Making a Path for Other People
I know I'm nearly a week late, but it’s hard for me to let a “National Coming Out Day” come and go without a rush of feelings. The fact that one exists at all is still surreal to me. Even after I’d come out to my parents and my close friends, being my full self in the bigger world seemed like an impossibility. I totally accepted that fact that I would simply not have the kind of life that looked like those of my heterosexual friends. There would be no marriage, no kids, no sense of being a respected, acceptable person. This was so much a part of how I viewed myself and my life, even though the shame I felt didn’t hold the weight it had when I was a kid and knew that “something was wrong with me.”
When I got my first real, full-time teaching job, I was out to enough people that my life felt “normal,” if I squinted. My parents had long since come to accept this thing they hadn’t expected, and I mostly just concentrated on my new job as a way to feel like I was an ok person. I had girlfriends off and on, but I wasn’t a person who talked about these things to my colleagues, and certainly not to my students. I know in the back of my mind, coming out had mostly meant I didn’t have to keep hiding who I was from my family. I’m sure they all knew any way, as did longtime friends. It was the rest of the world I worried about and with whom that feeling of shame would gently make itself known in my head.
I sometimes give myself credit for moving forward despite feeling like I was badly flawed.
Looking back, I wonder how much of feeling unacceptable at that point actually came from others and how much of it was still in me, from all those early, unspoken lessons. When you grew up gay in the 1950s and 60s, you knew that you were different. And, because there was no talking about it and no generalized acceptance of it—or even the hope of that acceptance—you just walked around feeling that you had done something very wrong. I knew that something was not right with me, even as I knew on some strange level that it wasn’t my fault.
When I look at pictures of me in my mid-30s, proud to have earned a tenure-track teaching job at a community college, I think about how tired I must have been from carrying that shame and making it seem ok. I think about the young adults I know now and I can’t imagine telling them that who they are is bad—for any reason. I sometimes give myself credit for moving forward despite feeling like I was badly flawed, yet I can’t help but wonder what I could have done if I’d simply grown up feeling like I was great.
This is what I am thinking about this year as we mark another National Coming Out Day, even knowing that having a day like this doesn’t change the bigotry that exists everywhere. It doesn’t make homophobic moms and dads be more loving to their gay kids, and it doesn’t change the larger culture that has such a narrow version of what’s ok and what isn’t. But it’s something. It’s a conversation, a moment, an awareness. I can’t even imagine what that awareness might have done to create a smoother, safer-feeling path for my own development.
But I can be glad to live in a world that is changing, however incrementally. And, I can use my power and age and wisdom to help other people find their own smoother paths. When I think about the amazing capacity of the human mind and heart, it’s difficult to believe that cruelty and hatred could be part of any of us. So I remember daily to do the opposite. I am lucky that I’ve lived at least the last 40 years of my life knowing that I am good. And my good can shine a light on everyone else’s. It’s why I became a teacher all those years ago, even though I didn’t really know it then.