When Coming Out Inadvertently Outs Someone Else

Dr. Olson,

For over twenty years, my best friend and I were secret lovers. I was with him and his family when he died of cancer. He was married, bisexual, and deeply closeted. He felt his life would be ruined if his bisexuality became known. He was a well-known person in our small, urban community.

I would like to come out as a bisexual, but if I do, I run the risk of outing my friend to his family, with whom I remain very close. I don’t want to damage his family’s memory of him.

What should I do?

Razor Back


Dear Razor Back,

I have known a number of older bisexual men who have had a similar secret sexual relationship with their best friend. Their families were also friends. They traveled and vacationed together, and they often spent holidays or celebrated special occasions together. The two men carved out time for their sexual intimacy through shared interests that the rest of their families did not enjoy.

How much their families may have known about their sexual intimacy is questionable. It may be a matter of willful ignorance. Erotic love and friendship love are distinctly different, although they may overlap. As in your situation, friendship can be used to disguise erotic love.

When two people love each other, it is difficult to hide, particularly for men because of a social barrier against expressions of physical intimacy between men and especially in America.

It seems you want to be more open about your bisexuality. As we get older, we are less concerned about consequences, and our wish to live authentically begins to feel more urgent. But coming out involves unintentional consequences to others.

It would be easy to respond, “Forget it. Your friend’s family are all adults. Let them deal with it.” But I can tell that you still love this man, and you know that he would disapprove of your damaging his family’s image of him. You love his family too.

Coming out is not an event. It is a process that goes on over time. We can come out to a few, as you have done, but you don’t have to carry a bisexual flag in the Pride parade. The questions I would ask you are, Whom do you want to know about your bisexuality that doesn’t already know? In what ways do you feel constrained by feeling that you are unable to talk about it more openly? In other words, What would be gained and what might be lost? I’m guessing you’ve already been through this examination.

I have found that almost always we magnify the negatives and minimize the positives. Being out gives us a great sense of freedom from always having to censor what we say and do. In your case, the negatives may be far less than imagined because his family may already suspect something was “different” about your relationship. All it removes is their willful ignorance.

But the question “What would he want me to do?” still plagues you. Is there one person in his family with whom you are particularly close? Perhaps you could have a one-on-one conversation. You might say something such as, “I realized late in life after my wife died that I also have sexual attractions to men. I do not wish that to remain a secret, but I also know your father would be uncomfortable with my revealing this. I want to respect his memory. I wanted you to hear this from me.”

This is honest and factual but doesn’t tell the whole story. Then, allow that family member to ask questions. He or she may not have any, choosing to remain ignorant of the nature of your relationship with him. If he or she asks, “Did you have sex with him?” you might respond with “I realize now that I certainly wanted to, but I didn’t understand it then.” Again, this is mostly true, but it focuses on your feelings without disclosing too much about him. If more questions are asked about your relationship, I suggest something like “I wish he were here to answer that question. I can’t speak for him.”

I hope this helps.

Loren Olson


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