VOLUME 3, ISSUE 316 | 15 – 21 April 2004
The Age-Old Challenge of Coming Out
For 33 years, Identity House has led the way for those new to the life
The same-sex marriage debate coming in the midst of a contentious presidential election year certainly serves the aims of gay and lesbian rights advocates who have labored long to move the community’s civil rights agenda front and center.
But the increased visibility of the gay community in America may not be a happy occasion for every gay man and lesbian. For those living in the closet or who have not yet come to their own conclusion about whether or not they are gay or lesbian, the greater attention may just be one added pressure in a personal struggle that they might prefer to handle more privately and quietly.
“It’s bringing more people out for one thing,” said Peter Lappin, executive director of Identity House, the oldest volunteer service organization serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in the New York metropolitan area. “People who would never have come out before, they are dealing with it. The issues are being discussed, it’s harder to hide.”
On busy 14th Street just west of Union Square, squeezed between fast food restaurants, a discreet door leads to an anonymous sanctuary for people who have spent their lives masking their deepest personal feelings––to others and often even to themselves. For as many as a thousand people per year, this door is a way out of the closet. Just up one floor on a creaky elevator, Identity House offers a hand for people who might otherwise stumble on their way out of the closet.
Identity House is a non-profit organization founded in 1971 by a group of gay and lesbian activists with an interest in mental health. These men and women saw a need in the mental health community for an alternative to the popular notion that gay and lesbian people were mentally ill. After all, it wasn’t until 1973 and 1974, respectively, that the American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations removed homosexuality from their lists of psychological disorders. Hal Kooden and Brad Wilson, early therapists at Identity House, were instrumental in bringing about those reforms.
Today, Identity House provides a number of health services for adults struggling with issues related to their sexual identity. Four nights a week, people can drop in and see a trained volunteer counselor for about an hour to discuss whatever is on their mind. Identity House asks for a $20 donation, but the service is essentially free. If someone who identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered needs a professional therapist, Identity House can refer one.
In addition to the drop in and referral services, clients can participate in short-term, eight-week individual or group counseling. The discussion and support groups are effective ways to deal with coming out of the closet because they provide an essential component of coming to terms with one’s sexual identity––interaction with other people.
Isolation is one of the biggest barriers to coming out. Many people who come to Identity House do not know anyone who belongs to a sexual minority group and feeling alone makes it that much harder. Many clients, for whatever reason, do not feel like America’s visible gay culture is where they belong. Still others never even knew it existed.
Ira Liffman, a 42-year-old from Manhattan, first went to Identity House 12 years ago. At that time he didn’t consider himself gay and he said in a recent phone interview that he wasn’t even conscious of being gay.
“Everything pointed to being gay,” Liffman said, including the fact that he was not interested in women. “But I was in denial… it’s amazing how… distant it now seems.”
Liffman didn’t even know what to call what he was feeling inside.
“I just didn’t have a name for it I suppose,” he said. “Today gayness is in the air. You can’t turn on the TV today without being presented with the fact that some people are gay. Back then I didn’t have the option.”
Attending coming out groups opened Liffman’s eyes and ears to other people’s stories about being in the closet and in denial and then later coming out.
“After hearing that enough times, I could see myself in their own stories,” he said.
In the last 12 years, Liffman has come a long way.
“I am gay. I am happy to be gay. I am completely out,” he said. “I celebrate gay pride as the holiest day of the year.”
Although the founding members of the Identity House have seen increased awareness and changing attitudes toward the LGBT community, this is not always progress for people who struggle with their sexuality inside the closet and out.
“This is a community with huge needs. People think, ‘Oh look, “Will and Grace” and “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy.” What’s the issue? What’s the problem?’” Lappin said. “And it’s still a huge problem.”
As gay men and lesbians achieve a higher profile in the media and issues surrounding sexual minorities are increasingly discussed, some people may actually find it more difficult to come out.
“If two teenage girls hung out together all the time and held hands or put their arms around each other in the 1950s, nobody would have thought anything about it,” Lappin argued. “Whereas today there’s a much greater awareness about the possibility that they could be lesbians… so in a way it’s harder for kids.”
Some out LGBT people have an easier time than others, but coming out is a unique experience that can last a lifetime. Every time an LGBT person moves, changes jobs, or meets a new person, he or she must decide if, when, and how to reveal his or her sexual identity. Each situation is different and for some it requires climbing over bigger social obstacles while carrying cumbersome emotional baggage, including internalized homophobia and self-hatred. While some people come out in their teenage years to supportive friends and family and are able to find or create a community where they can grow and fall in love, perhaps for the first time, others feel enormous pressure from family, friends, their belief system, society, and themselves to stay in the closet.
Identity House uses a peer counseling model to help people with their distress.
“It’s based on the premise that a lot of times we can solve our own problems by bringing into consciousness things that are troubling us,” Lappin said.
Trained volunteers listen and share their own experiences to focus, support, and offer gentle guidance to clients. According to Liz Kravetz, a volunteer at Identity House who ran a women’s coming out group that ended March 22, this approach is very attractive.
“We aren’t scary psychologists who are going to prescribe medication and try to change them,” Kravetz said. “Peer counseling or support doesn’t have all the baggage that the word ‘therapy’ does.”
Devorah, a 30 year-old woman from Morningside who did not use her real name in a recent interview, was in the coming-out group led by Kravetz.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.
Devorah is in her third year at a conservative rabbinical school that will not ordain her if she identifies herself as a lesbian.
“I don’t know what I would have done without this group. I literally had no place to go. It saved me in a lot of ways, from crumbling in on myself,” she said.
The group gave Devorah a community and she was able to change her perspective about what it means to be gay.
“It was the first time in about a decade that I felt I wasn’t crazy,” she said.
Throughout the eight weeks, the women in Devorah’s group became so close that they are continuing the group on their own. Sometimes they just hang out and socialize in a less structured way. They even have plans for a sharing a summer house at the beach.
“Who knew, right? We came in not being able to say the word ‘lesbian’ and now we are running off to Fire Island together and renting a house,” Devorah said.
Devorah is now out to some people, but not everyone. It is a process, she said, and if she wants to continue at her school, the process will last at least three more years. Kravetz emphasized that within a coming-out group, everyone is at a different stage in the coming-out process. Kravetz, who identifies as “bisexual” and “very queer” lives in Brooklyn and works at Cornell Hospital as a senior patient administrator. She hopes to be a sex therapist one day and work with LGBT clients. Many of the volunteers at Identity House have plans to become professional therapists.
“A lot of people who are queer and alone retreat into a very bad place,” Kravetz said.
Identity House gives them a chance to meet people who are like them and that gives them the courage to be themselves in all kinds of ways, not just sexuality, she said.
“They can be their authentic selves and that is a beautiful thing.”
Volunteers help tremendously in changing people lives, but they also get something in return. Kravetz emphasized how much she learned from people in her group, probably more than they have learned from her. She also sees a political benefit in helping people be who they are and she called it the “butterfly effect.” The idea is that helping people be comfortable with themselves and their sexuality will make the world a better place to be gay.
“I love it. I absolutely love it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Kravetz said about her time-consuming Identity House volunteer work.
Identity House has witnessed the rise of other LGBT service organizations in the New York area, but it remains the safest place for people who want to remain anonymous, according to Carl Eden, long been associated with the organization as clinical director, volunteer supervisor, and trainer. “We offer a certain psychological degree of anonymity that they don’t necessarily have walking in the [LGBT Community] Center… In the old days, there were people who would walk around the block eight times before they walk in.”
Despite the enormous changes in social attitudes toward homosexuality during its life, Identity House remains relevant for clients and members, but not without having to adapt to a constantly shifting climate in society.
“Visibility and outreach have always been a challenge for us,” Lappin said.
Identity House advertises in the gay media as well as the straight press, but according to Eden, the “best referrals are word of mouth by people who have received very good services from us.”
In order to remain as professional as it is relevant, the organization is in the process of building a more professional board and hiring a professional administrative staff, according to Lappin.
“Thirty years ago it was a whole different ball game,” he said. “You could run the organization as a grass roots storefront operation. Now the bar has been raised dramatically. The community has professionalized. We have gay and lesbian non-profits like the [LGBT Community] Center, with multi-million dollar budgets and we also have to offer services on that level.”
The organization wants to continue its volunteer culture, but it is in need of professional leadership, especially in regard to fundraising.
“It’s a lot about economics,” Lappin said. “To be able to afford to do the kind of outreach we are currently doing, pay our rent and our expenses.”
He insisted that they are not struggling however. In addition to some very large bequests, the Identity House is funded by individual donations, the New York Community Trust, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, public appropriations secured by City Councilmember Christine Quinn and state Senator Tom Duane, and annual dues of $85 from approximately 100 members. Lappin explained that the organization only recently began to maintain a donor database.
“We did not actively fund raise and we were living hand to mouth for 33 years,” he said. “Clearly it worked, but we need to put a more professional face on ourselves as an organization.”
Identity House is also working to be more inclusive of the transgender community by building up a support services capability for transsexuals and transgendered people. Transgendered people utilize the walk-in center and some receive private counseling from Eden. There is also a social for transgendered clients every couple of months, Lappin added.
“Because we don’t have many, although we do have a few, transgendered members, it’s hard for us to offer services,” he explained. “We are not in the position to be able to hire somebody to be a director of transgender services…that’s something that is a challenge to a volunteer organization because a lot of our workshop topics are dependent on the interests and passions of our volunteers.”
At least one volunteer helped the organization’s push to be more welcoming to the transgender community, with an artistic twist at that. The main meeting room at Identity House houses a collection of photographs by queer artists known as the I-Gallery. Helen Contino maintains the gallery after first coming to the organization eight years ago when she was ending a straight marriage.
“The organization saved my life. I was a mess when I came here,” she said.
Now she is a volunteer member and she came up with the idea of the I-Gallery when was looking at transgender issues and exploring the fluidity of sexuality. Contino describes herself as a creative person who wanted to use the space in Identity House to “do something visual to blow the top off the way people here view sexuality.” The first show she staged was called “Gender Spectrum” a dialogue about gender. The third show, “Altered,” currently on display, explores untraditional ways in which the LGBT community explores spirituality.
One piece, entitled “Presence” by Anne Conover is a picture of a garden. Among the bushes, flowers, and trees, there is a mysterious white nebula that blurs the photographic image, suggesting an angelic presence. “Volcano” by Tina Zimmer, which hangs on the other side of the room, is a red-stained image of two men clearly engaged in oral sex.
The next show, which will likely have a political theme, is still in the planning stages.
“If we get it up during the summer and as we roll towards November, we can have it be an event to get people out to the polls,” Contino said about how she envisioned the next opening. “I’ve never been that political in my entire life. Right now I am just feeling like we’ve got to do something.”
Though Contino is in charge of the effort, her style is casual and she clearly wants members of the LGBT community to participate in the I-Gallery.
“I am looking for co-curators, always, I am looking for ideas, I am looking for people in general,” she said.
The gallery has not sold any of its pieces, but Contino feels there is real value for clients and the entire Identity House community in hanging the work.
“Certainly art is universal and good art is really universal,” she said as she walked around the room, leveling pictures that hung crooked on the walls. “But I think it’s a special thing for people to be able to come and see these mirrors.”