Coming out. That rather special time in a gay person’s life when it’s time to tell; tell parents, sisters, brothers, tell friends, tell husbands wives, kids. Tell anyone we think needs to know.
For those of us who do come out, one of the many ways we divide our life is BEFORE COMING OUT (BCO) and AFTER COMING OUT (ACO).
Coming out is our own universal rite of passage, although nowhere near as much fun as the first haircut, or sweet sixteen party, the Burmese Buddhist tradition of Poy Sang Long, a bat/bar mitzvah. Maybe it’s our own version of a vision quest, alone in the forest of straight people as we search for a language to speak to people to stand up for who we are, to live from the core and love from the heart, or up on the mountain with no-one but the sky and birds to talk to for all that we’re heard by those around us who, until a minute ago, apparently loved or liked us and now have moved to that mighty tidy town of Tolerance.
Tolerance may be a pit stop on the way to Acceptance which is itself a pit stop on the way to the portal of Mainstream, and “Wow, welcome to Who Cares about your sexuality: we love you and are you happy but first, what’s for dinner?” Am I alone in finding the notion of tolerance and a tolerant society condescending? I suppose it is better than hate and death sentences.
To my mind, Coming Out was born under the Sign of the Gemini Twins, because the process is Unique and Universal (aren’t they beautiful twin girls?). There are similar milestones, events, similar themes, similar outcomes, even similar words and responses.
We recognize our coming out in how we talk with each other. We want to know how each of us got here: “tell me your coming out story. We bond with each other through our coming out stories. These stories are part of what unites our diverse community and serve as our myths, our parables, our allegories. And there’s an American website devoted to coming out stories that provides a platform for people to share their stories.
It occurred to me, while thinking about my own coming out, that it was not a one-time event. I’m not alone in that: for many of us, coming out happens time and time again, even after that FIRST rite of passage time. It doesn’t get any easier; the prospect of rejection or violence is never an easy one to contemplate, but having made the choice to be out, it’s hard to slip into reverse, go back into hiding.
Like many others, I met and fell in love with a woman in college. Happily, she fell in love with me too. Like many others, I realized I was gay, she realized she wasn’t, even though we had a relationship for two years. About a year into the relationship, I thought I should come out, get to know more of my kind: it took me a month to gather up the courage to go downtown to a bar. I dressed up somewhere neutrally (since I didn’t know what tribe I would belong to), walked straight to the back of the bar, turned right around and walked back out, my heart practically jumping out of my rib cage. I was petrified. I buried myself in the closeted relationship.
My parents were splitting up. It was a bit of a rough time. My brother and I happened to be talking and for some reason, even though he is younger than me, I told him I was gay. He just smiled his beautiful smile and said, “me too.”
That changed a lot of things. Turns out my way underaged brother was sneaking out of the house when everyone was asleep to go places. He knew people. He gave me some names of community resources. I gathered up my courage to call and was invited to some meetings where I met some wonderful people.
College love and I started to go to the clubs and we met other couples, made friends as a couple.
I do not recall the exact circumstance of telling my parents. My mother already knew, and while a bit disappointed and open with the fact that she did not understand, was fine. As long as I was happy. My father was less accepting and made me quite aware of his displeasure by giving me a concussion.
Then college love went away for two months. I got to know more people in the community and was happily dating up a storm, being entirely naive about lesbians, U-hauls and relationships with women. But I did make one of those crucial coming out decisions: I would be my own tribe, since no tribe fitted me well enough.
College love came back, and announced she had met someone, a man, and was serious about him. She asked if I was ok with that? I was not.
A week later a woman I had dated a few times showed up on my doorstep, complete with garbage bags full of clothing, saying she’d been kicked out by her girlfriend. I am not sure what shocked me more: Girlfriend?? WHAT girlfriend? I could not turn away a homeless lesbian, and was confused enough to become involved with her. While a nice enough woman, we were not well matched. SHe did not want to leave even though things were clearly not working out. The entire experience made me question if I truly was gay, and I decided I was not. I went back in the closet and started dating men again; met a lovely, wonderful man. I told him about me, so that he would know. We became involved and a little over a year later, when everything was packed ready for me to live with him, I sat on the stairs looking at my stuff and knew it. I am not straight, never going to be straight. I came out again. My family was disappointed. He never spoke to me again.
Work was a different story: it was never safe to be out in the fields I worked in. There was a time I worked with serious homophobes and while I did not come out, I would, in my objective gentle way, always counter what was said. I began to worry when my colleagues who were gay started to get termination packages too attractive to ignore.
In a short time, I was in a different department. A new VP was coming in and I’d be reporting to directly her. The night before our scheduled meeting, I had one of those long, dark, tea times of the soul searching sleepless nights.
We met in the briefing room. We shook hands. Hers was warm and firm. I liked her energy and her lightness, but I had a job to do right now. I wondered if she heard my heart pounding.
She reviewed a bit of where she came from, what’s she’d heard about me, and asked if I would stay on in the role.
I took a deep breath before falling into one of those rare moments in my life when words just tumbled out of my mouth, not connected to mind or reason.
“Before I say anything I want you to know that I’m gay, and if that is a problem for you, tell me now because that will influence my decision.” Okay so that was WAY aggressive for me. But I was taking my coming out stand.
It is fair to say that she was taken aback. Not a word from her for three beats, then she said, “Okay, well, I don’t think it’s important, but if it is an issue for you or a problem in your work, then let’s talk.” And she said it with her slight French-Canadian accent too, which made it even better.
Holy worked-up-for-nothing, Batgirl! Had I painted all straight people with the same brush?
I calmed down and told her why I had raised it; she explained that she worked with gay people her entire career, so it really isn’t an issue for her, but she was worried that it would be for me. We worked it out in a minute.
That experience helped me to come out in gentler ways from then on in, which I still have to do because I am invisible as a lesbian unless someone’s gaydar is exceptional and because I don’t have that banner on me that says…GUESS WHAT? NOT STRAIGHT! Unless I am wearing one of my buttons, or doing something with someone in public that would indicate, HEY! Some Gay People Here!
Each BCO is a bit of a confusing, worrisome time. I disclose that I am gay because it is important to me and the situation around it, and the people I am telling are somehow important. I don’t want to be rejected, but nothing is worse to me than being untrue to who I am in the worlds that matter to me.
ACO is what it is. And that’s why we have friends, community, and if you read the blogs, a whole new group of pro-gay straight people. (What on earth is pro-gay?)
And so thinking about rites of passage, I look forward to the day when coming out can be celebrated as much a birthday. Just think of the cake! The dancing! And best of all the GIRLS!!