It took me years to not feel shame about being gay. And, I do mean most of my life. Even after marrying my wife seven years ago!
I would not voluntarily offer my relationship status, or anything related to my personal life, to anyone I just met, or to someone who I believed could harm me in any way.
And definitely not to my own family!
It’s interesting how different society is now from how it was when I realized I was ‘different’ at age 8. Back then, I was terrified. Religion said I would burn in hell. The media denied I existed. The medical community said I was broken. The legal system said I was a criminal. Why would I ever want anyone to know about me?
Now, even allies are marching in the streets waving flags to support my existence.
I spent my 20s exploring my new-found freedom to be myself. I thought I was hiding my life quite well. I wasn’t “out”. But I was marching in the pride parades, working for a statewide gay newsweekly, dancing in drag shows at the local gay bars. I was doing everything I could to find safe spaces where I could be myself - whatever that was.
Most of my family are all salt of the earth, god-fearing folks. Being ‘different’ was not ‘allowed’. I remember being found out while on the dance floor at a gay bar in Ft. Worth. Someone interrupted my good time to ask me my name. I froze in utter fear. Who could have possibly found me HERE!? It turns out, it was my second cousin, who was very gay and very out. He took me under his wing for the short time he lived - told me family secrets and made me laugh - helped me feel less alone in the world. He died soon after from AIDS. My paternal grandmother denied his status and his sexuality until the day she died.
Why would I ever tell my family?
I was 38 when it happened. We were at family week for yet another one of my brother’s stints in rehab. My mother, maternal grandfather, and I were being briefed by one of the counselors before my brother was brought in. The man was showing us around the property, giving us some needed information for the things to expect, and finally led us into a small room where the therapy session would begin. He started relaying a story about coming out to his father on his death bed. My grandfather - a giant man who could barely fit in a regular chair - sat forward quickly with wide eyes and interrupted the man’s story, “You’re a homosexual!?”
When I tell you I was terrified, I do mean every cell in my body froze. I remember thinking: Papa! Do not embarrass me! But how could he if he didn’t even know about me?! I held my breath.
The man said, loud and proud, “Yes, sir. I am.”
Again, I was frozen. This man came out - twice - to my grandfather. A man he just met. A towering 6+ foot cowboy from small-town Texas. A man who gave weekly checks to the Southern Baptist Church. A man who believed in the long arm of the law. A simple, rural farmer, who watched as much news and read as many newspapers as he could in one day.
My grandfather calmly sat back in his chair, crossed his right ankle over his left knee, folded his arms and said, “That must have been hard on you all those years, keeping that from your family.”
I hid them, but I couldn’t stop the silent tears that fell. I was shocked. I quickly recovered and told myself not to make this about me… we were here for my brother.
My brother was brought in and we went through the motions of “communication”. That has never been a strong suit in my family. But we got through it.
When my brother and the counselor left the room, the three of us were left alone. It was tense. My mother has never had a good relationship with her father, and they started a tense conversation. Instead of allowing that to continue, I decided to interrupt with my own topic of conversation.
“Papa! You showed a lot of compassion to that man after he told us about his father.” I walked over and sat in front of him. He took a deep breath and with as much conviction as I’ve seen him have over many things I didn’t agree with, he said, “Well, I believe homosexuals should have the same rights as everyone else.”
This time, the tears were not silent and I could not hide them. Before I realized what was happening, he grabbed my arm and pulled me into his lap and held me while we both cried.
This was the closest I ever felt to my grandfather, my father figure.
After our tears began to subside, he asked, “Why did you never tell us?” (He meant him and my grandmother - who had passed 16 years earlier.) I told him I was so scared they wouldn’t love me. In his sweetest voice he said, “Well, honey. I may be dumb. But I’m not stupid.”
My grandfather left the planet a year of so after that. But I felt a profound weight lift from my shoulders, despite the fact that I was still not accepted by the family. All that mattered to me was that my father figure accepted me.
Now I needed to accept myself.
It has taken me until 50 - yes, the Fuck It 50s - to accept myself. I think there are still pieces yet to accept, but I’m working on it daily.
Now I introduce my wife to strangers. I’m always a bit surprised when they don’t blink an eye over it. My 8 year old self could never have imagined this would be my life. Never.
It’s interesting how life teaches you lessons. The inner shame I developed as a kid over this ‘difference’, this ‘abomination’, this ‘unacceptable’ fact, has taught me so much. And now I see children “coming out” as all the differences that they are… how they are accepting themselves, even if the world doesn’t yet accept them. It’s beautiful.
So now I will march in the streets and wave flags in support of them!
Be OUT. Be PROUD.