Coming out is hard to do
I’ve mentioned before a particularly close friend who didn’t take my coming out well. He insisted that it wasn’t because he had a problem with me being gay (even though he also insisted that it was a horribly sinful choice that I should repent of and do everything in my power to change). No, that wasn’t the reason we couldn’t be friends any longer. We couldn’t be friends because I hadn’t told him first. Specifically, his wife knew before he did.
I’ll unpack that parenthetical portion in a minute, but first I want to make it clear that I never told his wife…
His wife has been one of the closest friends of my almost-twin cousin for decades. One set of her cousins are step-siblings of a set of my demi-cousins. We’ve all known each other since we were kids. She’s practically family. She and her husband, by a series of coincidences, were also old friends of my ex-wife (even though at the time we started dating, we didn’t know that we had these mutual friends), who at the time my coming out drama happened (22 years ago) was my legally-separated wife. My ex-wife knew I was gay, had known for a long time, but had asked me to let her break the news of why we were getting divorced to her own family in her own way.
Shortly after I came out to my mother, but before I’d made any more general announcements, the word spread through the family that something all of them had suspected since I was a little kid was true. My almost-twin cousin and my ex-friend’s wife had a brief discussion about it, and made the decision that neither of them would tell their husbands (both of whom had been very close friends of mine in high school), at least until I was ready to tell anyone other than my mother.
Which I know is a big dysfunctional mess. However, because most of my family are pretty conservative evangelical fundamentalist christians, it was never in the cards that any of them would take it well.
I had heard, read about, and sometimes witnessed directly how some parents wound up feeling ashamed and under attack from their own friends when an adult child came out of the closet, so I had decided to tell Mom first, and wait until we had thrashed things out a bit before letting the word out further. I knew it wasn’t going to be a pleasant experience for my mom no matter how I did it, but I had some small hope of minimizing things a little bit for her.
That’s just one of the many, many giant steaming piles of anxiety and guilt that one deals with from inside the closet. Particularly in conservative religious family and community. Being rejected by the people you have known and loved since before you remember is at the top of your fear list, followed closely by being rejected by old friends, neighbors, co-workers, and so on. Then there is the fear of the secondary pain and humiliation of all of the people close to you.
People don’t merely judge the gay person who has come out, they judge that person’s parents and other family members. Do a google search of the phrase “ted haggard’s wife” to find some vile things that so-called religious leaders say while blaming the unwitting spouse of an outed person, if you don’t believe me. People still believe that kids are “turned gay” by bad parenting or overly protective parenting or that adults can be “turned gay” by a bad spouse.
But the real kicker on all of this is that I had tried to tell him many, many, many times.
The phrase “closer than a brother” very accurately defined our relationship. I loved him like a brother—and I do mean like a brother, he was not my type at all. During that time when we were spending so much time together was also when I was struggling most mightily with my feelings of being gay. I had crushes on a lot of guys, I spent an enormous amount of time alone praying for the feelings to go away. And I clung to the fact that I could have such a close, loving friendship with him that didn’t involve any of those other feelings. In many ways, at that time, his friendship was my brightest ray of hope that I could have a “normal” life.
In the early years, my hope was that I’d have someone who would pray with me, someone who would encourage me to fight the feelings, and help me find that mythic path to normal. But, every time I tried to broach the topic, he shut me down. The slightest mention of anything to do with gay or bisexual feelings (or gay or bisexual characters in a book that we had read, et cetera), would send him on a tirade about how vile, twisted, and evil such people were. People who were even tempted by such things were deserving of nothing more than contempt, he would say. It was sick and disgusting to even contemplate.
We had had some very intense debates on the topic of science. Even though he loved some science fiction books, he was convinced most of science was the work of the devil. He was scandalized the first time I told him that I actually believed in evolution, for instance.
But none of those debates had ever approached the hostility and pure malice that came out when I brought up anything to do with non-heterosexuality.
It seemed obvious that if I did confess my struggle, it would end the friendship. At the very least.
I went away to finish my college degree. I became great friends with a young woman who eventually made it clear she wanted to be more than friends. She was the person I wound up confessing to. And all those years of self-loathing helped me let her talk me back into the idea that maybe I was just bi. So we started dating, and then found out she was an old Bible camp friend of my best friend, and eventually we ended up getting married, with this best friend standing at my side as my best man.
And during that time period I tried a few more times to bring up the idea that maybe non-heterosexual people weren’t all bad. His reaction, if anything, was even more belligerent.
So my wife and I became founding members of the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Chorus. We were both active in various queer activities. She tried to be supportive of me being bi. I pretended (I think badly) to be bi. And then I fell in love with a man. Instead of a fling or a furtive dirty secret relationship, I was actually falling in love. And it was clearly completely unlike any other relationship I had had before.
By the time I was in the process of getting divorced and trying to come out, my friend and I had drifted quite a ways apart. Living hundreds of miles apart contributed. The few years that my ex-wife and I had been active in the Seattle gay community, but keeping it a secret from our family and other folks “back home” contributed, as well. I’d always had a secret, but those last few years I had also had a secret life. And that meant I’d been hiding much more from him than before.
The fear of losing his friendship was in that sense a self-fulfilling prophecy.
After Mom and I had several conversations, and I told her that I was going to be telling other people, he was one of the first I contacted. He did not react well. After a number of angry outbursts and long rants at his wife, he eventually asked her how she could take it so calmly, and she admitted she had known for a while, and had suspected for a lot longer. That’s when he went really ballistic and told me we were no longer friends.
I understand why he felt it was a betrayal. I do. But I remain disappointed that he has never been able to understand that all of those angry rants when we were teen-agers and well into our twenties were preemptive betrayals on his part.
And I also am a little disappointed at how deep his denial still is. Sure, not everyone back in school who called me a sissy and so forth literally thought I was gay, but just about everyone in my extended family and church strongly suspected I might be, and from a pretty early age. There’s no way that he didn’t pick up on other people’s suspicions, even if he really never had any of his own. And he was never stupid. The number of times I tried to bring up the topic over the years was too big a clue to be ignored.
A few years ago, his wife friended me on Facebook. Not terribly long after that, he sent me a friend request. I was a little nervous, but I accepted it. I wish I could tell you that we’ve had some warm, fuzzy moments since. But we haven’t. The last time he actually interacted with me was to argue about how when religious people say all those vile things about gay people it isn’t hate. “God commands us to love, so we love you despite it.”
While his reaction lived up to my worst fears, not all reactions have. Twenty-two years since we divorced, my ex-wife remains one of my best friends. In fact, several times over those years she has attempted to talk my ex-friend into being a bit more accepting. Many other friends have been supportive (and even several of my ex-in-laws), several becoming closer friends after I came out than they were before.
Since coming out I’ve also met a lot of new people that I have been lucky enough to be able to call them friends.
It hasn’t all been sweetness and light. As many people point out, you never come out just once. Every new job, new co-worker, and new neighbor brings another moment when you’re going to have to answer some question or correct a pronoun. And yeah, some people still don’t react well. But the sheer relief of not having to constantly hide, fearing what people will think if they find out, makes every moment since I came out a thousand times better than any moment before. It doesn’t hurt that I managed to find and fall in love with the awesome man who is now my husband.
And more and more often, people just take it in stride.
In conclusion, part of the coming out process can be an ordeal. But the rewards of living a life honestly, of being free to be who you are, and of learning who really loves you for who you are, are worth it. Being out is a blessing.