Today is National Coming Out Day, so I’ve spent most of the morning reflecting on the idea of “coming out” and what that means. When I’ve written about the subject previously (see: “If you’re not out, you’re hurting us”), I’ve discussed the political ramifications of being out. I still believe that, over all, it’s those political ramifications that make coming out so damn important.
At the core of it, though, coming out is an immensely personal ordeal. The first time I came out to someone, my sister, I had spent months—years, probably—fretting over how she would take it, despite the fact that she was extremely liberal, had been nothing but supportive of me and was an open supporter of gay rights.
I asked her if I could tell her something, told her that it was important. If I remember right, we sat down cross-legged across from each other on her bed and, after minutes of stalling and nearly hyperventilating, I said:
“I know,” she said. “I’m bi.”
We spent the next several hours re-calibrating ourselves, which basically meant that I told her which guys were hot, and she told me which girls she thought were hot. I honestly couldn’t have had a better experience coming out to someone.
I never really came out to anyone in high school. Even though my best friend was gay (and openly so), I didn’t tell him* and I never told any of our friends. The (relatively mild) bullying that I received just for being his friend pretty much guaranteed that I wasn’t going to tell anyone else.
Telling my mother was a slightly more dramatic ordeal. The realization that I had to come out to her came after watching The Laramie Project, the HBO film based on the play about Matthew Shepard’s murder. While Shepard’s story was probably enough to keep some people in the closet, it made me realize—cliche, I know—just how short life can be and how I had a responsibility to be part of the vocal minority.
My sister came along with me as I told my mother. I don’t know if I could have done it without her there. My mother cried, she told me that she’d rather I’d just admitted to having a drug problem, and she offered to hire me a prostitute, because I obviously didn’t know what it was like to be with a woman.
I told her I would sleep with a prostitute if she would.
In my mother’s defense, she came around fairly quickly. She never threatened to kick me out, or to disown me. For years after, she was still prone to beginning conversations with “I still don’t like this whole ‘gay’ thing, but…” but she never stopped loving me, and she’s never been less than accepting and loving to my partner. She recently attended his graduation from his nursing program and cried like he was her own son. Honestly, there’s no doubt that he is.
My mom’s one caveat had always been that she didn’t want me to tell my father; she didn’t think his male ego could take it (or something). It made it awkward that my partner came to family events and holidays, that we moved in together (and I left my bed with my parents). I don’t know that my dad ever came to the first apartment I shared with Evan, because there was no way to explain the single bedroom.
When my sister announced she was pregnant almost five years ago, I gave my mother the head’s up that I was going to come out to my Dad. I wasn’t going to let my niece come into a world where both of her uncles weren’t recognized. My mom responded with one of her tiny gay panic attacks and told him herself. He took it well; he’d been aware of it for at least a year. My Dad’s not a stupid man and the “roommate” story only holds up for so long.
My niece is four, now. Nothing makes me happier than the fact that she currently lives with a worldview where there’s nothing wrong with people being in love regardless of their gender.
I still have closets. My “name,” Johnny Murdoc, is a closet meant to protect me from future employers who might not look kindly at my sex writing and activism. Everyone who is close to me in the real world knows, though. They know everything about me. My mom got yelled at by a Borders employee for taking a cell-phone picture of the first gay erotica anthology I was published in.
I’m well past hiding my sexuality. I’m well past playing the “pronoun” game. My work takes me to a lot of new places, and I often find myself having personal conversations with new people. I’ve stood in an office in southern Tennessee, surrounded by eleven crosses—in one room!—and told four middle-aged women about my partner and had all four of them react with genuine sweetness. I’ve actually never had anyone have a negative reaction when I came out to them, aside from my mother. Even people that I lied to, or created a facade around. They have all understood, they have all forgiven my trespasses. (And by trespasses, I’m talking about the closets and the lies, not my homosexuality.)
Coming out to someone can be scary, but it’s probably scarier in your head than it will be in reality. I know I speak from a position of privilege, but the freedom of being honest about yourself is worth so much more than the perceived safety you get from closets.
*I did come out to my high school friend years later, after we ran into each other at a concert. We hadn’t spoken to each other since high school. I let that friendship rot back then because I couldn’t be honest, and I think both of us would have had better lives if I had been back then.