Today’s National Coming Out Day. Tonight, twenty-one years ago, more than half my life ago, I came out to my mother. The entire experience was paradoxical, something I thought would be a mere formality turned out to be a Very Big Deal, something I’d feared doing for years became one of the best things I ever did.
I knew I was gay long before I came out. I was aware of being different from my peers “in that way” from a very early age. I didn’t have a name for it, at least not at first. Despite not remembering vast stretches of my childhood, I remember quite clearly being in the locker room at the pool at the local university. I attended a small private school at the time and the school went swimming for a field trip. I’d never seen naked adult men before, and oh my God. I didn’t want to leave the locker room. I just wanted to look. Even now, I remember the intensity of the feeling.
Another snap shot: I was maybe 7 or so and at a friend’s house. I guess her mother was one of those wacky free spirits you read about, because when she came back from a vacation with her boyfriend, she brought her children smutty magazines, Playgirl for her daughter and Playboy for her son. The Playgirl centerfold electrified me. Yep, that right there. That’s for me. I kept finding reasons to look at it.
This same friend taught me the word ‘gay.’ It meant boys who like boys, and I thought, “Oh. That’s me then.” Unfortunately, she alsop taught me that it was not a Good Thing to be gay. I don’t remember now exactly how she conveyed that information, just that it wasn’t something you were supposed to be.
Snapshot (because that’s all I have of childhood memories–flashes and images rather than concrete stretches of recollection): Around the same age at my piano lesson. The song I was assigned to learn was called “Let’s Be Gay and Play.” The accompanying illustration was of children playing or some such sentimentalized twaddle. I was terrified. If I played that song, somehow everyone would know my secret. I objected to it strenuously. My music teacher, a big ol’ earth-mother of a hippie, was, I realize now, pretty angry at my objection. I remember her scratching out the title and calling it, “Let’s Be Happy and Spend Money.” It was only a few years ago that I figured out she was actually calling me a shallow bourgeois asshole.
Snapshot: I was maybe 9 and at my dad’s place for the weekend. A friend had come over, and we found a copy of Playboy under my dad’s bed. My friend was all over it, but I remember looking at the centerfold and thinking, “Uh…no.” So there I was, nine years old, knowing I liked boys, knowing that pictures of naked women did nothing for me, and already I had The Fear. It would be another decade before I so much as kissed another guy, but only because I was too afraid and dense to realize that the guy in my church youth group on whom I had a huge crush had one right back at me and was trying in his own fumbling way to ask me out. I sometimes wonder how different things might’ve been had I realized what Mike was up to. I don’t waste a lot of time on “what if,” however.
It was in that decade that I grew more and more afraid of being found out, of disappointing my parents. I grew more and more adept at lying to protect my secret, at flying under the radar, at suppressing emotions and feelings that might betray me. That was the decade of the closet. It was a stifling, deadening place. Sure, I felt safe there, but it was the safety of a prison cell or a tomb, and when it comes down to it, I didn’t even feel that safe there. I was always afraid something would betray me, that I would say or do the wrong thing and everyone would figure me out. The safety of the closet is a mirage, and it takes a tremendous amount of energy and effort to maintain it.
But emotions are funny things, and have a way of expressing themselves whether you want them to or not. I was starving for release and for freedom. The closet led to some pretty flaky behavior. I knew I was gay, but couldn’t tell anyone. In this era before the GSA and the knowledge of the existence of homosexuality by society at large, I felt alone. I hungered for contact, any kind of contact, with other people like myself. I grew up in a college town, and had access to the college paper. There were ads in the back for the gay student group. I remember calling the number just to hear the voice of another gay man, even if I was too afraid to say anything and hung up. Those men and women were gutsy putting their number out back in the ’80s. I’m sure that man thought I was just another homophobic jackass crank calling. I actually know that guy now (hi there, Bill!).
By the time I started college, I knew I had to come out. The realization terrified me. I was a very odd combination of unworldliness (what were those holes in the bathroom stall walls for?) and textbook knowledge. By the end of my sophomore year, the strain had taken its toll. That summer, I felt like I was going to break, reading everything I could about being gay (and there are so truly dire books out there), needing and fearing to deal with this. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I felt like my personality was fragmenting. I knew I couldn’t take much more, and when school started I manned up and went to my first support group for bisexuals, gays, and lesbians. It was freeing and terrifying and it became exactly what I needed in very short order.
I realized that I would only ever be free, truly free, if I stopped letting The Fear rule me and told those I was closest to. I lived at home that year while going to college, which made things easier and harder. I also knew that without a concrete deadline, I’d never tell a soul. Enter National Coming Out Day 1990. I took my mother for a walk in the park near our house to tell her. I figured she already knew. I mean, she had to, right? She was the one who took me to all those musicals and footed the bill for my interest in fashion, after all. It’s not like glitter and rainbows gushed from my mouth when I spoke or anything, but I never displayed any characteristics of straight boys. She just thought I was hygienic, I guess.
Boy was I ever wrong. It’s a good thing I was, too, or who knows how long I might’ve carried on with this nonsense. She was shocked, she was horrified (despite having lesbian friends), basically everything I’d feared all along. She blamed herself. She blamed me. It was a rough time, and given that my teen years under her roof and under her thumb had been pretty rough, this didn’t help. Had I not been financially dependent on my parents, I’ve have walked.
I went to PFLAG meetings with her, but I felt like there was a lot of blaming me for not being as understanding of her drama as I “should” have been. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for the fact that I had my own emotions to deal with, and that having to bear the brunt of hers was more than just the proverbial straw. It was the whole damn bail of hay. I don’t remember why she didn’t go by herself, but I refused to go back. I’d been blaming myself for this long enough, I didn’t need a bunch of do-gooders blaming me for not going belly up at my mom’s feet so she could pick out my liver at her leisure. Sorry, PFLAG, I’m told you do great work, but I never saw it.
What made the difference was my mom finally spoke to the one the ministers she knew. Fortunately, we belonged to a very liberal Protestant denomination, and gave us both useful information. To me, he said that while I’d had a lifetime to get used to the idea, she hadn’t. I should give her time. Of her, he asked a question, and it was a simple one. Did she like having a son? She affirmed that yes, she did. He then told her that if she played her cards right, she’d eventually have two, once I met someone. If she screwed this up and let her emotions get in the way, she’d have none because she’d have chased me off.
We moved through it. I wish I could say it made everything all sunshine and unicorns in my house, but it didn’t. I still had a very rocky relationship with my mother. Coming out just removed a major barrier and the issues it raised. It also set me free. I was able to be myself, to learn who I really was. I hadn’t been able to do that in the closet because I’d spent so much time protecting my deep, dark secret. It set me free to heal. It set me free to kiss a man for the first time and make dating mistakes and form misalliances with epically unsuitable men. Coming out liberated me to be a real person and not just a pretender in my life so that when I met the man I married, I was capable of forming and maintaining a healthy, loving relationship.
There are other memories, other stories to tell, like how my husband inadvertently outed me to my father, but those will keep for another time. Coming out was one of the best things I ever did for myself, maybe the best thing I ever did for myself. I’m an out and proud gay man, and this is so central to my self-identity I can’t imagine it being any other way.
So if you somehow end up reading this and aren’t out, think about it. It’s worth it. Drop me a line if you want. If you’re out, or aren’t gay, but know someone who’s struggling, pass this on if you think it’d help.
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