So today is National Coming Out day. Since I came out almost 20 years ago, there's not much of a big announcement to make on days like today. I do still feel that act of coming out is critical, though, and not just for the gay community at large but for the individual themselves. I have known many gay people who felt that they could not be honest with friends, family, or co-workers, and I could see the negative impacts on their lives because of it. Certainly, no one should feel that they have to come out if they are in a dependent situation where a negative response would affect their ability to have a place to live or food to eat. I do think there are a lot of people out there who are independent who still hide themselves from people in their lives because they feel that this one fact would damage their relationships.
What I found in my own coming out process was that these fears were completely baseless, and a little insulting to those around me. When I came out, I discovered that my friends like me for who I was, not who I was attracted to. My family loves me because I am their son, brother, cousin. My co-workers respect me because I am smart, friendly, and good at my job. That this one tiny thing would be such a turn off for them that they could never speak to me or be around me again was selling these people short. I do recognize that I am incredibly fortunate to have such an awesome family and group of friends and co-workers, and that not everybody does. Still though, there were many reactions I could never have predicted from people I knew very well.
When I came out to someone for the first time (which was also the first time I had spoken the words "I'm gay" aloud) I was 19 and in college. I was talking to a friend from high school who went to college in a different state than me. She was and remains a fairly conservative person, and I was scared to say it for fear of losing her friendship, but I found myself letting it all out. I could not have asked for a better response from her. Thankfully it wasn't the "yeah I know"that I would receive later on in life, but instead she said that she had no idea, thanked me for telling her, and told me that no matter what we were friends and she loved me. That was my first experience in a long line of complete acceptance. People who know me, know the things that make me who I am and appreciate or dislike me because of the whole package, which is how it should be. Shortly after talking to my high school friend, I became more open with my college friends, and yes, lost some of them over the news. What a relief it was to be able to be myself finally and be able to say and acknowledge what I was feeling. Unless I was around my family of course...
The first family member I told was my father. Well I didn't so much "tell" him as I wrote a letter all about it and left it in my room conspicuously so that it would be found. And he did find it and wrote one back to me that I still have. In the letter he told me that it was okay, that I was his son and that he loved me no matter what. He also gave me some sage advice that was very very true. He told me that I should never let my sexuality be the first thing someone knows about me because for a lot of people, that would be all they'd ever know. I remember that well and I have kept to it, and I have found, as you do with parental advice, that he was right. To say that my father has been supportive would be an understatement. When Jeff and I had our commitment ceremony, it was at his house, in the backyard. He has also been one to speak up on rights for all minorities and even if he didn't have a gay son, he would be one of the most vocal supporters of gay rights I know.
Later on I told my mother. At the time, our relationship was strained to say the least. I honestly thought that if she reacted badly, I could distance myself from her enough that it wouldn't be as upsetting. The good news is that this was all for nothing. My mom and I cried as we talked about it, but the thing I remember most about her own journey was when she told me "at first I prayed for it to not be true, but then I started praying for God to help me accept it." And accept it she has, and then some. She is never shy to speak up on my behalf when people make bigoted comments or speak as though there's something wrong with someone for being gay. Once again, my fear was misplaced.
When Jeff and I got married, my parents paid for all the food, decorations, drinks. My family was there to share tears of joy with us, laugh with us, and share every minute of our special day. My 77 year old southern baptist grandmother was there and afterward came up to me and said "all I care about is that you're happy, and I can tell you are." I will always be incredibly grateful for the love my family continually shows for me and each other.
On a MUCH less saccharine level is the story of when I told my sisters. The three of us have always been very close as siblings and never more so than when I was in college. We had dinner once a week at their apartment, spent a lot of time together having fun. I was pretty nervous when at dinner one week I sat them down to talk to them. When I told them I am gay, they responded with "...and?" At first I figured my parents must have told them, but no, they were smart enough to figure it out on their own. They were afraid I had something serious to tell them, but no, just that. And they totally knew, and didn't care, and then proceeded to make fun of me for even worrying about it in the first place :)
Coming out is a never ending journey. Mine continues to this day as I meet new people at work, or as friends of friends, or whatever. I didn't stay in the closet long, but once I came out I was finally able to be my real self, and not worry about someone finding out my secret. I have a lot of friends who consider me their token gay friend, a mantle I proudly and happily take. Coming out is not about being brave, or being political, but about being yourself. For all the world to see.