A few years back, Alden Peters fell down a YouTube hole that was a bit more productive than most. The filmmaker, then a 22-year-old student at NYU, had decided that he was ready to come out of the closet, so he began binge-watching every coming out video he could find on the site. #ItGetsBetter talking heads, traumatic personal narratives, teens breaking the news over the phone, twentysomethings surprising their parents in person—Peters watched them all, but still he wanted more.
"A lot of these coming out stories show people telling someone over the phone that they're gay, but I wanted to know what happens next," he told me in New York City. "I wanted to see a documentary about the whole coming out process," spanning not just the "Yep, I'm Gay" moment itself but the decades leading up to it and aftermath that follows. Alden couldn't find the documentary he yearned to see, so he did what any ambitious young film student would do: He made it himself.
Coming Out is a documentary from Casa Vera Films and Wolfe Video that follows Peters as he sets the record straight (so to speak) about his sexual orientation. Shot in New York and Seattle in 2011 and 2012, the film trails its dual director and subject as he tells his close friends that he's gay followed by his immediate family members, all culminating with the big "interested in" switch on Facebook. It also features interviews with author and TV anchor Janet Mock, journalist Zach Stafford, YouTuber Kayla Kearney, developmental psychologist Dr. Ritch Savin-Williams, and sociologist Greg Hinckley.
The picture, which hit iTunes and other video-on-demand services earlier this week after a year of festival screenings, began as a project for one of Peters' documentary film classes at NYU, but he continued working on it for a long time after graduation. Coming Out is truly years in the making—decades, even, considering all of the childhood home movie footage spliced throughout its 73-minute runtime. That lead-up, including an 8-year-old Alden's DIY drag homage to the Spice Girls, was just as important to show as the actual coming out announcement itself, Peters told me.
"Growing up, you learn your status as a queer person through little microaggressions. That needs to be unpacked," he said. "The biggest obstacle for me was my own self-acceptance. That internal process often gets overshadowed by the negative reactions people get from their religious communities or from their families. It's subtle and difficult to talk about," he told me, much less capture on film.
I wouldn't be spoiling the experience of watching Coming Out by saying that none of the director's various confrontations end negatively. Save for his younger siblings, who aren't entirely sure if their older brother is filming some kind of prank for YouTube, his loved ones offer their support immediately and without question.
Peters told me that he didn't expect to be met with so much acceptance: "I watched all these coming out stories on YouTube where people would say, 'Oh, my mom didn't talk to me for a year.' I just kind of assumed that that was part of the process, that somebody was going to have a really hard time with it and things would be really difficult after that." But the fact that Peters was so terrified of telling such supportive people the truth about himself (in an interview, his father says that he thought Alden looked like he was about to disclose a fatal illness) really underscores just how much compounded trauma and shame queer people build up around their identities over the years.
The documentary's positive depiction of the coming out process did worry the film crew behind it. They wondered if anyone would benefit from what they captured, or if Coming Out might obscure the painful, sometimes violent consequences all too many young LGBTQ people experience upon coming out. Producer Pat Murphy even paused one editing session a couple years back to ask Peters "if we have a movie" at all.
"I shared that anecdote at a film festival screening in Utah," Alden said. "After the screening, someone in the audience who works for Equality Utah pulled me aside and said, 'You absolutely have a movie. There are people in this community who are too scared to come out because the only stories they've ever been told are ones where the child gets kicked out of the home. A positive portrayal like yours will challenge that line of thinking, that a parent will never accept their child after coming out.'"
"I didn't realize that a positive coming out experience could have an impact until I went some place where coming out of the closet is still a dangerous thing to do. It's easy for us to forget that when in our safe space bubbles," Peters said, referring to the East Village gay bar where we now found ourselves. "When I started, my goal was to make the film that I wished I'd have seen when I was trying to come out." Now that he has done that, Alden hopes that his documentary will be "intensely valuable" to somebody else.
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