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Monday, July 15, 2013

Ins and Outs (or, 'I don't even keep my CLOTHES in the closet!')



Hello, darlings. Let’s talk about something terrifying – something that to many of us seemed like (and may actually have been) the scariest, most dreaded event that we could ever conceive of facing. Something some people decide never to face. Let’s talk about coming out.

(This is going to be a long one, so you might want to get yourself a cup of coffee or three. I'm hopped up on enough caffeine to paralyze a rabid wolverine, so I'm good to go. Let me know when you're ready...)

Coming out is a decision that every LGBTQ person has to ponder sooner or later, and it’s a biggie. To come out or not to come out, and when and how to do it, can affect every single aspect of our lives, so obviously it’s a huge decision. Do you just come leaping out and bare your soul to the world, and damn the consequences? Or do you only come out to those already in the ‘community’, and maybe a few close friends? Do you do the ‘work-safe’ thing and come out to your friends and family, but keep it out of the office? Or do you try to stay stealth, hiding the real you from everyone around you? Some combination? Or none of the above?

Everyone’s coming out experience is different. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do it – you have to do what is right for you, at the level that will allow you to live happily and comfortably. My own ‘coming out’ experience was a weird and convoluted one, which I will share with you – probably in way too much detail - in a bit. But first let’s talk about yours. There’s a good chance that your experience falls somewhere within the scope of one or more of the following. Do any of these sound familiar?

For some, the whole thing is a no-brainer – they were never really in the closet, so there’s no real surprise involved when they come out. It’s more of a, “Golly, we never would have guessed!” moment than an earth-shattering revelation.





I've talked to a lot of other folks who had one or two friends growing up who knew (or strongly suspected) they were gay, but whose family and wider ‘circle’ had no idea. And I've met quite a few folks who – once they were in college, say, or out of their hometowns – had a circle of gay or gay-friendly friends that knew, but kept it completely secret from those back home. Their decision was a little harder – should they risk alienating their loved ones (near or far) by being honest with them? For me personally (and my experience is not necessarily yours), I can’t imagine going through my entire life hiding behind a mask. I tried it – and it didn't work for me. I just got tired of pretending (and I wasn't very good at it anyhow). More on this later.

As a bit of a sideways ramble, it makes me sad that in this day and age being gay should be something people reject you for, but sometimes it is, and the risk of being hurt by someone you thought would understand turning away is, unfortunately, very real. We hope that our family and friends love us for who we are, not for what we have in our pants or what we do with it, especially as it honestly shouldn't have anything to do with them unless we’re sleeping with them (which most of us hopefully are not).  

I've also known a person or two who surprised everyone when they came out. We’re talking jaw-dropping, eye-bugging, wait-what-now?!? kind of shock. These were folks who could have remained stealth for the rest of their life and no one would have ever suspected a thing. Why did they take a risk like that? Because they knew who they were, and felt like they needed to be truthful with the people they cared about – and hoped for the best. Those who loved and supported them would still do that, and those that didn't – well, those people didn't really factor into it.

This kind of brings me in a very round-about fashion to my own ‘coming out’. Or I guess I should say, my ‘coming outs’, plural. I came out, to the best of my recollection, three separate times. Apparently, despite my best attempts to break down that closet door and come sashaying out, rainbow feather boa flying, other people thought they knew better than me, and it just didn't ‘take’.  ‘Wait a minute,’ I can hear you wondering. ‘Didn't take? What does what anyone else’s opinion have to do with it?!?’

Darlings, pardon my French but I sh*t you not, every single time I tried to come out, somebody – or somebodies – shoved me right back in the closet and locked the door. I know it sounds like a joke, but I am deadly serious. It was the opposite of being ‘outed’ – I was repeatedly ‘inned’. And while I’m sure that to some of you that  sounds like a super problem to have – after all, who ever complains about NOT being gay? – you’ll have to take my word for it that it was miserable. Maybe I can walk you through it to help you understand.

I knew I was, let’s say ‘different’, by the time I was in the 4th grade. Oh, I’d felt the same way for as long as I can remember - I got in trouble in daycare for not staying on my own mat at naptime – but it wasn't until about the 4th grade that I knew other people thought it wasn't OK. I had had crushes on some of my little friends, kids that I played with and had sleepovers at each other’s homes – crushes so serious that apparently they went beyond what the parents of my friends considered ‘normal’. I clearly remember not one but two instances where I was no longer allowed to play with one of my ‘special friends’, because their parents thought we were ‘too close’. I was devastated by this – but I didn't really understand why those friendships weren't OK. I thought everyone felt that way, and I remember crying until I thought my little heart would break because I loved them and they were taken away from me, and no one would tell me why.

It wasn't until I was in high school that I learned there was a word for the feelings I had. I also learned something else – that most of the kids snickered when they used the word ‘gay’, and not in a good way. To be ‘gay’ was to be pointed at, gossiped about in hushed whispers, behind hands, because it was something too taboo to be spoken about out loud. There were two kids in my French class that people whispered that way about. And apparently they were not just ‘gay’, they were ‘bisexual’, a new concept to me. How strange! How exotic! And how much I envied them! 

Although to the rest of the school their sexuality was something risqué and possibly shameful, I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard of: to be able to love someone of either gender, without judgment!

(It wasn't until many, many years later that I learned the concept of pansexuality, or falling in love with a person regardless of - or despite - the parts they have, as opposed to strict bisexuality, where a person may be attracted to a man, or a woman, or both. A true pansexual can just as easily fall in love with a transgender man or woman, an intersexed person with vague or undetermined genitalia, or someone ‘genderqueer’, who identifies as neither male nor female. That’s oversimplifying, by the way – but it gets us close enough for government work.)

Suffice it to say for now, my darlings, that I’d never heard of this possibility of being neither gay nor straight, and it seemed very liberating to me. In my mind, though I had definite preferences and nearly all of my ‘crushes’ had been for my own gender, the option of not having to choose seemed brilliant.  

I realize that didn't make a lot of sense. I knew that the other kids thought those ‘bi’ kids were weird. I knew they thought the one openly gay kid in school was weird. Did I want to be branded weird, too?

Well, kind of. I’d already had a lot of weirdness in my life. I had a lot of medical issues growing up, some pretty serious, from pretty much birth on. Some of these issues had to do with my sexy-bits, too, so I already had mixed feelings about those all on my own, let alone involving other people. I was already one of the ‘weird kids’ – and from where I was sitting, this was a weirdness that I could actually own, and embrace, and control – unlike the health issues, which just did their own thing and took me along for the ride. I figured I could make this work for me. So, Coming Out #1. Age: About 14. Approach: In your face. Status: Epic fail.

Maybe my approach was to blame. I came right out and promptly told everybody at school that I was gay. No one else. I wasn't deliberately hiding it from my family – it was pretty much right out there, I just never said the words. I guess I was ‘school only’ gay.

Nobody bought it. Even my best friend (of the opposite sex, oddly enough, since I didn't really get along that well with my own) flat out rejected it: “You’re not gay.” No discussion, no reason given – just laughter and complete, total dismissal. Not even the ‘weird’ kids who’d inspired me to come out in the first place accepted me – they thought it was a joke. Maybe they thought I was making fun of them, since my attempts to become a part of their group were so clumsy. But the door remained closed, and eventually I stopped kicking it and kept my mouth shut. End attempt 1.

The rest of high school was a drag, romantically. Since I’d stopped ‘trying to be gay’, I went the other direction and started trying to act ‘normal’. (That didn't work either, but you have to do something, right?) I did the expected thing and ‘dated’ someone – if by dating you mean ‘see movies and eat food and avoid making out because it makes you feel icky’. I went to prom. And while a lot of my classmates celebrated that occasion by hooking up and getting frisky, I sat awkwardly at a table watching my friends dance, grateful that my date didn't ask me to dance, and very, very happy to go home early – alone.

I did make a few gay friends during my high school years. We were great friends, and I even brought some of them home – but somehow they were always involved with someone else, or moving to another country, or – not mine. ::sigh::

So, enough of high school. I was sure college would be my time to shine! I was a theatre arts major, and darlings, there are a lot of open-minded folks in the theatre. My hometown was tiny, so living on campus at a university was a whole new world. I just knew it was going to be a different story.

I’d learned the hard way that when I talked about sex,  people issued me their opinions, which tended to differ from my own. So, I played it cool. I made friends with girls. I made friends with boys. I had a couple of dates, but didn't click with anyone. I felt like I was waiting for something that would never come. I was lonely.

In my sophomore year, I had a fairly serious crush on someone that I was in a show with – someone who was extremely ‘out’ and proud of it. We were both single, and became friends, but I hoped for more. I felt like my crush was obvious, so when I was invited to join them at a march supporting the campus LGBT student group, I jumped at the chance. Little did I know the nightmare that was about to unfold. (Insert ominous music of your choosing here.)

I had fun at the march, so I decided to attend an actual LGBT club meeting. Darlings, I had such high hopes. I dressed carefully, showcasing my own personal flare. I felt – free. I imagined that I was about to make a lot of new friends, and have a beautiful, life-changing experience.

I was half right.

It was clear in the first five minutes that the group’s LGBT moniker was undeserved – it should have been “LG, everyone else GTFO.” I wish I was exaggerating. That feeling of camaraderie and belonging I’d felt at the march completely disappeared.  

I won’t repeat the things I heard, or the slurs so offhandedly slung about so-and-so who had had the shame to be found dating someone of the opposite sex. Never mind that so-and-so had been single, and had found someone to care about (isn't that a good thing?). So-and-so hadn't cheated, had not left someone for a boy. She had betrayed her lesbian sisters (and everyone in the room, apparently) by going on a date.

Knowing the group was for LG – B – and T students, and being relatively sure the B was supposed to stand for ‘bisexual’, I wasn't exactly sure what the problem was, and said so. (I’m sure you can guess where this is going…)

::cue dramatic music:: MISTAKE.

Oh, my goodness. Silence fell. Every single person turned and stared at me like I’d just ripped one in church. I cringed, but it was far too late to take it back. I had violated the sacred space with a tolerance for something other than ‘gold-standard gayness’, and that was not be tolerated.

The grilling began. I was new, wasn't I? Yes, obviously. Some of them recognized me from the march, but I hadn’t been to a meeting before tonight. Did I know someone there, or was I ‘ just a spy’? (Really??) I was there with my friend – who did nothing to support me. No big deal, I thought. I wasn't saying anything terribly radical, so I didn't need anyone to support me. I had my own back.

Was I gay? Aha, now there was the million-dollar question. Having just witnessed the virtual burning-in-effigy of the bi girl, I weighed my answer carefully. I said I wasn't dating anyone. There was someone I liked, but we were just friends. A boy or a girl? Not wanting to put my friend on the spot, I tried to answer in a way I thought was more to the point. I said that I’d been attracted to both boys and girls throughout my life, and I didn't feel a need to choose one. And since I wasn't dating anybody, and the group is open to everyone LGBT, I didn't see how they could really judge.

Again - mistake! I had just committed the cardinal sin. They could and they did judge me for not wanting to commit to being 100% definitely all-the-time gay, forever-and-ever-amen. Came right out and said I was wrong. Not that it was wrong to like girls and/or boys, but that I was wrong about myself.

There is no such thing as being bisexual. That’s what the LGBT group told me, to my face, and in not- so-polite terms. You’re confused. You don’t know what you want. People are either gay or they’re straight – you are a fence-sitter. (Typing that phrase just sent me straight back in time; I literally cringed.)

The diatribe continued. Not only was I a confused fence-sitter, they assured me, but no one would ever date me. Why? Because no matter which gender my partner was, I would cheat on them or leave them for someone of the other one. Not might, not could. I would do this, they swore with apparent sincerity, as if it were a physical impossibility for me to do otherwise. Because I would not deny thoughts and feelings that I had had for my entire life, clearly I was incapable of falling in love, of respecting my lover and being faithful or monogamous – because I wouldn't describe myself as ‘gay’.  Tried and convicted of being a nympho, a liar and a cheater, all in the first ten minutes of having met me. Thought-crime much?  

I’ll skip over the rest of the discussion, my bewilderment and disbelief, which rapidly turned to angry tears. I’ll skip the part where the friend who had brought me to the meeting not only failed to stick up for me, but took their side. And I’ll skip the part where they said ‘people like me’ were not welcome. People. Like. Me. Some of the pain came from being misunderstood. Even more of it came from the fact that this group of people, whose sole purpose for being was to provide a safe space for young LGBT folks, earnestly believed the things they were saying. They seemed to honestly want to help me by telling me how completely and utterly wrong every feeling and thought that I had was. There was no room in their safe space for me. Agonized and beyond disappointed, I left – and so ended Coming Out #2. Age: 19. Approach: “Joining the Club.” Result: Epic fail. Again.

Ok, deep breath. Because that last part was soooooo long, I’ll do you all the favor of speeding through the next, oh, 12 years.

Having been kicked out of the LGBT group in college for ‘not being gay enough’, I then embarked on a self-fulfilling (and very UNFULFILLING) prophecy. I tried again to do ‘what was expected’. I dated – I pretended I didn't have any feelings other than ones that were OK on mainstream television, and I somehow convinced myself that although I was not at all happy with my life, I wasn't that  unhappy. Although the straight world found me ‘a little too gay’, I even got married, and we spent about seven years making each other not terribly unhappy quite a lot of the time. Both of us knew, however, that something was terribly wrong, terribly missing. We were good friends. Really good friends, in the sense that we didn't have sex for over a year three separate times in our relationship. Looking back now, this seems made-up, like a story that happened to someone else. Surely that lukewarm, passionless life couldn't have been mine.

About three years ago, I woke up one morning with one thought resonating through my brain: “I’m gay.” Instantly, the panic flag started flying. I broke out in a cold sweat and began to quake. I didn't want to be gay. Gay was hard! Gay was for other people, people who didn't live in small towns, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. I’d spent years trying to pass for ‘normal’, to mixed results, but I had put a lot of effort into it. And besides, the gay people didn't want me! For a club with such steep dues, they sure made it tough to become a member.

I did some more soul-searching, and a lot of research. A lot of things had changed in the world since my last tentative foray into fabulousity. Gay was becoming more mainstream, and the world seemed to be opening up both its minds and its hearts. Maybe there was a chance. I knew what I felt, and I knew that – despite what potential haters might think –I had a right to feel what I felt, and to live my life the way that I wanted to.

And ‘gay’ came in so many more flavors now! It wasn't just ‘gay’, ‘straight’ or ‘other’ – not only were bisexuals demanding (and occasionally grudgingly being given) recognition and acceptance, but the community had expanded to include asexuals, demisexuals, and – at last – pansexuals! I had found my home.

My third coming out was occasioned by comparatively little fanfare. A (straight) friend had a birthday the same day as a PRIDE event, and I failed to plan ahead enough to allow myself time to go home and change, so I showed up at the party wearing a t-shirt that put it all right out there. There was one moment when I walked in the door and everyone took it in – and then the conversation continued as if it didn't matter. Because it didn't. I’m blessed to have some amazing friends who are wise enough to realize that.

The next step was my family. How they managed to miss it – or ignore it – when I was a child and a teen had long been a mystery to me, especially when I brought my gay friends home! In retrospect, I realize now that I didn't give my mother nearly enough credit. I’m sure she knew everything, and spent years watching and waiting for me to own it so that she could throw me a coming out party. I’m sorry she passed away before she got the chance. By the time I came out to her, she was already in hospice, near the end of a fight with terminal lung cancer. I actually came out to her by accident – I posted on Facebook about my deep admiration for a very courageous transgender person. I ended by outing myself, almost as an afterthought.

My mom was delighted.

When I eventually met my wonderful partner and brought them to meet my mom, she couldn't have been happier for us. She accepted us completely. I mourn for all the years that I hid who I truly was from her, and from myself, years that she could have shared. It was an injustice to us both.

I guess the third time’s the charm for me. Coming out #3. Age: (withheld for the sake of vanity). Approach: Nonchalant. Result: Success - but in the long run, I’m not sure it really matters.

If I had one wish for those who are struggling to come to terms with their sexuality, and debating whether or not to come out, or to what degree, it would be that you trust yourselves, love yourselves, and do what makes sense for you with a hopeful heart. Many of us are filled with such fear, it freezes us in place. It keeps us from breathing. We fear for our jobs, our friendships, and our families. How can we put those at risk? All too often I hear about someone who has lost something. Some have lost everything. These stories devastate me. I want to take every one of the people who’s gone through that – especially the kids – and tell them to hang in there, it really does ‘get better’, and that what seems like the hugest, most important and most impossible thing in the world will eventually be just a blip in your rearview mirror. You just have to keep driving.

Is that fabled golden sunset always there? Of course not. Nothing in this life is guaranteed, except that every day we wake up brings new possibilities. But sometimes, yes. A lot of the time, those who love us will still love us. They may be in shock for a little while, as they process things and sort it all out mentally. But a lot of the time, after they work it through, they come around. They may never love our sexuality, or love the life we’re living – but they still love the person. That can be difficult, but if it needs to be, it can be good enough, sometimes.

But Unicorn, I hear you ask. What about the other times? Yeah. Good question. It’s one we don’t like to think about, but you asked, and we’re being honest.

There’s no way to sugar-coat this and make it come out pretty, so I’ll just say it: Sometimes people suck. Sometimes those we need and love can’t make the mental leap to see that we’re still the same person, no matter what gender we sleep with or fall in love with. Sometimes their beliefs (usually religious, but I’m not trying to bash anyone’s faith) seem to say that being LGBT or Q is morally and ethically wrong, and they react with disgust. They cast us out. They throw us away.

This is a hard truth to swallow, but I think it is the truth: If that happens, it’s horrible, but it's not the end of the world. It’s painful in a way impossible to imagine unless you've gone through it. It is life-altering, life-changing, sometimes tragically life-destroying, and eats away at our sense of self-worth and self-esteem until we feel disgusting and poisonous and bad. We think that if others have thrown us away, we must deserve that – or worse. But do you know what the real truth is, darlings? If people cannot love us for who we are, who we really are, then those people never loved us to begin with.

I know that’s hard so I’ll say it again – if they do not love us, knowing our truth and seeing the beauty inside, but instead judge us by the parts we have and where we put them, they are the ones whose souls are lacking. They loved something that was their preconception of who they thought we were – and darlings, it is never our responsibility to live up to anyone else’s interpretation of our existence or our lives.

One of the cool things about being an adult is that we get to choose the people we want in our lives. We never need to worry about being alone (unless we want to be). There are support groups, both brick-and-mortar and online, of people who have gone through what we've gone through, and who understand the confusion, fear, and pain that we feel, who can share some of the burden and help us begin to heal. I talked about some of these, including the Trevor Project, in an earlier post, so I won’t dwell on that here – check it out of you need it. But just know that, unlike most people, we have the opportunity to choose our ‘family’ if the one we were given to start with turns out to be a bad fit. Yeah, it's devastating to lose people we care about - but is keeping ties with someone who doesn't want us worth living our entire life in hiding, denying ourselves truth, freedom, and love? (Sounds like Moulin Rouge in here...) For me, no. Your mileage may vary. But I would weigh the pros and cons very, very carefully. 

I've grown a lot since the 4th grade, and since high school, and even since that group in college. I know now that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with me. I know who I am, and I love who I love. Your journey may include coming out, either partially or to the entire world, honey. Or it may not. Like I said, it isn't a question of right or wrong. We all have to find our own way.  But in an ideal world, a world without fear and prejudice and bigotry (and one that I dearly hope most of us live to see one day), I believe this is the truth: We only get one go-around in this life. There is no ‘do over’. And despite the best intentions of your mama, your guidance counselor, your boss, or a group of strangers in Washington, the only person who gets to choose what is ‘normal’ or right for you is you.

Shouldn't we have the right to determine where our happiness lies, leaving the discrimination and judgment outside? It took me a long time to learn that – in fact, most of my life so far. I wish I’d learned it sooner, and not wasted so many years. We are the ones who live our lives. Time is much too precious to squander it living someone else’s life.

Live yours, and be fabulous.

---Whew! Thank you for staying with me, darlings. If you'd like to share your own coming out experiences, whatever they may have been, please leave me a comment. Remember - discussion and debate is fine, but intolerance or attacking is not. Play nice in the sandbox - there's room for everyone! 


9 comments:

  1. While I am sorry you endured such struggles in declaring the wonderful person I know you to be, I'm glad for your ultimate success. You are a beautiful person both inside & out and I am glad to call you family!

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  2. I like what you said. Everyone took it in and then turned back to their conversations. It didn't matter. You are you, and that's all there is to it. I think that's why I like being friends with you and others :). I can be whatever my sexual orientation is and it's no big deal. It's out, it's not an elephant in the room. I don't feel like I have to worry about it. I don't feel like anyone's freaking out, covering themselves because "OMG I'm Bi".

    Pansexual seems to be the best idea to me..lol.. in terms of labels since the men I've dated seem to say Bi means - one guy and unlimited girls in bed, or they say - "Well your bi- so you'll cheat." Um NO. Cheaters are Cheaters. Bisexuals are bisexuals. Kind of two different things.. Believe I've dated a straight cheater. :)

    Thank you for this. All of it. Who knew what I was going to get praying for a great play to be in with a really good director! All that and this and more! You are awesome, Unicorn! Keep it up! Thanks for making it safe to come out!

    Ps. I think I knew I was bisexual in 3rd grade. Glad to be able to voice that, even if well hidden!

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  3. Remind me to hug you the next time I see you. :) You're amazing, m'dear.

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  4. I remember when you "came out" to me back in college. It wasn't a surprise, considering your username on the campus message board had a sly reference to it. I remember just saying "Yeah, I know," and smiling. To which you just grinned and practically yelled "THE BOOKS!"

    I couldn't care less who you're in a relationship with so long as you're happy. And I'm very glad your current partner makes you very happy. :-)

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    1. I just have to ask now, since my memory is decreasing with age ::chuckle:: Which books?

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  6. Thanks for the feedback, darlings. :) I love that you are sharing with me! And I think you are *all* fabulous!

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  7. I wish so much I could share this post with my sister, who is the type that whenever gay topics come up she rants about Sodom and Gomorrah, men marrying sheep, whatever. I'm making the choice not to share it because you really do have to pick your battles with family (her and I have many battles... sigh), and I honestly don't think she would change. Although if any post *could* potentially open up someone's heart this one could. I have hope that with more and more people standing up for gay rights the bigots will change one day. It's so hard when it's your family though. I can only imagine how hard it would be to come out to family who feel this way. I am in awe of the people who do.

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    1. Thank you, darling. I *so* hear what you're saying about your sister - I hear that 'men marrying sheep' thing waaaaaaaaay more often than I'd like! You could always send your sister a little link with a 'I'll just leave this here, no pressure' kind of thing, if you think it might do some good - but only if you think you should! I'm not here to stir up anyone's family business!! Much love, and keep being fabulous. :)

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Please be kind to each other - I welcome discussion and conversation, but if you're deliberately nasty to someone, that makes kittens cry. Let's keep it fabulous!

~ The Unicorn