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.