Coming Out is the directorial debut of New York City-based filmmaker Alden Peters, who chronicled his own coming-out experience as the subject of his new documentary.
His camera accompanies him on his journey as he discloses his long-kept secret to family and friends. Inspired by coming-out videos posted on social media by teens all around the world, Peters’ film is an insightful look at sexual identity in the digital world.
In anticipation of its pending release, Peters took the time to answer some questions about his film and the creative process.
First and foremost, why is coming out so important?
It’s an important part of the process in a society where our community is not the norm; we’re the “other.” Because of that, we have to define ourselves for society in order to fit into the socially-constructed boxes that already exist.
And, as you mention in the film, it’s also to feel more complete as a person.
Right, by letting your friends and family know so that they have a truer sense of who you are, and for self-acceptance purposes.
How did you locate the other young people who shared their coming-out stories for the film?
We did a campaign to get them to submit their stories for the film. It was a combination of having them submit their stories to us, or us finding them online and reaching out to them to see if they wanted to participate.
What do you think of the influence the internet has had on the coming-out process?
It really has affected the three different stages: being in the closet, disclosing that information and then finding the community. The internet has really allowed us to explore this side of ourselves secretly and anonymously. In recent years, when you start searching for what it means to be gay, lesbian or bisexual, actual positive things show up. There’s real culture you can find. You don’t have to go to a physical place like a library or bar. That’s been really helpful in the identity process before you actually have to disclose to somebody in person.
Then, of course, there’s the decision of what publicly available knowledge is online. For example, is it something that can easily be found on your social profile, for example, or is it something you choose only to disclose to people that are close to you? Also, the internet allows us to locate and build communities in ways that we couldn’t before, especially those people in isolated parts of the country who don’t necessarily have access to the kind of community we have in New York or L.A. They can digitally connect with the community and find ways to explore their identity.
Interestingly, one of your subjects pointed out that although society is probably more accepting of the community than ever, there’s still bullying and young people committing suicide. What more can the public do to continue to change hearts and minds?
Be supportive. Listen to the community and our needs. Try to work on an understanding and better connection with the community rather than just having a passive tolerance of it.
And, of course, the more people who come out, the more their friends and family think, “Oh, they’re not that different.”
Exactly. It happens in a lot of families whom you’d assume would not be accepting of their child, but once it’s happened to them, they see it’s not this unknown, terrifying thing. It’s a person that they love, and they see it for what it is.
During the course of the film, you evolve as well. You identify yourself as gay, yet you don’t feel you’re a part of the “gay community.” As the film goes on, though, you experience a transformation.
Right. It ends with the beginning of my exploration into that community. That’s a process that took longer than the production of the film itself. It wasn’t that I was out to close friends or living an out lifestyle and just hadn’t told my family yet — it was more of a repressed closeting. So a lot of the second half of the process had to do with unpacking those suppressed feelings and emotions, reestablishing that new identity and figuring out what it meant for me.
For all those years, I felt I had to shun everything gay as much as possible because I didn’t want to associate with the community as I saw it to stay closeted more effectively. Then, on my first foray into the community, I felt like I didn’t belong, and I was so insecure. So it took more time to find a group of gay friends, to find a community within the community — the right group to feel a part of.
Then, there’s a lot of giving back. Volunteering has been very helpful in the process as well.
What were some of the more surprising or affecting things you discovered during the making of the film?
Overall, people will surprise you in all sorts of ways. There’s always a level of nervousness about who would potentially not take the news very well. Who was I going to lose by coming out of the closet? I thought it was an inevitable part of the process that somebody was going to leave my life. But then, people’s reactions were positive, and the film itself ends up being more uplifting and funny.
That was really surprising, and what was more surprising was the evolution of the film — when we had trailers out, the crowd-funding campaign, the festival circuit, and now the release with Wolfe. People have responded really well. They’ve sent me messages on social media. When we’ve done screenings in conservative parts of the country, they’ve been very powerful experiences. I didn’t know that personal storytelling could have that effect — at least my own story, anyway.
What influenced you to become a filmmaker?
My family had always had cameras. My siblings and I had always been recorded from a young age. We have boxes and boxes of VHS tapes. At one point, I just picked up the camera myself and started recording holidays and vacations, which evolved into making short films with my siblings and my friends. This all led to film school, and it was there that my coming-out process began.
Talk about the making of the film.
It unfolded slowly. First, how do I come out on camera in an ethical way, making sure that people’s reactions are not affected by the camera’s presence but instead by the news they’re being told? And once those sections have been filmed, we move onto the second stage, which is crafting the larger film itself. What is the throughline; who are the other people we need to interview to make the story complete? The way we did certain effects, like the computer screenshots while I’m searching forums for information — it’s enhanced by the sound of typing on the keyboard and the change in breathing as the results are revealed. I think it really raises the emotional level of the scene.
What’s next on the slate for you?
Right now I’m in preproduction on a narrative short. It’s called Femme, and it’s about gender expression in the gay community. It’s an irreverent comedy. It’s also going to be tied to a larger social campaign on the same subject — these different intersectional issues in the LGBT community.
Anything else you’d like to add about Coming Out?
The DVD has a shortened two-part version that’s been cleaned up for language, intended to be shown in high schools and hopefully middle schools as well. It’s my wish that youth will get a chance to have an early understanding of the coming out process.
Coming Out will be released worldwide via Wolfe Video on October 4 on DVD/VOD, across all digital platforms including iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, and WolfeOnDemand, and will also be available on the same date in the U.S. and Canada on DVD via Wolfe Video and many major retailers.