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On Growing Up Gay: My Story
Friends today I want to offer a blog with a different subject matter. With all that is going on in the world and the attack on LGBTQ rights that seems to be rapidly underway, I wanted to share a blog post about my experience of growing up gay. I hope that it humanizes the process and maybe serves as a resource for anyone who needs it in regards to their own sexuality or to someone they care for and love. Though I have been out for 20 years, I have never really written about or shared this part of my journey before. It’s a place of new vulnerability and openness for me to make so public, but I can remember plenty of lonely isolated nights from 1991-1997 where I would have given anything to know someone else had been through what I was going through. I would have desperately wanted to know I was not alone in what I was facing, that there were people like me, and more than anything, that in the end it was all going to be ok.
Phew, here we go. . .
The question I get most often about being gay is, “When did you know you were gay?” Looking back on my life, I would say that in some way I always knew. I always knew from a young age there was something different about me, but I didn’t know what. I had no real reference point for it, so I mostly didn’t think about it.
It wasn’t until I was about 10 or 11 when I began to realize there was something more going on. The next most common question I get about being gay is, “How did you know you were gay?” My answer is always, “I don’t mean this to sound flip, but how do you know you’re straight?” For me at least, and I know this differs quite a bit amongst LGBTQ folks, it was that clear. I just knew and I knew. I wasn’t bisexual, or questioning, I was gay. By the age of 12 I knew this with absolute certainty.
Now I have incredibly liberal parents and come from a very liberal Boston family. And as you’ll see, my parents were textbook amazing with my coming out. But the only messages I had ever received, be they from peers or from society, were that being gay was just about the worst thing you could be. It was not uncommon at this time, and sadly today as well, to hear of kids being kicked out of their houses after coming out or being outed. You would see signs on the news coverage of the AIDS Crisis saying things like “AIDS Cures Fags”. I would hear, directed at me or other boys, “dirty faggot” and “fu#%ing queer”. Cumulatively it all conspired to make me feel like there was nothing worse than this, and that I would have to suppress it for the rest of my life.
This was also the early 90’s. The AIDS Crisis was at its height and most of the coverage of LGBTQ people was in the context of AIDS and it scared me to death. The movie Philadelphia had just come out starring Tom Hanks as a man dying of AIDS, and this was basically the context in which I learned what being gay was. Being gay was dangerous, AIDS could kill you, you could be beaten to death, humiliated, and or you would just lead a sad and miserable life.
Plus there was direct bullying every day of my schooling. I was called everything from fag, to queer, to fairy, to hearing things like “we’re gong to kill you faggot” and “all fags should be burned alive.” This drove me to suicidal ruminations on more than one occasion. I wasn’t even out and I was being bullied this severely, what could have been in store for me if they really knew? Add to that I didn’t live in a conservative area of the country, I was in the liberal suburbs west of Boston. So I sealed the closet door even tighter. I straightened my wrists, tried to butch up my voice, made sure I did the appropriate high fives with other guys giving just the right amount of macho force. Even to this day, I catch myself reflexively trying to “butch up” when talking to straight men.
What was most worrying to me was how black and white coming out felt. I knew once I threw open the closet door the closet would vaporize. There was no grey area. Even if I had wanted to test the waters by saying I was “questioning” the door for me would have disappeared. The painful safety of the closet would be gone forever.
And as safe as it felt in some ways, the closet is also a particular kind of excruciating crucible. There is a constant and pervasive fear. You aren’t just afraid in your outer life, you’re afraid in your internal world. You’re afraid of yourself, what you’re thinking, of what you’re portraying to the outer world. Exhausting hyper-vigilance becomes a way of life. The natural flow of your true nature gets stagnated and turned back in on itself until it festers into a seething pool of self-hatred. Even after coming out, gay men often carry this feeling of self-hatred and loathing with them sometimes for most of their lives. It affects our sense of worthiness, our self-esteem, relationships, ability to form intimate bonds, and a whole host of other social and emotional issues. Maybe worst of all, it often turns gay men on each other. Louise Hay said in her book You Can Heal Your Life, “The way the world treats gay men is horrible, but the way gay men treat each other is tragic.” It is my hope that we may all as gay men fully heal our wounds so that we may be kinder and easier with each other.
The harder you seal the closet door the more the pressure builds. So in the summer of 1997 it was all coming to a head. I had met my first gay friends at a part-time job. Incidentally these were the first guys I came out to, and they gave me that sweet look only older gay men can give to a kid coming out. That look that says, “oh honey it will be ok and by the way we’ve known the whole time.”
As I got to know them they decided to pick me up for a movie. Now my parents had gay friends, they had been to gay bars, they were going to have a good idea of what was going on. So one night at dinner, mid-August of 1997, I broke down in uncontrollable sobbing and came out to my parents. Their reaction was better than I ever could have hoped for. I never let a day go by where I don’t feel thankful for my parents and family and for the support they showed me during that time. Sadly my friends, this is not always the case for kids coming out. It is not uncommon, even in 2017, for kids to be kicked out of their homes or otherwise shunned from their families for being gay. It’s why I am so grateful for the many LGBTQ organizations that exist nationwide that offer support. I have listed some at the end of this blog.
The rest of the story is one of discovery, a lot of joy, and a lot of heartbreak. I went to college, found relationships, lost relationships, and got to the business of learning how to be a gay man in the world. The years in the closet took their toll and it took many years to heal them and put them behind me. 20 years later, I can actually say I love who I am and love the fact that I’m gay. I like that I’m naturally different, that I’m free from so many of the agonizing constraints of societal masculinity, and that I have such impeccable taste in decorating my home (a good bonus). This was my journey, and it continues. I don’t profess this to be the experience of every gay man, but it was mine. I just had to trust that little space within me that knew all would be well. The quiet little voice in my heart that said, “It’s really going to be ok, just keep going.”
For anyone who is LGBTQ or friends and family of LGBTQ:
1. Know you are not alone. You really aren’t. You. Are. Not. Alone. The LGBTQ community is here for you, and all of us that are out have felt at one time or another the excruciating isolation and fear of the closet. Or maybe we’ve known the excessive hyper-vigilance of keeping our mannerisms under control, or remembering to swap pronouns, or any of the other challenges of growing up out of mainstream sexuality. We’ve known what it feels like to think life will never get easier or happier. But it can, and it does, and there’s a whole community of support around you. You are never alone.
2. Coming out is very personal and is an individual experience. You have to come out when you feel it’s right and when it’s safe to do so. Be smart about it and consider all relevant factors before making the decision to leave the closet.
3. Seek out the support of other gay people to help you. Organizations like PFLAG, The Trevor Project, It Gets Better Project all have fantastic resources to help figure out your path.
4. Often times, even with the best of coming out situations, there are residual issues that need to be resolved to bring about emotional balance and health. Seek out counseling even if only to have an impartial voice to guide you and help you establish your identity in a healthy way.
5. For relatives, friends, and loved ones of someone coming out, I can’t tell you how important you are to them. If someone trusts you enough to come out to you I can assure you they REALLY trust you. They are feeling more vulnerable than you can even imagine, and they really need you. Your love, attention, and acceptance are life saving. PFLAG (Parents Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is a great organization with fantastic resources for relatives and friends of LGBTQ people.