Coming Out and Being Visible

Note: This is posted here as a historical snapshot. It was originally posted to my personal website in 1996, and updated through 2007. My life has changed so much since then, but this is focused on coming out and creating a happy life. Enjoy!

Beginnings

My own coming out was late in arriving – I was 26 years old. While it seemed sudden to me at the time, in the time since I’ve been able to look back and see the signs that I was “not like the other boys.” When I was ten or eleven and living in northwestern New Jersey, I remember going to the public pool during the summer; sometimes it was almost as much fun to hang around the men’s locker room as to swim with my friends. I don’t think there was any desire there, more of a fascination with what other men looked like without their clothes on.

Middle School and high school in Anderson, SC found me a classic nerd – I did well in my classes because I had no social life. Friday nights were reserved for D&D with (male) friends. It wasn’t that no one wanted to go out with me – several girls tried (to Lisa, Mary, and Pam – I can only say I wish I knew then what I know now. I think it would have saved all involved a lot of grief). I wasn’t interested in the least. I graduated and moved on to college.

College

My undergraduate years (two years at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA, followed by three years at Clemson University in Clemson, SC) were a mixed bag, socially. I never dated, period. I immersed myself in classes and extracurricular activities (television production and radio at Tulane, radio at Clemson) to the point where I didn’t have any free time – and certainly no time to worry about a lack of any relationships. By the time I graduated from Clemson, I knew inside something was different, but refused to acknowledge it. Quite frankly, it never occurred to me that I might be gay – no one had ever asked me.

Another year, another school – this time, graduate school in chemical engineering at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. After two years there, I had a close circle of friends, I was the head of the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and I was fairly secure in my life. But something was missing.

Realizations

During those years, I felt that I had finally found a group of people who would accept me as I was. I slowly came to realize that the face I was presenting wasn’t the real me. I had to nod  appreciatively when someone pointed out a beautiful woman. I had to ignore (studiously) another man stripping in front of me in a changing room. I had to hold back any statement that I thought might be effeminate or nonmasculine. I realized that I had been doing these things for so long that they had become second nature – a reflexive facade. And after a while, it started to hurt. It was emotionally exhausting, and it kept me from feeling close to those who I cared about. Something had to change.

A digression here. I read a lot, mostly fantasy and science fiction. When I look back at what books resonated with me – the books that really meant something to me as I read them – I can see clues that I might have been less-than-straight even at an early age. One of the first fantasy books I ever read was Nancy Springer’s Books of Sun series (“The White Hart,” “The Sable Sun,” etc.) While homosexuality wasn’t mentioned, there was a bond between the two male main characters that was clearly more than brotherly, however platonic. The idea that two men could care for each other that much captured my heart. I remember (with a rueful grin) browsing in the book store at Anderson Mall and coming across a book by one Gordon Merrick – it was a trashy romance, but it was a GAY trashy
romance. I remember going back – not just once, but several times – to the store to stand discreetly and read and reread the overwrought romance and sex scenes. And still I had no clue. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, honey.

And the darker side of growing up in the homophobic South: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover
books contain homo-, hetero-, and bisexuality, stated very matter-of-factly. I remember being in high school and reading through the series, and finally reading one (“Thendara House,” I believe) that was very open about homosexuality. I took all of the books that I owned from that series (twelve or more, I think) to the used book store in revulsion and guilt, fearful that someone might think that I read them
because I was -gasp- GAY! My friends and I swapped books frequently, and we all read David Gerrold’s War Against the Chtorr series, which features a rather unlikable protagonist who happens to be gay (it really is incidental, if I recall correctly). They, good God-fearing Baptists, reviled the books for even mentioning homosexuality. I just shut up and enjoyed the story.

When I first came out, a net-friend recommended Mercedes Lackey’s Vanyel trilogy: “Magic’s Pawn,” “Magic’s Promise,” “Magic’s Price.” I’ve never cried when I read a book – these made me cry. Homosexuality is an issue, front-and- center, and Lackey deals with it in a rational, accepting, and tender way. Loves are found, loves are lost, and loves are found again in one of the most romantic fantasies I’ve ever read. I highly recommend these books to anyone coming out or already out – they
actually made a difference in my life.

The Turning Point

Back to the story. A dear friend was breaking up with another friend, and I had given her much support during the process. I think, had I been straight, we would have gone out (…and it would have been a bad idea, but you know that now, don’t you Sweetie?). As it was, we leaned on each other, and provided mutual support. On April 22, 1994, after dinner out (and a few beers – I wasn’t that brave yet), we sat down in front of one of the buildings on the Tech campus and I told her the two hardest words I ever had to say:

“I’m gay.”

She was quiet for a moment, then she took my hand and told me that I was who I was, and it  didn’t matter who I loved, she valued me for who I was. I’ll always love her for that.

Coming Out To Friends

After that night, I told another friend, and another, and another. Soon, all my friends at Tech knew that I was gay, and I never heard anyone say anything about bad it. Could this be that I selected my friends before I came out on the basis of their lack of prejudices? It very well could be – I’ll never know. After a few months, I was the typical newly-out activist. I got into an argument in a restaurant with a new fellow to the SCA group because he stated that there should be straight pride parades as well as gay pride parades. I jumped all over him – Listen, I said, if you want to see a straight pride parade, turn on the TV. Look at Congress. Go outside and look at Main Street. Go to the mall. Everyone is straight, or assumed to be. Gay pride is about being proud you are unique, not ashamed because of it. I was shocked when, after thorough discussion and consideration, he agreed with me. Jason changed my life because he showed me that sometimes what appears to be prejudice is simply ignorance, and that many people are willing to learn and dispel that ignorance. And for this, I’ll always care for him (well, that and the fact that he can deep throat a Guinness bottle. Tease 🙂

Coming Out to Family

So I was out, right? No problems, right? Wrong. There was my family. Since a few months before I came out, calls home had become almost a verbal sparring match. I was always on the defensive, not wanting to reveal too much about what I had done or what I was feeling. My parents became downright worried – it was obvious to them that I was hiding something, but they didn’t want to pry. I was a mess, emotionally – after a phone conversation when I told my mom I had had my ear pierced, she said, “It’s not as bad as something you could tell me.” By itself, it’s a fairly innocuous statement, but in the emotional state I was in, it devastated me – I walked around the Tech campus at midnight and cried. I was very fortunate to have a net-friend
who kept me sane and e-mailed me through the tough times (Bless you, Leo!). He advised me to seek counseling, which I did (briefly) and to have a support network of friends when I did come out to my family (and he was exactly right). How I came out to my family, though, was a textbook case of bad timing.

I have always had bad ankles. After spraining my right ankle one too many times, I went in for
reconstructive surgery in October of 1994. I would take six weeks off from grad school (I was only doing research that semester anyway), have the surgery, and recuperate with my parents in Chicago. Mom drove down to Virginia and attended me while I was in the hospital. We spent one night at my apartment (I was mostly doped up with painkillers), then drove out for Chicago the next morning, me ensconced in the back seat in a pile of pillows with my cast-encased leg elevated. I stayed off the painkillers because they didn’t help much and made me feel dizzy.
We talked, listened to music, and talked some more on the long drive up. Night was falling as we stopped for dinner in Louisville, Kentucky. I forget what sparked the argument, but we left the Bob Evans there scowling at each other. Back in the car somewhere between New Albany,
Indiana and Indianaplis on Interstate 65, the argument resumed, and took a bizarre turn. Mom asked me why I had been so secretive the over the past few months. I denied any such thing. Finally, after a few minutes of this, she finally asked the question that had worried her for quite a while.

“Are you gay?”

I had vowed to myself shortly after that night in April that I would never, ever lie if anyone asked about my sexual orientation – even my Mom. “Yes.”

Well, she didn’t slam on the brakes and kill us both, I’m pleased to report. What followed then was a long, agonizing conversation, with the familiar questions (“How do you know?” “How do two men…” “Are you a virgin?” You know, the questions that you wouldn’t ask even your closest friend but when someone says their gay instantly spring to mind – and mouth). By the time we reached Gary, things were pretty much in hand, though I was admonished, “Whatever you do, don’t tell your father. It’ll hurt him terribly.” Well, five days after that, I did tell Dad, and although I don’t think he understood then, he was willing to accept me as I am, which is more than I could ever ask. I didn’t have to break the news to my sister, Mom did that not long after I told her. Not my first choice of how to do it, but I’m over it.

Life Goes On

And so here we are. As of this writing, it’s been thirteen years since I came out to myself. I can honestly say that those have been the best years of my life. In that time I graduated from graduate school, moved to Chicago, moved to Raleigh, moved back to Chicago, moved back to Raleigh, and finally (?) moved back to Chicago. Hell of a commute, eh?

Somewhere in all that I had my first relationship, with Nathan. I learned about the joy and elation that love can bring, and the sorrow and depression at a relationship’s end. We both learned from the time we had together, though, and I’m pleased to say that Nathan remains one of my dearest friends.

Dan and I were introduced to one another by a mutual friend in late 1998. There were definitely some sparks to begin with, but we were both uncertain about a relationship, plus we were both in relationships at the time. By the end of February, 1999, we had both just broken up and were on the rebound – probably not the best way to start things, but we recognized that and were willing to give it a shot. It was still something of a long-distance relationship (he lived an hour and a half away), but we managed it for the first four months. In June, Dan decided to leave his job and after serious discussion, he moved in with me. We agreed that it was too early to be considering such things, but we were willing to give it a shot.

Boy, did those gambles pay off!

In May, 2000, Dan and I moved to Holly Springs, North Carolina. It was a return to my Carolina  roots for me, but a big jump for him, since he’d moved exactly twice before in his life. I think the move really drew us closer together. As we were talking one day in early February, 2001, we somehow arrived at the conclusion that we would have a commitment ceremony soon. As we were going to sleep that evening, it occurred to me that neither of us had actually asked the other for their hand, we had simply arrived at the conclusion that we would have a ceremony. I promptly asked Dan to be my partner and my love for the rest of our lives, and he gladly accepted. Romantic, eh?

In November, 2001, we held out commitment ceremony in Chicago. Most of our friends were in attendance, as well as my parents and Dan’s mother (his father passed away several years ago).
A wonderful time was had by all and we entered into a union of love for the rest of our lives.

So what now? Well, we continue in domestic (or domesticated) bliss. No children in the future for us (neither of us are big fans of kids), though when time and circumstances allow we’ll most certainly be getting a puppy (or two). And I will always remind myself how fortunate I am to have a wonderful man to share my life.

So that’s my story. In the years that this page has been online, I have received many, many letters from readers. I have read many moving stories, and have offered what advice I can. If you wish to comment, or chat, or just say hi, feel free to email me – I’d love to hear from you.

Peace, my friends.

-Tom

Last updated: 19 December, 2007