Monday, October 11, 2010

My coming out story

In honor of National Coming Out Day, and in light of the recent media coverage of suicides, I'll share my coming out story.

It's bizarre to think it's been 15 years since the first time I told someone I was gay. When you build up to that, it's a huge deal. Then afterward, particularly years afterward, you don't remember what the big deal was. "What did you really think was going to happen?" you ask your former self. The big deal, I think, is that if you're gay but haven't told anyone, you have a mismatch between the identity everyone else sees and the one you see in yourself, and that can't continue in a healthy way. But making the choice to bring your inner identity out is hard because of the deep level of self-exposure, and drastically altering your outer identity is hard because of the uncertainty about how everyone will react. Coming out is both of these things, so it's not small potatoes. Even if you "act gay" and think that only a deaf and blind person wouldn't guess it, it's still pretty terrifying to confirm it publicly and change the context in which everyone in your life relates to you. It's exactly the kind of thing you love putting off until tomorrow.

Unfortunately for me, I shared my childhood home with right-wing Christians, which is to say homophobes. (Side note: I think it's ironic that those characteristics so often go together, since right-wing should mean freedom-loving, and Christian should mean compassionate. But I don't make the rules.) I grew up knowing no gay people, seeing no (or very few) positive portrayals of gay people in the media, and hearing mostly derogatory characterizations of gay people; I still remember my dad saying at the dinner table that all the goddamn homosexuals should be sent to an island and that the island should be destroyed. I remember my mom being scared and disgusted when I told her a man had smiled at me, warning me to ignore him because he was probably gay. I remember my older brother saying bisexual people were even more "fucked up" than gay people. I was too little when all these things happened to even know what gay was (although perhaps on some deeper level I remember these things because I really always knew), but certainly I remember being assured that gay people were gross, terrible, scary, un-American and evil. That these messages are not healthy for a gay kid is obvious; I'd actually argue they're perhaps even more harmful for a straight kid, but that's another issue.

I think I first started to realize I might be gay in 7th grade, and I was certain by 8th, although I didn't think for a moment I would ever tell anyone; I fought it and was determined to keep it a secret, date girls, marry a woman and fool everyone until I was dead. Fortunately for me, around this time I started to forge some very special friendships, mostly with girls, and these bonds of trust were what prompted me to start confiding my feelings. I'm not sure when and how I would have come out if it weren't for my friends.

I went to camp for six consecutive summers, 1990-1995, and made friends I'm still close with today. The first three people I came out to were friends from camp. The first was in the fall of 1995, when I was a junior in high school. I told her on the phone (she was in Florida); she was very supportive (and turned out later to be bisexual). Unfortunately for her, she became the only one who knew my secret, so I relied on her a great deal to talk about all the fears, feelings and concerns I hadn't been able to share with anyone for so many years. I'm very grateful she endured that, because I'm sure it was annoying -- she was, after all, an adolescent with her own crap to deal with. A couple months later, I told another friend from camp (who in turn revealed to me that she was a lesbian), and a few months after that, I told a third friend from camp, a guy (who, to my total surprise, told me he was also gay).

I'd never made a coming out plan; it just unfolded naturally. And this was a very nice way to test the waters, with people who turned out to be queer, no less. I got to have those long conversations without having to go all-in with an identity change at school. It really doesn't get much easier than that.

Then my senior year started. At that time, I hadn't told anyone at school, even though I'd developed some very close friendships. Being out at school meant not controlling the information and the private conversations people might have, and that freaked me out. Plus, having to tell my friends at school was too real, too face-to-face, and too likely to get back to my parents. I hadn't even so much as been on a date with or kissed a guy (how could I, when I didn't know any gay kids), but I was still worried about what people would say.

I may not have ever come out at school if my senior year hadn't taken an unexpected turn when I developed a crush on a classmate I suspected was possibly gay. That was a tricky situation. Any boy would be nervous about befriending a crush, then add the gay thing, the being-in-the-closet thing, the no-romantic-experience-whatsoever thing ... and, atop all that, just being a nervous person in general. Nevertheless, I was 17, and kids that age do pretty bold things, and I started looking for ways to talk to him.

I started building up the courage to tell some of my closest friends at school that I was gay, one by one, and that I had a crush on someone and wasn't sure what to do. I was very lucky that they all reacted well. Some just listened, which I appreciated, and others actively helped me get into situations where I could get to know my crush a little better.

Slowly, the pretty boy and I became friends, and after several weeks we finally built up the courage to come out to each other. We dated until I went to college.

Not long after we got together, we decided to be out at school, which basically meant we told friends, told them they could tell whomever they wanted, and acknowledged that we were a couple when asked. And we had an amazingly positive experience. We didn't exactly make out in the halls, but I think we carried on like any other couple at school, and between us we had a pretty large circle of friends that spanned two classes (he was a year younger than me). Nobody bothered us, even once. Being in a relationship made coming out a thousand times easier, I have to say, because I was going through it with someone else, and I felt like I was living in an example that proved being gay was OK and could look like any other normal relationship. Again, that may seem obvious now, but at the time I'd never met a gay couple. So as I began to internalize that our relatoinship looked OK from the outside, I became OK with it on the inside. I eventually started slowly telling my family. Nobody kicked me out.

Anyway, that's my story. It was a very exciting, scary and thrilling time, still one I look back on fondly. Nothing's more empowering than letting out a secret like that. It's very painful to feel like you have to hide something fundamental about yourself, and being gay is a fundamental thing. Many people think "gay" is a label that describes who you're attracted to; that's why they think it should be a private matter, and something like National Coming Out Day is just an intrusive, discomforting, unnecessary nuisance. But being gay is about a lot more than who you're attracted to. It shapes all your relationships with friends, family and the world. It changes your worldview, the way you see violence, art, children, clothes, love, religion ... I'm not saying gay people all have the same views on those things, I'm saying that being gay shapes your views on those things in whatever way is personal to you. Gay people are different from straight people, and of course different from one another, and Coming Out Day is, to me, about taking steps toward creating a world where we understand we're interconnected, each of us special, and that we can't allow our world to be one that permits certain types of people to systematically be made to feel lesser, because they're not.


  1. Great story... glad it turned out well for you.

    I don't remember you dating anyone in high school, but glad it worked for you. I am now a GSA sponsor at the school I teach at in STL. I am constantly trying to stop the comments like you talk about that students (and parents) make... hopefully it helps some students feel more comfortable with themselves.

    Ada (from high school) - don't remember how I came about your blog, but I enjoy reading your stories. ;-)

  2. What a thoughtful and eloquent post. I just wanted to let you know that the young adolescent girl you came out to never once had a problem with you confiding in her or being the person you could turn to about your fears or concerns. She had her own fears and concerns too and was very lucky to find such a true loyal person to share her dreams and life experiences with. There was no "unfortunately for her", only joy and pleasant memories and pride for her talented, magical, and wonderful friend, who is truly the brother she never had. If I had to do it again, I'd do it a thousand times with a smile on my face. Happy Coming Out Day. Thank you for being the one and only you, it's been my life's privilege to walk through this life with such a bold and intelligent person by my side. Much love always.

  3. Eloquently written, you've got a gift!

  4. Thanks for sharing your story, John. You have such an amazing way with words!

  5. Great post. Love you for being you. That's what we all strive for- being authentic and true to ourselves!