Coming out, coming into what? Identification and risks in the ‘coming out’ story of a Norwegian late adolescent gay man.
Hegna, K. (2007). Coming out, coming into what? Identification and risks in the ‘coming out’ story of a Norwegian late adolescent gay man. Sexualities, 10(5), 582-602.
In this work, Kristinn Hegna follows a 19-year-old gay man’s process of sexual identity negotiation. Hegna is interested in seeing what a contemporary “coming out” story looks like during a time in which homosexuality is becoming increasingly less taboo. Specifically, Hegna seeks to examine what kinds of social discourses are present in sexual identity negotiation. She is particularly interested in examining the influences of heteronormativity and “old” (heteronormative) discourses, “new” (queer) discourses, and what implications this man’s sexual identity narrative may have on psychological and social risk factors for young gay men.
This work is based on an in-depth analysis of two days worth of qualitative interviews with a Norwegian 19-year-old man named Michael, who first self-identified as “gay” at age 14. Interviews with Michael were selected from a larger qualitative study on sexual behavior among youth because they cover his “coming out” story and are rich enough to be used to explore the process of sexual identification. Michael’s story traces his early sexual experiences from age 12, to his experiences as a late adolescent today, and reveals a series of different constructions of what being “gay” has meant to him. These move from a heteronormatively influenced notion of homosexuality which constitutes “gayness” as a sexual act (i.e., anal sex), to an essentialist vision of homosexuality in which one is fundamentally gay and can perform that identity in any part of his daily life, to a constructivist vision of homosexuality as happiness and an aesthetic appeal, to a queer identity associated with a rejection of labels. Hegna notes that many of these discourses around homosexuality may be associated with particular risk factors and risky behaviors. For example, Michael’s early heteronormative and essentialist belief that homosexuality is defined by the performance of anal sex with men may have contributed to his sexual exploitation by older men. Moreover, his constructivist association of homosexuality with beauty and happiness may have contributed to his illegal drug use (to keep him “happy”) and involvement in social circles that do not accept mental health issues (e.g., depression). However, Michael’s use of “queer” discourses, which eschew category labels like “gay,” seems to have unclear implications. While such discourses may seem to downplay his earlier development of a “gay” identity, they may also allow him more agency in defining his own sexual identity.
While some works have abstractly theorized about the discourses present in “coming out stories,” Hegna’s work actually unpacks the distinct discourses found in one such story. She notes the presence of heteronormative, essentialist, constructivist and queer discourses in Michael’s coming out narrative. This unusual collusion of discourses more concretely suggests that multiple narratives inform the sexual identity negotiation process. Perhaps more importantly, Hegna also suggests that it is these distinct discourses, rather than one’s sexual orientation itself, that may contribute to different risky behaviors (such as illegal drug use and casual sex) and risk factors (such as the potential exposure to sexual abuse, depression, and HIV/AIDS) among gay youth. This is a departure from some of the previous literature, which emphasizes one’s general sexual orientation (rather than the specific discourses that inform that orientation) as precipitating various risk factors and risky behaviors.