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Coming out is not just the first time one has sex with another man. It is also the adoption of a psychological and social stance and it is the public stance that we take toward our homosexuality. In the past, few people were lucky enough to have come out in a relaxed way. Perhaps fantasy and reality can come a little closer.

The earliest urges toward homosexuality are usually exercised in adolescent fantasies. The homosexual aspect of some boys' fantasies may be disguised a boy may masturbate while imagining a man and a woman having sex, and may scarcely notice that most of his attention is focused on the man, zooming in for more close-ups of his anatomy than of hers. Although some boys conjure up scenes of deep love and affection with members of the same sex, for most the fantasies are distinctly sexual. At puberty, boys think constantly about sex and generate powerful fantasies through masturbation. Society condemned masturbation for so long that even liberated people say little in its favor beyond assuring us there's nothing "wrong" about it. This latent puritanism has concealed what is very much right about the masturbatory fantasies through which adolescents explore which kinds of physical types and psychological characteristics are exciting. The jerk-off fantasy is a rehearsal, a preview of coming attractions, and it is a crucial learning experience.

At some point the neophyte gay will have his first homosexual experience in the flesh. All the horniness held in check and vented only during masturbation will be released in a flood of desire. There is something very special about the initial sexual experiences. A few gays coming out confuse good sex with love. With maturity they learn that sex is not always a measure of love or intimacy.

After one or many experiences, someone coming out will have to say to himself, "I'm gay." To ever greater numbers of men entering gay life this statement comes naturally and easily. Others find self-acceptance harder to achieve, and the coming-out process takes longer. They may have sporadic sexual contacts, but they shrink from admitting their homosexuality even to themselves. Others think of themselves as gay, but do not let anyone else in on the secret.

Of those who do come out publicly, some tell only one or two friends, others only members of their families; a few are open with everyone. Most often we disclose our homosexuality to parents, brothers and sisters, intimate friends, and lately, employers, because we want no artificial barriers to stand between us and people important in our lives. If we come out to them with love, they are unlikely to remain distant for long, though some parents do demonstrate neurotic behavior when they learn of a son's homosexuality. Even so, despite the risks, many sons feel the temporary stress is worth the bother if it eliminates the more pernicious stress of deception.

Perhaps the most harrowing part of telling others about our homosexuality is facing up to our own doubts and fears. If a gay man says, "I can't tell my parents because they believe homosexuals can never be happy," he may simply be attributing his own misgivings to them. It's easy to assign our own doubts to our parents, and it can be significantly counterproductive and downright wrong to do so. Many gays finally got up the nerve to come out to their folks only to hear, "We've known for years. We were wondering when you were going to find out you're gay."

So, coming out proceeds through stages, from fantasies to the first same-sex experience to acknowledging to yourself and then to others that you are gay, and finally to identifying with the gay community. How someone moves through these stages will differ from individual to individual and will be determined by several factors. How old you are and where you live will definitely make a difference. If you live in a small town, far from the big cities where homosexuality thrives openly, you may find little support in your efforts to come out. If you are a young man still living at home or if you are an older man whose whole mature life has been spent in the straight world, coming out can be painful. You'll need help from gay organizations and friends.

Homophobic religious training is another important determinant since condemnation by most religions remains very real. Ethnic and sociocultural factors can also influence coming out, both positively and negatively. (read Don't Be Afraid Anymore by Troy Perry and The Church and the Homosexual by John McNeil.)

The current AIDS crisis is another impediment to young men coming out. Sexual excesses may reward a gay man with life-threatening illnesses, and who could blame him for turning away from contact out of fear and confusion? Men, young men in particular, search both for love and to satisfy a powerful libido, yet rightly fear their inexperience or foolishness will destroy them.

Gays just coming out have responded to HIV Disease with a number of sexual strategies. Some act as if they are omnipotent, invulnerable to human illnesses. This grandiosity is dangerous to themselves and to their sexual partners. At the opposite extreme are men who have taken vows of chastity, not because it's immoral, but in the belief that many sex is dangerous. Most gay men try to remain midway between these two extremes by meeting their sexual needs with responsibility.

HIV Disease has highlighted the responsibility we have as members of the gay community. Our first responsibility is to be informed about and to practice safe sex. The second is to encourage friends, lovers, and tricks to protect their own health. Finally, many gay men find that involvement in the community provides sustenance and meaning in their own lives. Consider joining an AIDS service organization and working with gay political groups that are fighting for our civil rights....

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