National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11, was a day for people to celebrate and remember their coming out stories. An NBN writer reflects on his own experience and gives his take on the concept of coming out.
“So, would you say you’d identify as gay?”
The words came out of my guidance counselor’s mouth in slow motion. I could feel the blood draining from my face. I stared at her, puzzled. Sweat formed on my palms as I tried to grip the black leather cushion of the couch underneath me and simultaneously hold the number-two pencils in my hands I had used to take the SAT just an hour before.
“Yeah.” I mustered a reply as my heart fluttered and the room spun just a little bit. I knew she had my best interests at heart. I knew that coming out to her put me in no danger whatsoever. So why did I suddenly feel like spewing the contents of my stomach all over her carpet?
I grew up in a fiercely conservative town at a small religious high school. There were 39 students in my graduating class, including one other gay kid who was completely out to his parents, teachers and peers. An unidentified person keyed the word “FAG” into the side of his car on two separate occasions.
Two separate occasions when I told myself, “That’s the protocol here. That’s your car if you come out. Stay in that closet; don’t risk anything. You’ll be out of here soon.” Two separate occasions when I told myself, “That should have been your car, asshole. Why should he have to deal with this twice when you’re just as gay as he is but too afraid to say anything about it?”
I realized that in a society afraid of my sexual orientation, I could help others in my shoes by wearing my own sexual preferences as a badge. But then I would picture that word etched on my classmate’s car. And suddenly I was so much more comfortable sitting in the backdrop and waiting for the promised land that was Northwestern. High school was now a waiting game, and every day was a strategic maneuver.
I was not a perfect strategist.
I loved myself enough to kiss a boy in his backyard one fall evening after a high school football game. I felt the same gushing emotions as any other 16-year-old kissing a crush. I felt fierce self-love and empowerment in a way I had not experienced before.
Had we not been so lost in that moment we would have seen her peeking through the fence. We had all grown up with her, we all knew how big of a mouth she had. So if I had looked up to see her startled expression, perhaps I would have been more ready for the texts the next morning. The texts that were not necessarily hostile, but had to be followed up with passionate conversations.
“It’s okay that you’re gay. I’m really happy for you, actually. It’s just – it’s going to take me some time to get used to.”
All because I loved myself enough that night.
Circles of people knew about that night and others did not, and I lived every day knowing word would spread like wildfire, but that no one would feel comfortable enough coming directly to me, asking how I felt about myself, if the story was true. I had no way of knowing who knew and who did not. I emotionally clocked out of high school; I was ready to move on.
I became reckless.
The next month, my mother received a call from a police officer. She had to leave a dinner party to come pick me up from a Walgreens parking lot, pulling up to see flashing lights behind one cop pouring a handle of Crystal Palace vodka into the parking lot while another stood with me, a wide-eyed 16-year-old. She had to explain to my 12-year-old sister that her brother had been drinking, that everyone makes mistakes, even those of us with straight As. She had to hide the fact that she was ultimately enraged but also terribly confused; there was a piece missing to the puzzle.
My parents didn’t know, but they knew. They knew that I was infinitely more stressed than any average high school junior with three APs plus extracurriculars. I would sit with my mother and drink chamomile tea on some of those nights when I was grounded, and there would be moments upon moments of meaningful silence in which I ran words through my head over and over.
“Mom, I’m gay.”
The three words that would explain so much. The three words that were so inexplicably heavy that I could not physically muster them until coming home from college Thanksgiving break of my freshman year, when I finally felt complete security. And even then, the same sweaty palms, the same blood draining from my head, the same racehorse heartbeat brought on by simply vocalizing a fact I had known and grown comfortable with for quite some time.
National Coming Out Day was this past Friday, and is meant to be a celebration of coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. It marks the 25th anniversary of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. And I think it’s great that we live in a world where people can profess their sexuality openly and have a civically recognized holiday about it.
However, living in a world where people have to come out is living in a world where you’re assumed straight until proven otherwise. A world where, if you don’t exclusively seek out partners of the opposite sex, you more or less have to step into the spotlight, come out and validate yourself to the world. And putting yourself in the spotlight to explain your sexual preferences to people can be extremely stressful.
I’m obviously not the only one. There are plenty of happy coming out stories, but there are so many heartbreaking ones as well.
We live in a world where a disproportionate number of homeless youth are LGBT. We live in a world where trans* individuals are essentially forgotten while white, fit, upperclass gay men make YouTube videos promising that it gets better. We live in a world where National Coming Out Day is necessary, which in itself represents the fact that folks identifying as LGBT are not the default, and anyone who is not the default must put on a badge before finding acceptance.
The room slowly stopped spinning. What was supposed to be a checkup on my college applications with my school guidance counselor turned into an hour long conversation with someone I now consider a friend and a true ally.
“I understand why you don’t want to parade around telling everyone in this town that you’re gay,” she said. “Maybe in five or 10 years you’ll be able to, but right now might not be the time, and that’s okay.”
Trans* refers to all identities on the gender identity spectrum (transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, etc.) as opposed to trans, which commonly refers to trans men or trans women.