Today is National Coming Out Day
, so I thought I'd write my coming out story. This is the first time I've thought of these things as one story, connected, as opposed to separate memories of my life. Or, at least, it's certainly the first time I've tried to write it down.
I have memories of being different as young as four or five. I always looked at boys differently than I looked at girls. But much of my different-ness was expressed more by who I wasn't than by who I was. I was never a rough-and-tumble child and I never had much interest in "boy things." To this day, you can't get me more bored than by bringing up sports. Oh, I did/do like some parts of the summer Olympics: male gymnastics, swimming, and diving. (God, did I have a crush on Greg Louganis!)
My mother is a feminist, so she was pretty cool about the not living up to gender expectations. Still hurt by not being able to get a train set when she was young because it was a "boy's toy," Mom gave me an Easy Bake Oven. I was five or six and the only boy I knew with one. When I was eight, I had a hamster that I named Liza Minnelli. Swear to God. What's amazing to me is that this was all on my own. At the time, I had no idea I was a stereotype. It really is an interesting mystery how many (though I'm well aware not all) gay boys find their way to the same cultural icons.
When I was in the fourth grade, I made the mistake of sharing that I had a crush on a boy. I don't think I fully realized that this was not the norm and that this particular difference was not looked upon with favor. I'm not sure how I lived that one down.
In fifth grade, bookish library-dweller that I was, I first made connections and started to look up "homosexuality" in the index of books. By sixth grade, I felt apart from my peers, in my own isolated world. Not that I was willing or able to take on the label at that point.
It was seventh grade when I first started confiding in a female friend; we used to compare notes about cute boys. Some days she was fine with it; others, she would freak out. It was also around this time that I had a "girlfriend," who was a friend that I held hands with. I had no interest in anything else physical, although I did confess to her that I thought I may be "bisexual." (With many apologies to bisexuals everywhere. But, really, I was 13.)
Is there any way to describe junior high that would really give you an idea of what it was like for me? I lived in constant terror. The taunting began at the bus stop and was pretty much non-stop until I was home. (Which was not that much better, but those pleasant stories can wait.) I have to say that I wasn't beat up very often, but I lived in fear of my safety all the time and, of course, the ritual humiliation. I remember that my mantra inside my head is that I just wanted to be left alone. There was a particular tormentor whose name I can still remember.
I had a couple of misfit friends that weren't there in eighth grade. Picture a lunch room filled with those long tables that hinge in the middle so they could be folded upright. And there I was, sitting at a table to myself like I had leprosy.
There is no doubt in my mind that the 12-14 age group is the cruelest. Kids are trying to find out who they are, working to fit in, wanting to know their place in that microcosm of society. How I managed to not attempt suicide: I had a teacher, who became a mentor, that was very important to me. I do attribute my survival to her.
I kept a diary off and on. What's more interesting than what is in there is what isn't. No mention of same-sex feelings and other heavy-duty emotional things going on in my life. I was too terrified. But I did find an entry that, to me, brings up a larger question. On this day, I expressed a desire to see some of my tormentors dead and I was very serious. It was chilling to read this in a post-Columbine world. Why didn't I act on these feelings? Well, first, I didn't have access to an arsenal. And, second, while my parents were not very involved in my life, I did know that my mother loved me and that meant something to me.
I'm not sure that adults really understand how bad it can be. Social conservatives love to make fun of programs that try to make schools safer by working on underlying causes, like bullying and intolerance. They want military- and prison- style solutions. (And that is the direction my high school went in.) They have no problems with kids living in a hell, they just want to avoid bloodshed. The rest of us are just wimpy knee-jerk liberals that don't want to hold people responsible for their actions. We should just wait for something horrific to happen and then try the teens as adults. Such a shame that we can't put them to death anymore. And don't you dare suggest sharing the blame with adults who keep uzis lying around: These young people must learn that there are consequences to their actions.
We now return to our previous program.
High school was somewhat better, although I was called "faggot" every single day and I'm not exaggerating. Taking higher level classes meant that many of the other students had more important things to do than bother with me. Gym class was, as it is to so many gay boys, the bane of my existence. I made avoiding gym an art form. First, there are the forged notes. But that only goes so far without a doctor's note. I learned how to go AWOL. I still had to face the horror that is the locker room, but once attendance was taken, I would make myself scarce until the end of the period. I wasn't missed. (My God, how can we play whateverball without our star player?)
WAIT! All is not without hope. Within a couple weeks of graduation (the exercises I skipped, of course), I was at my first Gay Pride celebration in New York. There I was walking down the middle of Fifth Avenue with Gay and Lesbian Youth of New York holding hands with a guy who would become my first boyfriend. It was an unbelievable feeling of liberation. I had never seen so many gay people, never knew how diverse we are, never knew that this many people were willing to proclaim their identities in public. Not much could compare to the high of that day. (college graduation, our wedding)
I first started to tell people I was gay when I was 16; it was to the girl I went to a prom with (her prom, not mine -- shudder) to explain the lack of activity after the prom. It was all tearful and dramatic. She refused to believe me. (Because it was so out of character and people always say they're gay when they're not.) I told my mother a few months after and she more-or-less accepted it; it took a year or more to fully accept it. Of course, she wanted me to be celibate, presumably because of AIDS. (But what parent wants to acknowledge the sexuality of their children regardless?)
I didn't go "public" until I went to college. I deliberately chose a small uber-liberal school where I would feel safe. Those were my training wheels in being out. One of my favorite stories was when I was with another student after class and we continued a conversation back to my dorm room. He looked at the posters of boy candy (come on, I had a whole adolescence to make up for) and asked, "Is your roommate a faggot?" "No, I am." He had the decency to be deeply embarrassed. But, really, it wasn't about his question, it was about my answer.
[Another memorable exchange was when a campus doctor was taking a throat culture from me because an ick was going around and he very innocently observed that I was the first person that hadn't gagged. I looked him in the eye and said, "no comment." One would think that someone who had been to medical school wouldn't blush over something like that.]
I found my first college limiting academically, so I transferred to Huge University, close to where I grew up, after a year. I not only was out, I became an activist. The first thing to go up in my dorm room was a big pink triangle, much to the horror of my brother who helped me move in. Despite various dramas, I loved college. I loved the freedom, I loved learning, I loved the diversity and the exchange of ideas. I was in the running for BFOC.
I made the front page of a local paper, the one most read in the area where I grew up. (Granted, it was a Saturday, which I think has the lowest circulation.) My mother had a friend who never talked to her again after that day. Wow, bigotry by association. What a world.
What was cool is that I could see that my activism made a difference. I challenged the campus bookstore on the ridiculous wording on their job applications and they were forced to change to align with the university's non-discrimination policy. I had other students ask questions in response to the pink triangle I wore. At a meeting with university administration, I challenged their view that discrimination against LGBT people was not the same or as bad as race discrimination because we could "hide it." (I asked if they would ask Jews to remove yarmulkes if they were harassed or felt threatened.) I produced surprisingly well-attended forums on homosexuality and religion.
(By the way, I wasn't a one-issue person. I was also involved in protesting U.S. foreign policy, but I can wait to bore you with that another day.)
As out as I think I am, there are always challenges. Which people do you correct? Is this situation worth it? When do I say something that would out me in a new job situation? And I've learned that coming out isn't just about being gay; it's about the ongoing journey of living an authentic and integrated life.
A healthy Coming Out Day to you and yours. Next year in Canada!