“Are you gay?”
“That’s so cool!”
So went my most recent “coming out” conversation, with one of the students in my advisory class at the high school where I teach in northern Texas. I had my first such conversation twenty-nine years ago, driving my friend, Trent, back from a high school dance in downtown Juneau to his house near mine in the Valley:
“I want to tell you something, but I’m afraid it could hurt our friendship, and I don’t want it to. It’s hard to talk about, and I’ve been avoiding telling you, but I want to.”
“Okay. It’s no big deal. Just slow down!” Apparently, my nervousness had caused me to tense up and clamp down, including clamping my foot down on the gas pedal. “Well,” I thought afterward, “that went a lot better than I feared.”
Same thing happened a few months later when I came out to my little clique of friends gathered for a boozy evening at my house while my parents were away on a date. My friends took it in stride, acted as if it were old hat to have one of their own come out as gay—we put a lot of stock in being the sophisticated set at school. But really, we maybe weren’t all that far ahead of the curve: A couple of years later, the younger sister of my friend, Karen, came out to her friends and family, my younger brother’s best friend came out to everyone in her history class and began sculpting nude female busts in art class, and finally, my younger brother came out, too. All to relatively little grief and drama.
It was another story with my mother. My parents came around, but it wasn’t easy with or for Mom.
Anyway, little would I have thought driving down the Egan Expressway with Trent that I would still be having similar conversations, experiencing something like the same nervousness, culminating in the same sense of relief—though not as seemingly earth-shattering—twenty-nine years later. It’s surprising to me, and a little sad, how little things have changed in nearly three decades. To be sure, it’s gotten a little easier for young people—I am no longer very surprised when a student tells me in a journal entry or essay the struggles he or she is experiencing coming out to friends or family—it would have been unthinkable for me to confide in a teacher. But there is still struggle, and not that different from what my brother and I went through.
There is one difference. For my students now, coming out sometimes involves a boyfriend or girlfriend, even if they don’t often use the words and seem to regard the concept of “dating” as quaint. For them, being gay is about relationships. For my generation, coming out in our twenties was a part of sexual liberation. It was about sex and sexual partners—having a boyfriend or girlfriend was just not much on the map of possibilities.
That’s not really how I wanted it. At some level, I wanted the same kind of experiences available to my heterosexual peers, no more or less “innocent” or focused on sex than for them. I remember one occasion, during the year I spent attending classes at a lycee in France right after I graduated from high school, attending a dance organized at the Protestant Students Hall in Paris where I was staying for a week’s vacation from my school near Lyon. I was taken with one of the other boys and asked him if he wanted to dance, and was thoroughly embarrassed when he laughed and said, “What, you and me?!” assuming that couldn’t be what I had in mind.
I don’t mean to suggest I was a Pollyana. During my first year of college in Portland, Oregon, having my first sexual experiences was high on my list of priorities. During fall break, I scheduled a trip to San Francisco with the express intent of having sex, and abandoned my friend Deborah, with whom I was staying at the workers’ residence hall where she lived, on the first two evenings after my arrival to hightail it to the Castro disco clubs in pursuit of that quest. With some success, I might add. My first conquest was a somewhat tawdry affair in which I went home with a middle-aged collector of cinema memorabilia and starlet’s autographs who interrogated me at some length about my sexual history and any danger I might have of carrying STDs. But, I spent the second night with a tall, handsome, sweet and surprisingly protective Filipino guy just a few years older than me, who truly initiated me into the pleasures of sexual intimacy. Everyone called him David, but to me he confided his real name: Djuwan. It still makes me smile to recall it.
But, having gotten the “having sex” business out of the way, I devoted myself during the second semester to what I really wanted: finding a boyfriend. Surprisingly—especially given the fact that I considered myself an atheist (albeit open to the possibility of a non-theistic “spirituality”)—I came closest to finding him at church. Well, sort of church. Brett and I noticed each other the first time I attended a Quaker meeting in Portland, and he came right out on the walk to the bus afterwards—he had volunteered to accompany me—and asked me if I was gay. We started hanging out and it wasn’t long before he asked me to sleep over in the house he shared with his mom, a lesbian, feminist Quaker. I met her at breakfast the morning after; she seemed to like me and to take it in stride that her son and I had spent the night together in his bed.
Brett and I spent a fair amount of time together in coming months, but I never really considered us boyfriends—he seemed much younger than me, and I probably made too much of the difference between my college life and his life finishing the last year of high school. The next year, the tables turned—I fell head over heels with a boy in the Gay Student Association I helped form at our college, but he was less interested in anything other than a casual sexual relationship. And, during the subsequent few years of college (I was on the extended graduation plan!), I had a number of one-night stands or more protracted flings, often hoping to become boyfriends with boys interested in the sex, but not in identifying as gay, or at least not to the degree that would have been required in “having a boyfriend.” Sure, I enjoyed the sex, but (with the exception of one memorable assignation with the sextant in the Cathedral in Nice, where I was vacationing during a year spent at the University of Strasbourg, or the summer of the following year with a weekend spent on Long Island with a former monk I met at a cinema off Times Square after working for a month as a camp counselor in upstate New York), I kept hoping it was a prelude to something more, and kept on coming away disappointed. As a generation, we were liberated enough to have gay sex, but not to fall in gay love—for most of us, I think, forming permanent, gay relationships just seemed too far beyond the pale.
Before abandoning all hope of that, I gave it one more go—with Michael, a boy I got to know in the Gay Students Alliance at the University of Oregon and through mutual friends. We moved in together too soon, and I tried too hard to fall in love with someone with whom I was not really very compatible, but who was the only boy I’d met since Brett who seemed equally interested in actually having a long-term relationship with another guy. After acknowledging the lack of real love and breaking it off with him, I threw in the towel—decided I would have a go at “going straight.” That was crazy, of course, but I’m an obstinate fellow, and devoted too many years trying to deny my gayness.
But, if nothing else, those years I spent “back in the closet” did bring about the shift in sensibility I’ve been trying to evoke. By the time I regained my senses and “came out” yet again, gays were no longer fighting for just sexual liberation, but for the right to marry, to form families and have their long-term loving commitments acknowledged and respected. Now, I’m happily married (though not according to the laws of my Bible-belt state) to a man who shares with me the responsibilities of raising, along with their mother and her new husband, my two daughters. It’s been a long, winding road from that moment in the car with Trent back in Juneau, but I wouldn’t undo it—I like where it’s finally brought me.