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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Coming Out Stories: Dan

Conversations from the Heart is the theme of this National Coming Out Day (today, Sunday, October 11) and I hope that these stories, from local friends of the Fruit, help heal, help open up hearts and minds and help us feel a little more connected. I'll be sharing stories all weekend. A special thanks goes to those who took the time to contribute. I know that people stay in the closet or come out for a variety of reasons and a variety of ways and I believe it's important to honor people's decisions about when they are truly ready. This blog has a policy of not outing anyone unless they say it's okay. That being said, it is important we tell our stories and let those who matter to us know and see our true selves.

If you haven't already, take a minute to also read over and enjoy Marie and Christian's stories, which I have po
sted over the last couple of days. Today's post, by Dan, is part three in the series. Once you've read up, take a minute and share your story.

photo by J Heffner

For me, coming out is an ongoing, continual process, rather than a one time event. It has been painful at times, has had both good and bad outcomes, but has also resulted in relationships that would not have been possible otherwise including the very best and most fulfilling ones. While there are many stories I could tell, perhaps the most important and most difficult one, was coming out to myself.

Looking back, I think I realized by the age of 5 that my interest and bonding with boys was stronger than it was for most of my friends. But growing up in the 50's and 60's when being gay was still officially a mental disorder, and illegal in most states, there were no positive, openly gay role models. No one ever talked about being gay except in terms of extreme condemnation, but you rarely even heard that, except from other kids who used "fag" or "queer" as terms of derision and control. So we knew there were "queers", but we didn't know of any adults who were. Any gay people who had not fled to a big city and had remained in my small community were in the closet. There were suspicions, but even Liberace was married after all, and Rock Hudson was a ladies man. There were a few vague stereotypical characters in movies or plays, but they were never openly gay, and always presented as ineffectual at best, and usually worse. While the Mattachine society and other organizations had formed, their existence was largely unknown in small towns in the Midwest and if any adults did know, they were not saying anything. I had heard all of my friends join in the peer pressure fueled disparagement of anything and anyone "queer", so I knew it was not safe to tell anyone how I really felt about them or anyone else. Circle jerks were allowed, but no touching, and no expressions of affection other than hitting or wrestling. I did a lot of wrestling. But I stayed in the closet throughout high school. For better or worse, I was able to appear straight enough to pass and was good enough at wrestling that no one wanted to mess with me. The Stonewall riots happened the year I graduated, but there was little mention in the news, and it still was not something polite people talked about, so any information on it was hard to find in those pre-internet days.

By the time I got to college, my denial system was well polished. I had dated girls and gone through all the motions, including having sex, so I continued trying to act straight, hoping that I would make the switch, but I sometimes had to fantasize about guys to make it successful. I knew I was faking it, but didn't know what else to do. My first two years of college were at a small school, so still no role models. I joined a fraternity, and loved it. It was the first time I had permission from society to love another guy and let him know it. Still no sex of course, but lots of hugging and even some overnight cuddling. But that didn't help my denial system and I began to realize I wasn't going to grow out of my attraction to guys and switch to girls. I had tried, and continued to try, but it wasn't working and my emotional as well as physical attraction for guys only became more clear and undeniable.

I transferred to a larger school and changed my major to Psychology. While homosexuality was still officially a disorder, at least I could start to find out about it, and fortunately, none of my professors were openly homophobic. But without the support of my fraternity brothers, and without that outlet, and as I was getting older as well, what was left of my denial system started falling apart. Over the course of the next 2 years, I could no longer believe I might change, and yet still could not accept being gay. I started to believe my only way out was to end it all. There was a railroad bridge next to campus that seemed high enough, and I spent many late night hours sitting there with my feet hanging over the edge, thinking about jumping off. Eventually, I decided it might not be high enough, and I could end up paralyzed, and that life really could be worse after all. I also remembered that I had experienced some wonderful relationships in the past, and that if I stuck around, there might be the possibility that there could be some more in the future. But if I killed myself, there would be no possibility of good times in the future. So I decided I needed to talk to someone about it, and if they told me I was sick and should go kill myself, I could always do it later. I signed up for counseling, but couldn't bring myself to utter the words during an entire semester of therapy.

The next year, I took a class in human sexual capacity, which was the first year for such a course at the University. As you might guess, there were a lot of people who signed up for it even though it wasn't an entry level class, so it was held in a lecture hall. While homosexuality was still officially a disorder, the evidence was clear by then that it wasn't and this professor was one who was already saying so publicly. He had a couple of gay students address the class, and for the first time, I was exposed to two openly gay people.
So with a straight psychologist teaching a large class that being gay is really a normal expression of human sexuality, and actually seeing a couple of gay guys stand up in front of that class and not get mobbed and lynched, I was finally able to tell my therapist that I "thought I might be gay" (I knew of course, but that was as close as I could get to actually admitting it to another person) He didn't run out of the room, as in my fantasy of what might happen, but was a bit taken aback and at first, suggested I might be confused and had me do a role play exercise. After the exercise, he was convinced I was not confused. Various options were discussed, including electric shock aversion therapy. I suggested he contact my human sexuality professor, and after consulting with other therapists including my sexuality class professor, he suggested I try to learn to live with it rather than change it. So we started working on that. That eventually included telling others of course. I was very careful who I told at first, but word tends to get around, especially in small communities.

As time goes on, coming out and being out gets easier for me, but that is due to more than just having had practice. Society in general is becoming more accepting. Officially, being gay is no longer considered an illness or a crime in our country, and more and more people are accepting that reality. It continues to be more safe for gay people to be open in other parts of the world as well, and while hate crimes still happen, they are less accepted by society and more likely to be punished as we move forward. We now have legal protections in many places which also makes being out less dangerous to our financial as well as physical survival.

Coming out was impossible for me for a long time, but once I finally did, it resulted in some wonderful and invaluable relationships. At other times, it has cost me friendships, jobs, and other abuse including verbal, emotional, spiritual and even physical abuse. But the good times have made it worth putting up with the bad. The railroad bridge quit being an option a long time ago, and I'm glad I decided to come out instead of jump off.

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