Sunday, November 25, 2007

Anniversary

I can't remember the date, unfortunately, but just before Thanksgiving, twenty-two years ago (sweet merciful cats), I began coming out. Every year for the past three or four, I will suddenly remember that fact right about now. I think the change in weather, and the looking inward that this season triggers in me is what bring the memory to the surface.

I was a sophomore in college, and actually the whole semester I had been considering coming out, working myself up to do it. I had, up until that year, thought that I would just be single and celibate all my life. That just seemed the easiest and most sensible course of action. I talk about my misanthropy in an earlier entry, so I won't go into it here. I'm thinking about other things right now.

I think that Autumn I was coming to accept that I had a secret that, yes, did matter, and I was withholding it from people whom I loved, and who loved me. I was lying, at least by omission, to important people in my life. The 'Live like a Monk for the Rest of Your Life' plan only worked if I stuck to my original policy to keep everyone at arm's length. I had been rethinking that policy all semester; this secret, I could no longer deny, just stood in the way of relationships I now wanted. Oddly enough I came out first to a guy I barely knew, pretty much in the spur of the moment. Once I said the words, I had a moment of panic where I felt like I could never take it back, that something was about to take off that I couldn't control. Fortunately this new friend turned out to be a good choice. I sat down four of my closest friends the following evening, and told them. So far, I was five for five in the positive response category.

Then came the big hurdle. I was attending the college where my Dad taught, so I realized I would have to tell my family, before they found out through other channels if I didn't want to hurt them all terribly. That gave me a six week vacation to get it done. Just as I was beginning to chicken out, Mom asked ME, on Christmas Day, then I sat Dad, Mary and James down the next day. I was now nine for nine in the supportive category.

You have to understand, I KNEW they would be supportive. Sure, Dad had been fond of the occasional fag joke when in the bosom of his family (and whether he sensed something, or I was just more sensitive, there seemed to be more of them that vacation), but he and Mom had gay and lesbian friends. I knew that during the year my Dad was acting president, students had formed a gay people's union, and causing an uproar on the school board. Dad went into the next board meeting with a letter or resignation in his pocket, ready to submit it if they ordered him to disband the group. My sister had written a letter to the editor when she was in college, denouncing a homophobic article that had appeared in the paper. I was less certain how my baby brother would react, but I was used to bossing him around, knew he loved me, and would listen to all of us. As far as my friends were concerned, I knew they would be supportive too; consciously or not I had probably weeded out the homophobes from my close friends long ago. Everyone reacted as I expected. I had nothing but supportive experiences each time I came out.

What is my point? My point is, I knew the people who mattered in my life would not disown or drop me and I still found it absolutely terrifying to take the plunge. I had worked up to it for at least a year before I could do it. What had been holding me back, if it wasn't family or friends? Hell if I can say for sure now. Part of the problem was I had known I was different for as long as I could remember, and even before I had a name for it, I knew it was shameful thing, to be kept secret. So even when I had intellectually concluded that there was nothing wrong with (other) people being gay, my deep dark secret was too deeply ingrained. The habits of a lifetime simply wouldn't allow me to come out, and we're talking a lifetime that was only nineteen years long. It just wasn't an option for me. Just 'cause.

I keep all this in mind anytime I talk to someone who is just starting the coming out process. He or she may be facing much more daunting prospects than I ever did. Friends, or worse, family could turn ugly. People might lose jobs, homes, or important relationships. I never had to face any of that, and I was still terrified. Coming out for me, not counting the initial moment of "oh shit I can't take it back" was a series of one relief after the other, but this may not be every one's experience.

Right after the big hurdles were behind me, I became furious with myself for all the wasted time. Forgotten was the very real risk of violence I could have faced at junior high or high school. Forgotten was the likelihood that I would have been the only openly gay kid in my school system, hell, town. Forgotten was all the internal rubble I had cleared before I could do it. Forgotten was the nameless terror. Nope, once I was on the other side, it all seemed so easy. Ridiculously easy. Seven whole years I could have been living life, I told myself, and I had been too chicken to.

I would imagine the temptation to think this way gets worse the older one is when one comes out, but I don't think it helps. We just have to accept that we go at the pace we have to. We may need a little push now and then, to inch out of a comfort zone grown unnecessarily constricting, but for the most part, we take the steps when we're ready. I should never think I can tell someone else how he or she should do it. I can just be there along the way to say, "yes, good for you, congratulations, I know it's scary, I'm sorry they said that, yes of course you can call me, hang in there." Secretly I may want to say "it gets better, it gets easier, you'll be glad you did this, really, keep it up, trust me," but I refrain (most of the time). I can't promise that.

So for anyone who is in this process, and may be entering the holidays (family!) with extra butterflies, let me just say yes, I know it's scary. Take it easy, take it slow, hang in there, make sure you have support, be kind to yourself.

And congratulations.

9 comments:

Java said...

Inspiring post, Patrick. Thanks for sharing.

Jess said...

Seven whole years I could have been living life, I told myself, and I had been too chicken to.

Oh yes, I remember those years of my life well... and with regret. Coming out is so liberating. Coming out not just to the world but to one's self. I wish I had admitted the truth to myself and the world a lot sooner, but I'm glad I did when I did. It certainly was for the best.

somewhere joe said...

Happy Anniversary Patrick! Sounds like you started laying the groundwork for your coming out in a way that would minimize the trauma some time before you did it. Very wise.

I never really came out as such - I had somehow developed an unshakable trust the validity of my homosexual feelings pretty early in life. I had a boyfriend by my junior year in high school. I was regarded as rather an enfant terrible by then anyway, in both my family and my social setting, and my homo/ambisexualitywas just one more aspect of my artsy ways. And the times they were a-changin. It was a rather liberal community, preconditioned by Kinsey, post-war liberalization and the dawning sexual revolution, and somewhat tantalized by all the newfangled modes. Like you, I got something of a pass.

I did have a brief period of religious angst. Primarily occasioned by having snuck off, must have been seventh or eighth grade, to the mens room at church during mass to jerk off, only to orgasm as the sanctus bells were ringing for consecration. How Genet is that? So I prayed very hard for a time for God to straighten me out. But soon abandoned the effort. I think I realized on some level that I was profoundly accepted and that God couldn't be lobbied into honoring my religioius hangups or changing what he wasn't holding against me to begin with.

However, over the years, it has occurred to me at times that perhaps a celibate life would have been easier. ,oD

Sooo-this-is-me said...

Well you know I am just loving this post! Funny how we each see things, you were upset for coming out at twenty, then there is me only coming out now. Sometimes I get really down when I hear about guys that dated in highschool and know I missed that wonder of youth, however I can't change that so I'm working out looking ahead. This was really helpful Patrick, thank you.

Steven

Patrick said...

Wow Joe, yeah that's pretty damn Genet. I hope bells don't traumatize you now. Maybe they have the opposite effect.

SO none of my business, moving on...

Another odd thing in all this was I never had an religious angst about being gay either. One of the benefits of a Quaker upbringing I guess, or at least my branch; there wasn't anyone claiming he knew God better than me. Well no one that any of us took seriously.

I've met a few people who, like you, never really needed to come out, they just went about living their lives. I'm in awe of that. You must have had a good amount of ego-strength to make that work. Enfant terrible, yeah that would help in a situation like this. I was much too concerned with being good, now that I think about it.

My town was conservative, but the college that constituted my family's true community wasn't at all. I probably would have found friends at school as well (more than one person had decided I was gay ages before), yet with all that, I still couldn't even consider the plunge. I find it mind-boggling now, safely on the other side, but at the time staying closeted was not even a no brainer, other possibilities simply didn't exist in my mind.

Don't you wish the Kinsey scale were used more often? I think it gets closer to representing the spectrum.

Steven, always glad when someone else can relate... don't let Joe, (the bastard) bring you down. He's an anomoly and we're not sure we like him very much. Listen to Jess and me, we're MUCH more normal.

(Is it too soon to be teasing you like that, Joe?)

Anyway, Steven, have you seen the movie "Beautiful Thing"? Probably, but in case you haven't, check it out. When I saw it, I felt nostalgic for an experience I never had. It felt like the gay fairy tale I hadn't known I was craving. I've appreciated lots of other gay movies, but none had that same effect on me.

Patrick said...

And for the record, regarding the celibate life: after four years with only brief interruptions, I'm not sure the word I'd use to describe it is "easy". In case you were wondering.

Sooo-this-is-me said...

Patrick, yes I saw Beautiful Thing and it had the exact same effect on me, it was one of the things that kick started me back into life. Celibate, ha, I'm a pro, the last time I had any was mid 90s, sadly I'm not joking.

Steven

john said...

I admire your bravery. I'm pretty sure my family won't be supportive. We are ultra conservative.
I'm nearing 40 and I'm thinking a celibate life rather than telling them would be a good journey at times.
I've told some people, but not too many...and every time I think I'm going to tell someone, I don't only have butterflies, there are vultures tearing at my stomach.

Patrick said...

John,
I sympathize, it may be a much harder process for you, if you decide to come out to your family. Those vultures in one's stomach, I know them well, and I didn't have to deal with religious obstacles from any of my loved ones. That has got to be one of the hardest hurdles. I really believe coming out, like anything difficult, gets easier with time and practice, but that's not all that comforting, is it. Of the people you've told, have you gotten supportive reactions? Just having a few loved ones who we can be honest with is such a help, giving us grounding and strength to pursue our own health.

This entry of mine was partly to remind myself not to go around giving unsolicited advice to anyone. That said, I'm giving you some advice, to be taken or ignored as you like. I hope whatever choices you make are ones leading you to the best level of health and happiness you feel able to take in the moment. It sucks that such choices are rarely the easy ones, but don't feel like you have to jump off a cliff either. Baby steps, they're the answer. Your level of comfort may shift over time, so that what feels safe now may later feel constricting. At that point you may feel it necessary to take the NEXT baby step towards greater health and happiness. And lean on those trusted friends! I have to remind myself of this a LOT, for various reasons. I guess I'm a little slow.

Good luck, and keep me posted, as you see fit.

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