This morning on the Today Show, Meredith Baxter promoted her new book and reflected on coming out. The “Family Ties” star came out on the same show a year ago. Like many celebrities, Baxter came out because of the threat of rumors; she talked about the tabloid industry for which everything regarding public figures is fair game. Her life has changed for the better, she admits, as she finds new courage in old fears. Baxter brings to light, yet again, the sometimes difficult process of coming out, but my story is quite different.
Yesterday, I was asked, as part of the new Safe Zone program, to lead a workshop on coming out. The thinking behind this is an out gay man must know how to come out, how to deal with coming out issues, and how to talk to students who are facing this challenging process. I considered Baxter’s interview. Before she came out, she seemed to have so much at stake. The same is true for many young people who believe direly that they could lose family, friends, and futures.
When it comes to coming out, I don’t know what having anything at stake feels like. In my family, there are many gay and lesbian people, namely two gay uncles on my mother’s side who provided positive and comfortable examples of what it is to be a gay man. My Uncle Pete, who moved to New York to study hair design, showed me that it was possible to be an out gay man, move away from home, and become someone fabulous.
My coming out scene, too, was fairly simple: I told my mother in the car on the way home from school. She said she knew. There were no tears, no hugs, not even much sense of relief (as there wasn’t much tension). That was May 1, 1997. I was 16 and a junior in high school. A year later, I celebrated my anniversary by handing out rainbow stickers to everyone on campus; I was that gay and that out.
My day of celebration didn’t last long. In Mrs. Dolezal’s Geometry class, where we sat at tables of four, one of the boys stabbed my left forearm with his pencil. I still have the lead-stained scar. He was removed and was eventually sent to anger management.
A few years later, when I was at a college party, I saw that same boy. He came up to me and apologized. The funny thing was, I had no recollection of him or the stabbing incident. After he finished telling me the story, he introduced me to his friends. “This is the guy?” they asked, astonished. “He talks about you all the time,” one of them told me. Apparently, I had become part of his coming out story.
I have been out for almost 14 years. The idea of being out doesn’t even occur to me sometimes. In fact, when I started my position at Montgomery College, I met two new professors who asked if I had something to tell them. They assured me that they were safe and trustworthy, and with a crinkled forehead, I asked what they meant. They took my confusion as evasion, a sign of someone not yet ready to come out. When I realized what they meant, I smiled and thanked them for their willingness to make me feel welcome, but the truth was, I had completely forgotten that to some people I wasn’t already openly gay. Some people need to be told who you are to be sure of who you are, never mind the fact that you already know who you are and are already sure of yourself.
Coming out was easy for me, save for being stabbed in high school. In college, I found the Lambda League, a student GLBT community (the other letters weren’t added until much later). At home, I had a mother who asked after my safety and uncles who asked about my dating life. I’m not sure what it feels like to have anything at stake, like Baxter and like many of my students, but I do know what a firm foundation of honest acceptance and sincere support feels like. I also know what the mask of angry homophobia feels like, not to mention what it means. Maybe this is what I’ll share in my coming out workshop.