October 11, 2010
“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.”
—François Duc de La Rochefoucauld, “Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims”
“No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter”
Today is National Coming Out Day, dedicated to increasing awareness of gay and lesbian people, and to promoting discussion and understanding of gay and lesbian issues. Now I’ve been “out” for well over a decade, so I’ve really never paid much attention to Coming Out Day as an event. But a number of recent events—a rash of gay youth suicides, an assistant attorney general harassing the openly gay student body president at the University of Michigan, public debate over ending the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy” and expanding marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, politicians espousing anti-gay rhetoric to pander to far-right voters, an NFL team ejecting a lesbian couple for kissing at a pro football game—have made me rethink my usual “eh, whatever” attitude toward the whole Coming Out Day agenda.
To those of you who are straight, it is difficult to describe the emotional and psychological struggle faced by your gay friends and relatives who are in the closet. Although living in the closet and the process of coming out are necessarily intensely personal experiences, I think my experience is probably rather typical in many respects.
I grew up in rural Nebraska, in a tiny farm town in the aptly named Republican River valley. The social calendar revolved around school functions and church events. The main two churches in the area were both Lutheran—not the more mainstream Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), but the smaller and starkly more conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. During my days as a college philosophy and religion major, I often described the Missouri Synod as “Catholic Lite”—all the guilt, none of the fun. With church doctrine in favor of capital punishment, opposed to abortion, and clinging to the idea of women as subservient to men, it will come as no surprise that “homosexuality” was on the “burn in hell” side of the ledger.
Of course, in rural Nebraska in the 1970s and 80s, the idea of “gays” was probably a more foreign concept than Hinduism. After all, TV was basically still just over-the-air networks with strict FCC standards, while the only movies to make it to one of the single-screen theatres in our neck of the woods were mainstream flicks, months behind the national distribution cycle. So yeah, growing up I had heard the words “homosexual” and “gay”, and kids around school told plenty of gay/faggot jokes (mostly from the Truly Tasteless Jokes series of books), but frankly, I really had no concept of what it meant to be “gay”.
Nonetheless, as long as I can remember, I’ve known I’m gay. I’ve never been remotely interested in women as romantic or sexual partners at any point in my life. Instead, women have always just struck me as interesting people to be friends with. Now, the research is still unclear as to why some folks end up gay instead of straight—it’s likely a complex combination of genetic, hormonal, and psychosocial factors—but let me assure you, I never at any point in my life “chose” to be gay, any more than my straight guy friends woke up one day and thought, “Wow, girls are sexy!” But, I did always sense that my lack of attraction to women made me “different” in a way that was frowned upon by, well, just about everybody. So, like any other kid who wanted nothing more than to fit in, I simply hid anything that made me stick out from the crowd.
In my case, it was actually fairly easy to blend in, to pass as straight. I’ve always had a natural love of sports, which serves as the lingua franca for “manly men”. My appearance and mannerisms aren’t notably feminine, my attire tends more toward the typical guy next door than urban metrosexual, and on the weekends I’m more interested in playing poker or watching a game and having a beer with friends than heading to a club. Frankly, I probably got more flack because I was the school uber-geek than because of any perception that I might be gay. In fact, being a bit geeky probably helped me blend in, as my friends and family attributed my lack of romantic life to my geekiness, rather than looking any deeper. None of this is meant to suggest that other gay men ought to act like me, only that I fell far enough from the classic gay stereotype that it was easy for me to play the closet game.
Ahh yes, the game. Throwing myself into studies, work, and extra-curricular activities to provide a ready-made “too busy to date” persona. Going on the occasional fix-up date or double date to keep straight friends from looking too closely at me. Creating an acceptable excuse why a suggested woman wasn’t “right” for me. Finding a date for weddings or the law firm holiday party.
Although I figured out I was gay in college (in the sense of understanding the concept of being gay), I really felt no connection to the few out gay students around campus, and I was so afraid of someone on my small college campus figuring out my secret that I didn’t actually do anything to act on those feelings until near the end of law school. So, in a way, my emotional development was stunted, having observed others go through things like crushes, hookups, dating, breakups, and other emotional milestones, but never experiencing any of them myself. Well, like other teens of my era, I had the John Hughes teen romance oeuvre and related knockoffs, but that’s not quite the same as actually living in a real-life relationship.
At some point, though, the game becomes corrosive to the soul, letting the background fear and anxiety crowd out any personal emotional happiness. It’s possible to fill the void for a while with other activities and pursuits, whether overachieving at work or throwing yourself into hobbies or causes, but at some point, the desire for a romantic connection, for love and companionship, just becomes too strong. Now it’s possible to date on the sly, maintaining the façade of the happy single person in public, but that arrangement is ultimately doomed to failure. Well-meaning friends and nosy coworkers alike all have innocent questions that are fraught with danger. What did you do this weekend? Who was the nice guy I saw you with at the mall? You and your friend went out of town again together? Eventually, one or the other of you wants to end the charade, which usually leads to ultimatums and heartache.
Which brings me to my coming out story. I had been super-associate by day (grinding out record billable hours and fees), but dating a guy by night. We were both in the closet, and at some point, one of his friends seemed to sniff out the possible relationship. He panicked a bit, wanted to cool things off. While we took a step back to “just friends” status (him keeping his distance), he met another guy and started dating him. I was devastated, though later it became obvious it was basically just my first bad breakup, something most straight people get past in their high school or college days. Anyway, my best friend at work, Brian, noticed I was not my usual jovial self, took me out for drinks, and next thing you know I was telling him, “Well, I had a bad breakup. With a guy.”
Now Brian was not just a good friend, he was also my supervisor and the ur-straight dude—sports fan, gambler, drinker, strip club patron, all around guys’ guy. But he said, “I don’t care if you’re gay” and then we drank and talked the night away until I felt a little better. It’s hard to explain the overwhelming sense of relief I had that evening, the monstrous weight that had been lifted. But, in a way, that night I had been myself—completely myself—for the first time ever with one of my close friends.
That week, I decided to call my other close friends, and let them know as well. Having one person accept me made me feel less apprehensive about telling other friends, since I knew I had at least one friend as a safety net. Although it was a high-anxiety few days, my friends were without exception completely supportive. Most of them had the same sort of reaction, sort of a combination of surprise, support, and acceptance. My buddy Todd was perhaps the most surprising to me, as I figured he would be least open to the idea of a gay friend. I had called Todd in Chicago during the week, but never got a call back. This wasn’t surprising for a social dynamo like Todd, but I was somewhat worried he had heard the news through the grapevine and was avoiding me. Then, around midnight on Saturday, I was watching a movie and sipping a beer when Todd called:
Todd: “Blue!!” [his nickname for me, based on the fact I was umpiring softball when we met] “How the heck are you? Got your message the other day, just wanted to call you back.”
Me: “Umm, well, I called because I have some news I wanted to tell you, but I can call you tomorrow if you’re busy.” [me, praying he was busy]
Todd: “Naww, now’s cool. I'm at this house party, and the guys aren’t here yet, so I’m just getting to know 50 new friends and making some calls.”
Me: “Well, I just wanted you to hear it direct from me. Ummm … Well, I’m gay.”
Todd: “Oh? Really? I never guessed that.” [awkward pause] “Whatever. It’s cool.”
Me: “Okay …”
Todd: “Yeah. So did you hear Chris got engaged? ….”
Variations on the same theme happened over the next couple of weeks, as most of my friends seemingly called at random just to shoot the breeze, talk sports, catch up on friends, basically chat about anything except the fact I had just come out. In a way, it seemed that they all wanted to convey that nothing had changed, reassuring me we were still friends with a big “Whatever.” I certainly didn’t expect such a positive reaction, in large part because most of my friends shared my conservative Midwestern background, and came from the same hyper-masculine—and gay hostile—sports background. I don’t know if the collective acceptance by my friends was a function of the length of our friendship, the additional years of their own personal life experience and maturity, or just their inner decency and compassion. Although I wish I had had the nerve to come out to them earlier, perhaps I finally was ready to tell them when they had reached a point where they were ready to be accepting of a gay friend. No matter the dynamics, I am eternally grateful for their support in such an emotionally difficult moment in my life.
The workplace had a pretty similar reaction, with me telling a few closer friends, and letting the news just filter out at its own pace. For the most part, the reaction was still a yawn and a “Whatever.” Now, part of that might be due to Brian being influential with a couple of the then-senior partners, and part was likely due to the fact I was just too valuable economically to let a little thing like being gay matter (it’s amazing how all businesses can tolerate non-conformity from its most productive employees). But I also think the fact that our firm—large by Iowa standards, but still with a very “family” atmosphere—was a place where everyone had a chance to get to know me first as a lawyer and as a work friend, before having to consider whether my being gay mattered.
The family actually turned out to be the most difficult part of the process. I had told my brother Kevin along with my friends, since he and I have always been as close as friends. But my other two brothers and parents found out at Christmas, in a rather awkward chat at breakfast. As I expected, my father really took the news in stride. Dad’s the kind of guy who just takes life as it is, doesn’t get upset; I remember going with him to inspect hail damage one summer, and upon seeing one cornfield reduced to matchsticks, Dad just shook his head and started talking about replanting options. Having a gay son was just a new fact of life, nothing more or less.
My mother, however, was clearly unhappy, but I didn’t know how unhappy until a couple of weeks later, when I got a large envelope in the mail. Mom had taken my Christmas card I had mailed out, with my usual snarky Christmas letter inside, and returned it to me unopened, with a post-it note stating, “We have no desire to know anything about the lifestyle you have chosen. Your letter will just upset us, so I am returning it.” That led to a year and a half with no contact with my parents, broken only with a tearful reunion and rapprochement at my grandmother’s funeral. During that time, my mother had somehow came to terms with my being gay. Now, Mom and Dad are comfortable talking about my sig other the same as they do my sister-in-law.
Although I am completely out, there are still times when I elide the gay part of my life, notably with clients and at the poker table. In those settings, there is really nothing to be gained by openly acknowledging being gay, while there is a risk of running into someone who is strongly anti-gay having a detrimental reaction. I’ve heard plenty of clients and poker players alike make anti-gay jokes and derogatory comments, yet because of the nature of our relationship, my goal is to be polite, friendly, and focused on the business at hand. My sexuality is irrelevant to the relationship, so I revert to the old familiar game of letting others assume I am straight.
My point in sharing all of this with you is not to suggest my experience is typical. In fact, I think each gay person has his or her own set of circumstances and concerns to work through. For younger gays, financial support and physical safety might be greater concerns, while for older gays the concerns might focus more on educational and vocational opportunities. Similarly, some gays have a better environment for coming out, living in an urban or more liberal geographic area, having friends and family who are openly gay-supportive, or being financially independent. But all gays face some degree of anxiety, and take some amount of personal risk, in publicly acknowledging that they are different than the norm.
I’ve never been a gay activist. I keep informed about gay news and issues, and I don’t support politicians who are vehemently anti-gay. But otherwise I pretty much live my life much like straight folks—work, watch sports, play poker, spend time with the sig other, play with the puppy, hang out with friends, lather, rinse, repeat. But I think gays like me who simply live our lives as openly gay people are in fact making an important political and social statement. It’s easy for people to fear and hate in the abstract, but being confronted with an individual like me or another gay friend or family member makes people personalize and hopefully question and reevaluate their feelings. At the same time, gay youths see examples of successful gay people who they might know or who are prominent in their communities, easing the difficult process of coming to terms with their own sexuality. To be blunt, there’s less need for being out and proud, and more need for being out and about.
I’m encouraged by the growing acceptance of gays in society, which will only continue to improve as more gays live out and open lives in all of our communities, and in all walks of life. There’s still a long way to go, but hopefully more and more gay folks will make the tough decision to come out, only to be greeted by their family and friends with a rousing chorus of “Whatever.”
“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”