Monday, October 11, 2010

National Coming Out Day

So today is Columbus Day. I've personally always thought this to be one of the crappiest "holidays" on the American Calendar - precisely for the reason that I never once got the day off from school. Why write the names of Holidays in italics on the calendar, if you're not going to give us the day off!? It seems like a fountainhead day to celebrate a fairly lame fountainhead explorer. Did you know that kids on the East Coast get Columbus Day off from school? I was ticked, until I realized that celebrating the memory of a man who began the systematic raping and pillaging of native peoples in the Western continents was just not my cup.

But today is not just Columbus Day. It's also National Coming Out Day. And instead of talking about celebrating the "discovery of the Americas" (pffffft ... so histrionically wrong on soooo many levels), I thought I'd tell you a bit about my experience with the coming out process. Because truthful identities are something worth celebrating. 

I came out when I was 17, almost 18. It was the last week of Winter break in my senior year of high school. I had known for at least two years, but in the community where I lived, the high school I went to, and my own sense of stature among my peers, coming out wasn't an option. This was the mid-late 90's. And while the GLBT community was being exposed in a very positive, new, and revolutionary way, the gay-straight alliances that are now the "norm" at high schools, were completely radical, and virtually unheard of at the time. I might not have come out on my own at all, except that my best friend, upon reading a poem I had compiled of single-line Tori Amos lyrics (yeah ... you can totally laugh), flat out asked me. 

"So what's this about?"
"This poem ... what's this about? Is it about one person?"
"Kind of, yeah."
"And is this person ..."
"Is this person what?"
"Well ... is it a boy or a girl?"
[silence] "I don't know. I think I'm trying to figure that out."
"Okay ... well, if you had to choose between one or the other, which would it be?"
"Choose between one or the other what?"
"Gender. Which do you like better?"
"I'm just asking."
"I think I like girls. I think I really like girls."
"I knew it!"
"I've known."
"WHAT?! How did you? I mean, I didn't ... WHAT?!"
"I've known since junior year, I think."
"Well why didn't you tell me??"
"I just didn't know how to broach the subject."
"Would have saved me a lot of agony, you know ... that you're okay with it."
"Of course I am! I love you. And I want you to be happy. This doesn't change who you are ... it's just another level."
"Thank you."
"Have you told anyone else?"
"No - I've never said it out loud. I should probably do it now - Megan, I think I'm a lesbian."
"YAY! I'm so happy for you! And I'm the first one to know! YAY!"

[That's a mostly dramatized retelling - I don't remember all the details of the conversation, but that's the essential idea.]

This conversation then carried long into the night. My biggest fear was that other students at school, like Megan, had figured it out. I was paranoid about being "obvious." My fear took hold - what would they do to me if they knew? What about the awards and scholarships I was up for? What about my teachers - would they grade me differently? Would my parents still love me? Would I have any friends at all? 

Anyone struggling with self-identity battles with these questions and more ... and the more questions asked, the more fear is produced. Now, thankfully, Megan is probably 50 times more perceptive than most normal humans, let alone teenagers. I lived the last semester of high school in a kind of paranoid bliss - I was simultaneously horrified of someone finding out - or worse - figuring it out before I had a chance to control it. But I was so completely thrilled that someone else knew ... someone knew! Not just someone - my best friend, who knew me better than anyone. Who sat with me at lunch time, who commiserated with me about the vileness of high school, and the hate we had for our hometown. My intelligent, articulate, valedictorian best friend who didn't even blink that I was different, and who didn't love me any less. In fact, she was excited and proud of the fact that she was the first one to know. 

Part of the coming out process includes damage control. Lots and lots of damage control. The impetus of controlling who knows what: when you'll tell them, how you'll tell them, how MUCH you'll tell them, and attempting to calculate the fall-out as the news spreads is so daunting - it's enough to make you want to stay good and hidden in that closet for, oh, 80 years or so. It's maddening! Especially because once you say it - once you lay it all out there, that's it. You can't get it back, you can't retract it. It's such a brave, terrifying, and completely lonely process - it can't be fully experienced unless you're right in the middle of it. Unless you're living it. 

My coming out experience was (by-in-large) so completely awesome, so supportive, so wonderful - and with each new person I told, it became that much easier for the next time, and the next time. I'm one of the really lucky ones. 

I have friends who've come out to me, and with many I was the first person they told. And with almost all of them, the set up was written or said to me in a way that had me deathly afraid they were dying of cancer. "I have something I need to tell you, and it's really, really difficult. I can't even say the words - but I have to ..." So dour, so depressed, so frightened - and the phrase, "I understand if you don't want to talk with me anymore," or some variation, is ALWAYS the conclusive statement - (I think I said it a few times myself) because that's what their expectation is. They're expecting the worst-case scenario - that everyone they know will leave them, will stop loving them, will disown them. It doesn't matter how real this scenario could be - it's every non-straight person's worst fear. It certainly was for me - and I had exceptionally wonderful people in my life. 

And if someone you know does that to you ... if they have such a hard time getting the words out that you're afraid they've got some terribly terminal disease - you are absolutely allowed to yell at them! Just so long as you hug them, or smile, or exclaim your immense relief. Tell them that you love them, no matter what, and that all you could ever hope for, is for them to be happy with who they are. That is the singularly best gift you can give: joyful acceptance. 

So today I celebrate all those teens, all those early 20-somethings, 30-somethings, 40-somethings, 50-somethings, 60-somethings, and beyond - it's not too late to love who you are; who you've always been. And while you might feel alone - you're not. And days like today (without Columbus' help) exist to remind us of that. 

And some bonus videos ...


Phoenix said...

I am so grateful you had Megan while you were in high school. And I am so lucky to know you, baby... and I'm so glad that life has never broken you but just made you stronger and more loving.

I think of all the suicides lately of gay teens... and I think of all the people who loved those teens and accepted them, wondering if there was something else they could have done to let them know how very loved they really were.

QueenFee said...

What an lovely recounting, my dear. I am very happy to know that your experience was positive and smooth, for I've known so many who have not been so lucky. And, of course, your friend loved you just the way you are, no matter what...I do, too. xoxo