The documentary Coming Out follows young filmmaker Alden Peters as he tells his friends and family that he is gay. In his director’s statement, Peters cites as his motivation for creating the film “to provide support for those in a similarly insecure state.” He references the lack of material documenting the real process of coming out, what happens immediately after, and the need for an inside look that is accessible to others struggling with the same issue. Coming Out is targeted primarily to a young, LBGTQ audience, facing the uncertainties of revealing their true selves to their family and friends. But Peters’ inclusion of other perspectives, as well as the universality of much of the film’s message, makes it an emotionally moving and thought-provoking 72 minutes for viewers of all backgrounds.
The film opens with crowdsourced footage, more of which is threaded throughout Peters’ narrative. The inclusion of this footage lends an air of reality to the film. Alongside professional shots of Peters’ coming out story, we see grainy webcam footage of people with as much trepidation and uncertainty telling their personal versions of the same story.
The film goes on to describe Peters’ childhood and emotional situation leading up to his decision to come out, before capturing on film each conversation in which he reveals his sexual orientation to a loved one. Most of their conversations begin with Peters noting the camera, and he includes footage that breaks the fourth wall, such as clapping to sync audio and using his father’s hand to line up the shot. In this way, the film blurs the lines between cinematic storytelling and natural reactions to a highly personal moment. Questions linger in the viewer’s mind: Would his loved ones have reacted differently if they weren’t being recorded? How honest is this portrayal?
Peters’ notes in a Q&A, “Absolutely everyone’s reactions were affected by the camera . . . Family members said how good the process was, and that became the truth.” While the nature of the documentary may initially raise questions of authenticity, the self-reflection it encouraged ultimately resulted in more genuine reactions. When a reflective tool, a camera, forces self-analysis, reactions become simpler, more positive, and more honest.
The documentary discusses the social stereotypes surrounding the LGBTQ community. Sociologist Greg Hinckley says, “There’s this weird kind of stipulation that this is what gay is.” Much of Peters’ struggle stems from the fact that he does not feel that he fits within this community. He says at one point in the film, “If they’re gay, then what am I?” This notion is echoed by his friends and family, who repeatedly make comments along the lines of, “You don’t act gay.” He also notes that he may have come out sooner if not for the “gay jabs” from his male friends, particularly. However, those same friends reacted in a supportive and nonjudgmental manner upon being told he actually is gay. There is certainly a divisive line between the stereotypes and popular culture associated with the LGBTQ community and people’s honest views. Reactions of Peters’ family members were more accepting and positive than he expected, or inferred from their behavior, as well as what they expected of each other. Most, after hearing the news, asked if he had told someone else. “Have you told your brother? Have you told your father?” The expectations are often worse than the realities, on both sides—which is likely why coming out is approached with the level of fear and uncertainty we see in the documentary.
Of course, easy acceptance is not always the case. The film mentions the tragic story of Tyler Clementi, who lost his life to the same struggle, and others who have been rejected or disowned. But by being more aware of our behavior and appropriation of negative social stigmas, we, who are not going through this, can make the process easier for those who are.
Though the film is primarily targeted toward the LGBTQ community, others can benefit just as strongly. I, personally, am heterosexual and have never experienced this story from Peters’ perspective. But I have been the friend, and to see this story from their perspectives is invaluable. Perhaps watching this film helps me to make their situations a bit easier. An opportunity to gain empathy for anyone, but especially for a loved one, can never be overvalued.
To be so specific and personal, there is a strong universality to the film. Through the personalized nature of the documentary, we realize there is no cookie-cutter approach to facing a situation like this. Hinckley says, “Realize that you need to stop asking people what it is you should do.” The film emphasizes the importance of discovering one’s own path and identity, while finding support in others. The smooth storytelling blended with honest and authentic emotions will immerse viewers for the entirety of the film, and the insightful look into another’s reality will spur conversations and incite questions. Its honest portrayal of identity, family, and a very specific struggle that draws on universal human emotions will resonate with viewers and will help to shape their ideas and behaviors.
Whether you are LGBTQ, a parent, a sibling, or a friend, this film will help you to grow and to view your own relationships with a new perspective.