Hi everybody, I’m Greg. And I’m gay (shock and awe, right?).
Today is National Coming Out Day. Started in 1988, NCOD was a created by organizers of various gay rights organizations as a celebration of the Second National March in Washington a year earlier, in which 500,000 people headed to our nation’s capitol to stand up for gay and lesbian equality. The whole notion of NCOD was to offer an array of events and activities which would help to raise awareness about the LGBT Community and to encourage people of all orientations to “take your next step” in living openly and powerfully.
So, what’s it mean to be “out”? I’ve been for 22 years now, so I suppose I should know. Back in 1987, it was important for me to tell everyone I knew. It was a such a relief for me and it felt so solidly good to say it out loud, I’d have climbed up on the roof of the Fine Arts building and shouted it from there for all the world to hear, if not for my acrophobia and campus security. Silly straight rent-a-cops probably wouldn’t have understood. I’m not sure some of my straight friends did, entirely, either.
How could they know, really? They’d always been who they were, probably never gave a second thought to their sexual orientation, having grown up more or less matching societal expectations. I get that. But here’s the deal: I first had a clue I was attracted to guys when I was about five years old. I wasn’t abused by anyone, not coddled by my mommy or made to wear girls clothes. This is simply who I am, who I was born to be. The earliest related memory I have comes from about that age, when I was watching some teenagers rough-housing and wrestling. Innocent fun and not atypical of boys, but I remember feeling…something…that instinctively I knew was different.
Now you shouldn’t think I was having any kind of difficult childhood. In the lion’s share of respects, my life was pretty terrific, populated with a great big, loving and fun family, a wonderful assortment of friends, plenty of good times and great memories. I know people who’ve had much less pleasant childhoods and its not at all my intention to give the impression I’m hosting a nostalgic pity party for NCOD. I’m just trying to make a point, probably poorly, about growing up in that metaphoric closet.
I was a quiet, geeky kid who valued reading, did it all the time. Library books, comic books, magazines, newspapers, cereal boxes. Growing up in northern New Jersey, the NY Daily News was a regular staple of my reading diet. I was mostly interested in stories about firetrucks and railroads and animals and sometimes celebrities (they did more to earn the status back then, I believe…), but I was also always scanning the news for those key words, “homosexual”, “gay” or “queer”, words which I’d figured out, by quietly listening to other kids and adults, had something to do with me.
Sadly, most of the newspaper articles I found back then were about “sensational” (NYD is a tabloid, y’all…) crime cases or the nasty things that “nice orange juice lady” had to say about gay people, although occasionally there were stories of protests and parades and such. Not much for a gay kid who was thirsty for understanding. Thinking back on it makes me so proud and grateful for how far things have come since then. On television, the only “gay” character was Jack Tripper on Three’s Company, who wasn’t gay at all…or the mincing magical mannerisms of Uncle Arthur on reruns of Bewitched. Slim pickings for a kid who wanted to know there was someone else out there who felt the way he did and could show him how to deal with it.
Which isn’t to say I was totally isolated. There were plenty of other things I had in common with other people: music, reading, humor, among other things. But for 18 years after that first glimmer of self-recognition, I was a double agent. That’s how it felt after a while, pretending to be like everyone else, knowing you had this secret that people would laugh about if they knew, having to laugh along with them at those jokes about queers (so they wouldn’t know – oh, how I hope I never said anything cruel to someone about being gay to cover myself…), knowing they could hurt me or maybe worse if I was revealed. That was clear from the newspapers. And the teenage years, when the forces of puberty rally to wreck the innocence and steal intelligence and reason from even the smartest of kids, only made that worse. Now every kid had a monster inside them and the only way to hide it was to find someone else to pick on.
It’s funny that gay-dar, the “gift” of being able to spot another queer in public, is attributed to gay folks. Sure, being inside it, we probably do have some unique insight, but the kids I went to school with had it pretty good, too, needing only to know that I had no aptitude for sports or fighting or cars to guess that I was gay. I suppose I owe a debt of thanks to a bigoted BSA scout leader who laid down an ultimatum with me circa 1978, telling me I could march in the Veteran’s Day parade with my fellow Boy Scouts, or “with those fags from the marching band.” It was possibly the first time I truly accepted who I was and made a decision based on that, although I certainly didn’t make anything much out of it at the time.
As my high school years drew to a close, I had come to some silent internal acceptance, anyway. I knew there were other gays out there somewhere and thought maybe getting off into a college environment would help me find them. All I wanted was someone to talk to…well, at first, anyway. Someone who knew how I felt, who could maybe tell me it was all right, that things would work out okay. Even with talk of a “gay cancer” in the news, I felt a little bit of hope.
But the first gay person I met was so effeminate, I thought he was a (very large) woman for the first several hours we were acquainted, not to mention miserable and bitter and in so very many ways not at all the kind of person I wanted to be. I did find a friend to talk to, but he was more closeted than me even, and in order to preserve himself counseled me about it being okay to be gay, but not to talk about it. Sigh.
I thank my dear friend Angie Cooper for finally prying my closet open a few years later. She stood there at the door, gently coaxing me out of the shadows, encouraging me with love and laughter to step into the light, to tell my family and friends, to accept who I was with pride. It was scary, but I did it. And oh, I can’t even begin to tell you what it felt like, the freedom from just saying those words, “I’m gay.” It was liberating, like I had wings. I felt like I was being honest for maybe the first time in my life.
My family were (and are) pretty wonderful, a wellspring of love and support. Lots of friends said, “Oh yah, we know. Good for you being able to say it. Now let’s get on with ___.” and that was pretty great. I imagine some folks were a little off-put by my enthusiasm for the subject, and some backed away from me. Lots of people had questions, which I was (and am still) happy to answer for them as best I could. Doing so helped them to see me more clearly and to understand something they knew little about. And it encouraged me to do the same.
The ones who were truly friends remain so today, and the rest, well, I guess they weren’t really friends, were they? In time, I calmed down a little on the subject and got on with the other important businesses of Life. Being gay is not all that I am, after all, though it’s an integral part and not something I can ignore or pretend about.
But coming out isn’t something you do just once. It’s something one is always doing. Each time I meet someone new, I sort of calculate who I think they are, how they are likely to react to the news, whether it happens to be important to our relationship (In the workplace with clients it often is not, though I used to wear a gold wedding band and would be regularly asked about “my wife”. In those cases, I always replied carefully and honestly. Maybe being a caterer is one of those few professions where being gay gives you a little extra cred.).
I marvel at how much things have changed during my short forty-something years. Queers of all shapes, sizes, flavors and colors get some representation – are some of our most beloved characters even – on television these days. There’s a gay channel. Walt Disney World has a gay day. The media still often under-represent our numbers for marches and such, but at least there are fewer billy clubs and paddy wagons at gay gatherings these days. Of course, in lots of places, it’s still possible to lose one’s job just for being homosexual. But in six states, if I am lucky enough to find the man I truly wish to spend my remaining days and nights with, I may marry him. I never ever imagined that might be a possibility.
There’s a march happening in Washington DC today, in fact. As I write this, my queer brothers and sisters (and many straight folks, too) are converging on the capitol by the train, car, bus and plane load. How I wish I could stand with them today. To be shoulder to shoulder with them all, to be counted in the sunshine, so that young kids like I used to be – who think they have a horrible, unbearable secret – will be able to look at their televisions or web browsers or what-have-you tonight and think “I am not alone.” That, to me, is the value of coming out.
I’m with you in spirit, my Dears.
I’m queer. I’m here. Get used to it. : )
PS: Fond happy birthday wishes are offered to Joe: thanks for all you do for all of us.