinking about how I would tell everyone. On the phone? In person? On Facebook? How would I film it all?
Luckily, my family always recorded home movies when I was growing up, so filming them wasn’t inherently out-of-place. The intensity with which I filmed every moment for days at a time was the abnormal part. I’d set up GoPros, leave a camera rolling on a tripod, and make sure audio was being recorded well. I explained it in various ways: I told my friends it was a documentary project I made up, and I told my family I was just practicing what I’d learned in film school. I’d film for days, until people were more comfortable on camera so that their reactions to me coming out were honest, not influenced by the presence of the camera.
As much as I wanted to selflessly make a film for others, it was much easier to go through an intensely delicate, vulnerable process with a camera. It’s what gave me support, structure, and safety. As I went into uncharted territory of coming out, the camera kept me centered and focused. Editing the footage became a healing process. To be able to relive moments and to see them edited in different ways allowed me to reflect deeper on what those moments mean to me and my family. Instead of being lost in a foggy memory, I have objective footage of what actually happened.
Then there were all the moments of uncertainty to include. I digitized all the VHS and mini-DV tapes from childhood, searching for “signs” that I was gay. I found old forum posts where I asked if my feelings were normal and documented my first exploration of an openly gay identity, figuring out what it means to be gay and where I fit into the LGBTQ community. I filmed myself going to gay bars and pride parades, capturing all the raw, real uncertainties along the way.
I found people to interview to add context to the personal journey. Zach Stafford, a writer for The Guardian, speaks about how LGBTQ youth use the Internet to explore their identities before exploring them in real life. Dr. Ritch Savin-Williams, a developmental psychologist, explains the fallibility of stage models of coming out. Greg Hinckley, a former sociology professor of mine, tells me to stop asking people what I should do next, and to instead go figure it out for myself. Janet Mock, author of Redefining Realness, discusses the importance of sharing your story. I reached out to YouTubers and included many coming out stories in the film, and spoke with Kayla Kearney, who came out to her high school at an assembly in a video that went viral.
The end of the film is a moment of comfort, a benchmark in the formation of my identity as a gay man. I’ve grown a lot since we stopped filming, but the resulting feature documentary depicts a complete coming out like never before. It’s the film I wanted to see years ago when I was alone in my college dorm watching coming out stories on YouTube.
In September 2015, Coming Out premiered at the DOCUTAH International Documentary Film Festival, where it won the Audience Choice Award. After each of the two screenings, parents came up to me in tears, sharing their gut-wrenching stories about their journeys accepting their LGBTQ children. I learned about suicides, children getting disowned, and families leaving their church to support their children. One young man told me his parents say they love him, but also include “but” afterwards. “We all have our own challenges we need to face,” he told me with a smile. Two parents shared a story about their gay son. After years of rejecting him, they finally left their church and embraced their son for who he is. I could see the pain and challenges in their faces and voices.
For someone who made a feature documentary about myself, I’m actually pretty shy and don’t like talking about myself. I was motivated to create a film that I would have wanted to have seen before I came out. While creating the film, I don’t think I truly grasped the power of sharing a personal story, but the reactions so far have proven that the crazy idea to film my entire coming out was a worthwhile one.
Coming Out is screening in Washington State, Fort Lauderdale, and New York City in October. Learn more and find screenings here.
Alden Peters (@aldenpeters) is a documentary filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York.