How To Come Out On Camera
A good coming-out scene acknowledges that the first time is just that — the first of many.
Coming out is a boundless, never-ending endeavor. You come out on the government forms. You come out at the grocery store. You come out at the office mixer. You come out on the app(s). But across film and television, whenever you find a queer character, coming out, in its various incarnations, is as implied as opening and closing credits. A little like how in the dinosaur movies there is always the scene where the biggest dinosaur faces off with an equally big dinosaur. Or how, in the thriller, eventually someone jumps out of a window. Or how if Jackie Chan is in a movie, even if he’s five decades older than everyone else, he is almost certainly going to fuck someone up. If you are watching something with LGBTQ+ folks on your digital screen or whatever then buckle up because someone, somehow, is going to come out.
I didn’t really grow up with (out) queer folks in my life. For the longest times the only (out) homosexuals I knew were Jamie and Ste from Beautiful Thing. I caught the film in the early-aughts, in this hotel in Costa Rica, when I would’ve been nearing the end of junior high. And the only thing more perfect than the heft of its gayness was my not knowing that about that gayness until this happened:
Did you see that? Word? Please watch it again.
There are several things that make this a perfect scene: Jamie’s tentative confidence as he caresses Ste’s shoulder’s. His mother’s interrupting the boys’ momentum, which actually inadvertently accelerates it. The awkwardness with which Ste eventually orients himself to Jamie’s body, and then the un-glorified fact of their intercourse, and then the dawning across Ste’s face the next morning, when he realizes what they’ve just done.
That shit is P-E-R-F-E-C-T. Twelve out of ten. When Ste says, “Do you think I’m queer,” and Jamie says, “It doesn’t matter what I think,” it puts me out of my chair or the sofa or my desk every time. And when my boss or my students or my boyfriend asks what’s wrong, who has finally been fired, I show them that scene and wait for their euphoria too.
Other things happen in the film. There is gossip and deception. The boys become more comfortable with their respective sexualities. But none of that much mattered the first time I watched it. And it didn’t even matter that my notions of queer visibility were being formed by two white boys from England, as opposed to any of the black or brown faces that made up my immediate vicinity, because, at the end of the day, I’d never seen anyone come out to themselves (or anyone else) before.
I felt like how toddlers feel when they tread water for the first time. Or when the cat finally lets you pet her and you realize maybe things are OK. Or when you’re at the taqueria and you don’t know if the card’s going to clear, but it does, and for a while you and the register guy are just standing there, like, “DUDE.”
Every coming-out scene is perfect. They’re all perfect in different ways. Which is a tremendously stupefying thing to hear, let alone say. But even if each of them is a tiny miracle, there are certainly a few different types, and because we’re really all just primates relying on ultimately reductive organization schemes, here are a handful (!) of the different ways characters come out on camera:
The Culminating Plot Point:
This is the most common one. It’s the first instance you think of. Many adult humans who spent time on Earth in 2005 have heard some variation of Brokeback Mountain’s “I wish I knew how to quit you”:
Coming out — to your parents, or your peers, or your crush — is such a pivotal moment in one’s life, that screenwriters naturally take it upon themselves to make that event the focal point of their thing. Sometimes, the film’s momentum leads up to that final concession. Sometimes, the coming-out is what spurs the momentum of the film:
Sometimes, it is a long-held declaration of love. Sometimes (most of the time) there’s tears and gasping and sadness, and then the pause where the teller ultimately waits for a reaction from the told.
It isn’t lazy scene, per se, since a life can very literally be reimagined by that one event (mine was) but it also might not be the most illuminating scene you will ever watch in your life (until it is, and the result is an unattainable standard that ruins you and your expectations re: intimacy FOREVER):
The Comedic Epiphany:
The inherent perfection of these scenes aside, this one’s usually pretty rough. It banks on masculine/feminine stereotypes, and it really only works if the viewer believes that queer folks can only be some kind of way:
The coming out matters, but it’s a deflection for some larger bit where, like, this character is queer, and now he’s stuck in a cave with four other dudes; or coming out is a catalyst to a larger joke about a crocodile stuck in a car trunk; or some idiot man drunkenly mistakes his cousin for his partner so now he’s out or whatever.
Sometimes, there are bonus points for this scene’s illuminating something a little less daft: like how not everyone comes out the same way, or how you’re not anyone’s clock to come out (besides yours). And sometimes, even the not-great ones at least attempt to redeem themselves later on.
The Spent-The-Whole-Episode-Talking-About-Something-Else-In-Order-to-Avoid Coming-Out-Before-Ultimately-Coming-Out:
Every now and again the coming-out will be veiled under some sort of quasi-comedic misunderstanding. Like, “in order to show you that I’m not gay I’m going to do this that and the other and we’re all going to laugh until I come out”:
Living that scene indubitably sucks. It is actually the worst thing. There’s really no metaphor to encapsulate it, aside from maybe hanging out in the fourth layer of Hell for a bit. And then someone tells you that it’s time to go now, so you pack your bags and everything but really they don’t mean that it’s time to leave. They’re just taking you to the fifth layer. And then you just do that for the rest of your life.
But condense an arc to twenty-eight minutes and sometimes it’s funny. Television is wild.
Everyone eats. Don’t you love food? It is fucking delicious. So the dinner table or the diner is as good a place as any to come out on camera. Bonus points for constructing the entirety of your episode/film around a conjugal meal, with an entirely non-white cast, whereby changing the gravitational flow of who exactly gets to have those conversations in our well-funded narratives:
This scene is less of a scene per se than a prolonged movement — a character (x) has come into contact with an individual (y) representing the person that they themselves would like to become. I guess if you were in grad school or whatever you’d call x and y foils, but they aren’t exactly opposites every time:
Sometimes it’s their sameness that makes the interaction poignant:
Sometimes they’re so (supposedly) different that crossing the (supposed) distance between them is the point of the scene:
A disproportionate number of these scenes take place in schools, where it’s usually at least a little more difficult to run away from your problems. Or the character’s gone on a trip to Oaxaca or Lagos or Prague, cities where interesting things have been known to happen. And more often than not, this scene occurs when an old friend reappears in one’s life and it turns out that they’re gay:
Then the friends have a choice to make. A choice that generally ends in casual, but meticulously choreographed, sex.
The “Did They Just Come Out?”:
An alternate title for this one could be the “I Read Somewhere Before I Saw The Film That They Were Going to Come Out and I’m Not Sure If They Did”? Or “Is That The Scene Where They Told Us They’re Queer”? Or “What?”:
You will know when you see it because you will not know what you’ve just seen.
The Unstated but Meticulously Plotted Development:
There are people in this life that think you and I are inherently knowable, and that by watching us long enough they’ll figure out who we are and what we think. That’s a lesson you encounter forever until you learn it, but in the meantime this scene is for them:
The film/episode strategically litters its character’s interactions with “clues”. Like, if they spend enough time on-screen with this individual of the same same/opposite/undefined sex, then surely the audience will come to this conclusion! But also maybe they won’t! And we’re not going to tell you! My first serious relationship was a variation of that scene. It is as maddening to live as it is to watch, and the payoff is generally dubious at best (“Aha!”).
The god-child of this scene is the “Obviously Queer Minor Character the Director Refuses to Give an Entire Arc is Regrettably Attracted to a Straight Character and Eventually Tells Them So”. Which, while also perfect (!), can be equally distressing:
The One Day All of A Sudden Scene:
This scene accounts for the fact that coming out, on any given day, is a pretty big fucking deal. But it mostly acknowledges that self-discovery is never a closed event. It cannot be planned. There is no beacon. There is no Bat Signal. But, sometimes, things just happen and you get a little closer to you are:
This scene is optimal, and you hardly ever see it. When you do, it’s that something that you remember forever:
A good coming-out scene acknowledges that the first time is just that — the first of many. It is a process you’ll repeat until you die. And every time it doesn’t end egregiously is a miracle. Every time it ends and starts again is a miracle:
A good coming-out scene is a miracle. Queer folks are miracles. Go make more coming out scenes.