Joey, in his own words:“Here and Now Notes from Above Ground.
Being gay is how I am. It is my identity in the world. It is a type of soulful construction with personal, social, spiritual and sexual meanings—- noun and verb for mindfulness’ sake and a lived presence of experience and depth. As a native Philadelphian, I have watched the community evolve and have played an active role in that emergence. From the early days of gay consciousness raising and pot-lucks to being an organizer of THE ELDER INITIATIVE, a GLBTQ horizon which is shedding light on gay senior needs and visibility.
Professionally, I am an educator with degrees and recognitions, ulcers and a strong sense of testicular fortitude, along with a love of creativity and humor. Painting, zentangles, and photography are on going projects which are instrumental in my being a gay man, along with my loving boyfriend of the past nine years.
N.B.to my younger self— Be present as the watcher of your mind-of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in life’s adventures.”
Francisco, in his own words:“I don’t think being gay means you need to be political, but I do think it means you need to be brave. I believe that confidence—the way you daily conquer things—is an example and point of reference to friends, co-workers, lovers, friends, and kids that don’t otherwise have a resource to see that.
Junot Diaz has this great quote from a talk he gave in Jersey. “You guys know about vampires?” He asks. “You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?’ And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might seem themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
Growing up in white bread Chicago suburbia, I felt like a vampire. I never saw gay parents, or dudes wearing short shorts, or action TV series with queer protagonists. The greatest challenge was, and still is, finding everyday gay heroes to learn from or aspire to. And so I guess I’ve made it my mantra as a writer and as a person to seek out those heroes and to create the reflections I never saw when I was 10, sitting in my room peeling through Greek Mythology books, praying that I’d find a gay romance, a dude rescuing a dude in distress, any fleck of something that proved to me that one day I could save the day or conquer something. I wanted the gay guy to pick up the sword, I guess.
The day I came out to my parents (I was 18?) I had packed a bag. I’d brought my escape kit to the Art Institute where I would spend the day and thereafter, run away forever and live in my boyfriend’s ex-boyfriend’s guest bedroom for as long as possible until I figured out where to go from there. And I mean, yeah, wow, I was a manic and dumb kid in high school. But I think part of what I was feeling was unprepared and ill-equipped. I had no weapon.
The year I moved to New York was the best year of my life, and so much of that has to do with the gay companionship I’ve found here and will continue to find here. I’ve built some pretty terrible relationships in my day and escaping those ghosts had everything to do with knowing new gay men who scarcely accept less than they deserve. I work for a gay magazine called Hello Mr. that creates this kinda ineffable bond between gay men. It’s been a commonplace for key friendships, and I guess put up those mirrors I’d been aching for as a kid—the reflections of everyday heroes I could one day know or love or become.
Kinda wish I could send a tweet from the future into the past saying “@fransquishco! You’re going to be okay! You have gay friends! Parts of your heart are growing back!” But I guess since I can’t do that, the next best thing is writing for kids like me, little reassurances and mirrors. Or at least that’s the goal.
And I’m still looking for gay friends! Be friends with me! I’m big on picnics and any place where they serve you coffee in a ceramic mug.”
Ryan, in his own words:“I came out a little shy of a year ago. I’m 26 now. It took me a long time to come to terms with my sexuality. I knew that I was gay since I was a child but could never accept it. My upbringing in a traditional Samoan and Christian household instilled a lot of shame and self-hatred in me because I knew that ‘being gay’ was not acceptable. If anyone knew that I was gay, I would not be accepted.
I believed that if I hoped and worked hard enough and denied my sexuality that I could force myself to be straight–to be normal. I dated women and even got into serious relationships as a means of forcing myself straight. I fooled myself into believing I wanted a traditional life. I believed that if I could pretend long enough that this one little thing didn’t exist I’d be okay. I’d have a wedding, get a wife, and kids and I’d be happy. But inside I knew it wasn’t right. I knew that I was lying to everyone and most importantly myself.
As I grew older I realized more and more that there was nothing that could change who I was. No amount of prayer or work or denial could change the fact that I was supposed to be this way. I was born gay, there is a reason for it and I have to accept it as a part of my story. A year ago I decided to be brave and take the leap and I found my joy. I found the acceptance from friends and family that I thought I would be denied.
If I could communicate anything to my younger self I’d tell him that he is loved. He is fine just the way he is. There’s nothing to be afraid of. We are exactly who we are meant to be, we are perfect. Denying who we are is only denying us the happiness that we deserve.”
“We’ve always known” , “Well I could’ve told you that” and “Well DUH! What a surprise!” were just some of the reactions that I received when I finally decided to come out.
I grew up not far from London Gatwick airport, in a small village called Copthorne. It’s about 30-40 minutes drive away from Brighton (which later became my local watering hole, but enough on that for now). My mum and dad were together throughout my childhood and together, with my two brothers one older and one younger, we lived in a fairly decently sized family home. We were very privileged growing up so early childhood, from what I remember, was never something that was a struggle for me.
Apparently as a young child, I was extremely flamboyant. My mum regularly describes the same story to me and to most people who ask about me being gay.
“I remember Harry was outside playing with his best friend Hollie” (Who still to this day remains to be my soulmate….just not the right gender) “And my friend Jane was round the house for a cup of tea and chit chat. We were looking outside of the kitchen window, just keeping an eye on the two of them playing together and Jane turned to me and said, ‘If that boy isn’t gay, i’ll eat my hat’ ”
So it was always something that, I guess was, kind of…expected of me. Which sounds strange because it usually isn’t that way. More often than not it comes as surprise to some parents…but not me…it was almost like a birthright.
Like I’ve said, my childhood was relatively easy. I sailed through pre-school from years 1-6 carefree. Spending my time after school cutting the heads off of Barbie dolls and flushing their heads down the toilet with Hollie. A pastime that wasn’t the most favoured by her parents, but was entertaining none-the-less.
High school is where life became more of a challenge. I started high school in 2004, a round faced, plump child with long curly hair. I was not the most elegant of swans in the pond…let’s just put it that way. Anyways by then, I had realised I was different. I had grown up knowing deep inside that I liked boys, but as it is, I was terrified to admit it.
I was never bullied in high school, in fact I was probably one of the most outspoken people in our year group. Looking back now, it was probably because I had such a burning secret inside me tearing me apart, that I just projected it on to being loudmouthed and outspoken. But the only difficulty I had was trying to hide my true self. For readers of this blog who don’t understand what it is like to hide that, imagine you are a werewolf in full exposure of the moonlight and you’re fighting the inevitable urge to change into your inner beast. It’s tiring, soul destroying, scary and at times physically painful.
I’ve spent all of my life interested in the performing arts and it is my greatest passion in life. Throughout high-school I spent most of my life in and out of relationships with girls, trying to constantly perform to everyone that I was straight…that I was “normal”. But even this type of performance eventually became tiresome. Of course, people would constantly make comments about me “Of course Harry is gay” but my greatest comeback would always be “But i’ve had sex with girls, so I can’t be”. How ridiculous was I ?!
It was made easier by having people fighting your corner of course. I made friends there that I wish to be in contact with for the rest of my life, simply because their constant support towards me, no matter what I was claiming to be was never ending. And to this day, after coming out, it still has never been faulted. Hollie, Katie, Barny and Paul. I love you all.
Eventually I left high school and proceeded on to study at a college that was closer to Brighton for two years. By now I was 16/17, still a rather plump individual, but in my head I felt a little bit more free. I don’t know to this day what it was about that place that helped me, but something did. I decided to give up bread for lent one year. I’m not particularly religious, I just fancied the challenge. This sparked a huge change in my life, and I managed to drop a hell of a lot of weight extremely quickly and this in turn helped me hugely with my self-confidence. I think looking back now, this was a huge turning point in terms of getting the courage to come out. I was becoming more sexually attractive and was just gaining more and more self confidence with each pound of weight that dropped. Eventually when I came round to my second year of college and had turned 18, I started to go out clubbing and when you’re so close to Brighton, where else is there to go!? I started going out more and ,as i’m sure most people are aware, when an excessive amount of alcohol is in your system, the firm hold you think you have on your inhibitions becomes looser and looser with each shot of tequila until eventually, you’re topless in a gay bar with your tongue so far down a guys throat begging for air.
Now, once you have been spotted by a few of your friends making out with several guys on several occurrences, the old “I was so drunk, it was a dare, it was a bit of fun” excuses become tiresome and eventually something has to give. So i accepted defeat. I admitted it.
“YEAH….OKAY!!!! I’M BISEXUAL”
Like hell was I bisexual. I had tasted the forbidden fruit and it unlocked something inside me that had been longing to be unlocked since birth. But, I couldn’t let anyone known that. I pretended to be bisexual because I thought it was more socially acceptable. I was a fool.
Anyways I managed to keep this charade up until I finished college. I must have either been one hell of a fine actor, or I was completely delusional and was ludicrously unconvincing. Either way, in my head, It was a secret.
I left college to study at The University Of Winchester to study Contemporary Performance, which is were I am about to graduate from. Now this is where my life finally began.
I started university in September of 2011. A new person. I was slim, I was more confident and I could leave my past of lies and performing as someone I wasn’t… behind. A new start.
Everyone during freshers week would ask me “Are you gay?” and finally, finally I just said it. “Yeah…erm…Yeah I am”. I remember telling the truth for the first time. It was the most nerve-wracking, exhilarating, uplifting and heart-warming thing I have ever done. Finally, I had done it.
And do you know what? Nobody cared. Nobody batted an eyelid at me. Nobody looked at me differently….I was completely…well….normal. I had shed the old me, quite literally, and almost like a caterpillar emerging out of it’s cocoon, I had blossomed into the true butterfly version of me.
I was me. I was Harry Casella. The human version of Harry Casella. I was no longer performing, no longer acting, no longer being the actor. I was being human Harry.
Shortly after embracing human Harry, I met someone. Literally, shortly after, in October I met someone.
Someone who I happily would say, is the love of my life.
I’m 21 now. I know some people might think i’m young. But when you know. You know.
It’ll be three years November 18th 2014.
I love him.
And no words, no discrimination, nothing….absolutely nothing….will change the fact that I am in love with a man. That I became human Harry. That I am proud to be gay.”
Sam, in his own words:“I try and meet as many different people as I can. It’s the only way to see the world from an objective place. Situations are more interesting when they don’t apply to a movie I’ve seen before. Amy made me unexplainable excited because she was unlike anyone I had ever met. My thesis film was throwing myself into her world this fall and then, as i edit the film, digging my way out. I’ve been so happy this past year working like this; and in the process coming to understand that there is a grey zone on the continuum of gender identity through my one on one interaction with a stranger.”
Richard, in his own words:“I knew I was gay when I was very young, I couldn’t have been more than half way through grade school. There was no period of coming to acceptance or of shame. It was just part of me. Sounds easy, right? No, at that time I was sure I was going to die an old man with my secret well kept, still a virgin. Keep in mind that this was the sixties and seventies. Growing up in the suburbs at that time it was as if gay men did not exist. Any reference you may have heard to gay people was not of a loving relationship but sexual acts of such depravity that it could only be an act of the devil. I was also terminally shy and a bit of a social misfit, so it was easy to keep it under wraps. I didn’t lie about it. No made up girl friends. I just refused to acknowledge it to others.
It wasn’t till my mid twenties that I started to change. But it was more of adapting to changing circumstances than any big change on my part. I had started working at a hospital in the city. Gay men were actually visible and reasonably well accepted. I could see that there was truth in the philosophy that coming out made things better. While trying to work up the courage to come out a coworker of mine beat me to it, he started telling people at work that he was gay. I followed in his wake, coming out was made easier.
Being out of the closet at work was a total nonevent from my employer and coworker’s point of view. But it wasn’t for me. I was happier. However, being gay did influence me to move from the lab I had started in and become the lead technologist of the clinical Flow Cytometry lab. Flow Cytometry was a brand new expensive technology that was floundering because there was nothing at the time that could not be done more cheaply by other means. Then it became the gold standard for doing CD4 counts for people with HIV. In part moving into this lab was my way of giving back to the community. Over the years Cytometry has expanded wildly, so now CD4 counts are only a small part of what we do. Since then I’ve moved onto a basic research Cytometry lab.
A few years after coming out I met what I thought was the total opposite of my “dream man”. We were different in nearly every way possible. We became inseparable in almost no time. We complemented each other; together we were more of a complete person. We were together for more than twenty years. He always wanted to marry me, I would have gone along with it but I thought it was just a silly piece of paper. Besides, at the time it was impossible. I was wrong; when he became ill and slowly passed away I would have killed for that piece of paper. I had no rights, which really complicated things just at the time when I just wanted to take care of him.”
Vince, in his own words:“I am sixty-eight now, and on my thirty-fourth birthday I stood in line on 47th Street (in NYC) for two-for-one tickets for a Broadway play. A girl friend met me there. She brought a birthday cake, and people in line sang “Happy Birthday” as she lit the candle. After the show we went to “Uncle Charlie’s,” a gay bar in the Village. She asked if I was gay. Well, six months later in Philadelphia I had my first sexual experience with a man. His name was Jimmy, a great guy and still a friend. When he embraced to kiss me, I remember thinking, “This is what it’s like.”
All of the years before that first sexual experience I was afraid to admit that I was attracted to men. The fear drove me crazy. But admitting that fact to myself was a first step to being a better man. No need to describe the years which followed in any great detail. My life is much like thousands of others who lived through the eighties and beyond. Close friendships were established, boyfriends came and went, and many, many died. But the man who mattered most in my life, my partner and best friend for twenty-three years, made me a “mensch.” In Yiddish, the word simple means to be a real human being. Our life seemed perfect for the first eight years. Of course, that was on the surface. We had the house in Philly, friends, jobs, supportive parents, and each other. But like any other couple, we had hard times, bad moments, frustrations, disappointments; and over our heads hung the fear of AIDS. In 1990 we decided to be tested. I tested negative, and Jon, my partner, was positive. His results came back on the eve of my forty-fifth birthday. He had planned a special birthday for me: a weekend in New York, two Broadway plays, a nice dinner, a romantic evening together. That never happened, but the next sixteen years did. How Jon became positive never mattered. How to live did. The years were tough, but he was the Energizer Bunny. He kept going and going. Jon was my life partner no matter what happened, and many things did. He died in 2006, and like the moment he received the phone call to tell him he was HIV positive, I was there to hold him and love him when he died.
Today, almost eights years later, it’s hard to believe that we could be legally married if he were alive. Unfortunately not in Philadelphia, but that too will happen. Life is good; people are wonderful; and the advice I have for a younger gay man: confront your fears, go after your dream, and be a “mensch.”
Justin, in his own words:“Being gay, at least in my way of thinking, is just another label, one of many that I have. Everyone has different labels that make them up. But actually being gay means that I have different qualities than the norm. It makes me abnormal and unique, and I couldn’t see myself without that label unless I wanted to pretend to be someone I’m not. But who would want to do that? Everyone has amazing qualities that make up the individual, and for me, being gay is just one of them.
One of my biggest challenges in being gay is trying to fit in to what the society (mostly my parents) want me to be. Over the years, my parents have grown to understand who I am in regards to my sexual identity, so I am very proud of them. Trying to fit in to a hetero-normative society is not a simple feat for anyone that is not heterosexual. Myself being a gay black male, I have had many troubles trying to be accepted. Now that I am completely out, I have a very supporting family and group of friends.
Speaking of coming out, that would be one of my greatest accomplishments in regards to being gay. I remember the person I ever “came out” to, and I didn’t officially come out to him. My pre-calculus teacher during my sophomore year of high school helped me figure out what it means to be gay and different and how to turn my struggles into compliments. He himself is gay as well, and to this day, we are great friends. He has helped me tremendously with my sexual identity. Whenever I have a question about anything that has to do with the gay world, the first person I contact is always him. I later decided to come out to my brother and parents, and in January 2014, I took a big leap of faith and came out on Facebook. Once I did that, I felt like I was free. It was completely liberating to do that, and the positive feedback from my friends and family made it all worthwhile.
I would conclude that my coming out story is one of the happier ones. I have heard some horrific ones in my years, and yes, it is very heartbreaking to hear some of them. It is unfortunate that not everyone can have a good coming out story, but the struggles that we go through help shape us into better individuals, so in concept, having a not-so-good coming out story teaches you more valuable lessons in a sense.
The gay community is Philadelphia is, for the most part, very welcoming and friendly. The place for the average gay Joe to hang out with fellow LGTB people would be the “gayborhood”. It is located in center city, and personally I call it one of my many homes. I have had so many fond memories there, and the bars and clubs there are great as well. I definitely recommend living in Philadelphia if you are looking for a safe place to live. However, just make sure the area your living in is gay-friendly because there are some places in Philadelphia that are not as friendly as center city.
If I could give my younger self any advice, it would be to always be yourself no matter how you think people around you will accept you. We tend to create a mindset that we have these certain “standards” to keep in order to truly be accepted and for people around us to like and love us, and if we don’t like up to these standards and steer away from them even slightly, we will lose everything. But know this — there will always be people out there that will accept you for who you truly are. I thought for sure that my parents would never accept me; I personally thought they were going to disown me. It took time, but they eventually realized that even though I am gay, I am still their son and care about them just as much as I did before I came out to them. Also, just because you are different doesn’t mean that you are “bad” and unfit for the world. I had this mindset up until 2013 when I arrived at college and met my best friend who also happens to be the first gay male I met that was my age. We are still great friends, and he and I plan to stay platonic friends even after college. Lastly, I would tell my younger self to take risks and just go for it. How will you know if the guy across the bar isn’t into you if you don’t go up to him and introduce yourself? And even if he isn’t, all that means is that there is a better guy out there for you; this took me a long time to realize. But now that I am not as scared to go up to people as I used to be, I have gained so much self-confidence in myself. It has been a wild ride, but I would not change any of it for the world.”
“To say I was fortunate when coming out as gay would be an understatement. My friends supported me, my parents still loved me, and I never had to suffer any physical abuse and next to no verbal abuse from people I encountered. In a bible belt state that continues to be scrutinized for its backwards policies and in playing a sport that’s notorious for being rough and overtly masculine, I’m counting myself lucky. My uncle was told not to come home by his father, one of my boyfriends was “relieved” of duty and the benefits that he deserved — I’ve seen what intolerance can do to people I love and it blows me away to see how far we’ve come.
But telling friends and family I’m a bisexual member of the bear community and dating two wonderful older men that have been married for two years to each other? That hasn’t been the cake walk I’d previously experienced (for some obvious reasons). I met my boyfriends at a rugby tournament last summer right around the time that I had broken up with the most wonderful girl I’d ever had the pleasure of falling in love with. They started out as friends helping me through a really tough time but quickly became something more. None of us went into it hoping for a triad (a new term for me at the time), in fact one of my boyfriends and I actively tried to keep it from happening, but in the end we each fell in love with each other. It’s just tough to explain that to everyone else sometimes, for many reasons.
“Gay” and “straight” are just easier for most people to understand, you like one or the other. But “bi” raises all sorts of questions that sometimes confuses me just as much as the person asking them. Then people look at a triad and inevitably ask “Which one are you more attracted to?” or “How does that work?” I guess it’s just felt so natural to me every step of the way that it’s hard to explain to someone that it’s the same as any other relationship, there’s just three of us. We each love each other and take different sides in different arguments and do all the same things couples do. Sometimes the initial shock just keeps people from realizing that love is love no matter the situation. The feelings you have for your boyfriend or girlfriend? They’re the same that I feel for two people and it’s just that much more special because they feel it for each other too and I love to see them love each other.
You just have to remember that no matter what you come out as — be it sexually, politically, or religiously — it doesn’t change who the person in the mirror is. But it’ll probably change how much you can love that person for who they are.”
Howard, in his own words:“Being gay is about being different. It leads to a gradual process of accepting who you are, accepting that you are different, accepting that some people will hate you and even abandon you, and finally, for me, realizing that the process of self-acceptance gives me strength, opens my creativity and helps form the strength of my character. My coming-out story took 67 years.
Years of self-loathing and feeling less significant than others have only recently given way to feelings of pride and self-accomplishment. I do not want younger people to have to undergo this journey — today many younger people do not have to struggle as much — but there are still many who have to bear the weight of the burden culture and religion place on us.
Being gay has made me self-aware, and self-reliant, able to tap into my creative juices and only recently to feel okay about whom I am. Even 40 years ago, Philadelphia had wonderful resources for gay men and women. When I was first dealing with my sexual awareness I found a gay synagogue, gay support groups, the Advocate experience (a form of Zen popular in the 60’s,) gay counseling center, and simply being around other gay men to be of help, but the inner burden was always there, always heavy, despite several forms of self-help and therapy.
I didn’t want to be gay, didn’t want to be different and tried to hide it from myself and from others. I got married for the wrong reasons, had children whom I love but feel I let-down as a symbol of strength. I tried to follow the “normal” path until at 30 years of age decided to seek out who I really was. I found friends and dated many men while trying to find people who would make me feel whole, realizing on some level that the emptiness was inside me, but not knowing how to fill it. The life experiences that should have made me feel positive seemed to in vain — always wanting to “fit in” and yet feeling very much estranged by at people at work, neighbors and acquaintances who I coveted as friends.
My creativity felt like a burden, my interests seemed frivolous and uninteresting by my standards of what “real men” should be. Even as I met other gay men who shared some of these interests my self-esteem lacked true conviction. I looked, always, for self-acceptance through others. I searched for “love” that would make me complete, but I have never truly loved — myself, or someone else. Now, the need to find intimacy is no longer seen as a magic cure-all; I can find that strength inside.
Part of my recent level of comfort is the result of seeing the development my gay son’s now ten-year relationship and the adaptations they have made to accommodate each other. I am proud of his accomplishment. Yes, you can learn from your children. Those without children can learn from a younger generation that is more accepting.
I have semi-retired, live in the city, have developed a circle of supportive friends, and can say for the first time that I feel complete. I love my varied interests, love my time alone, and seek more friends, more experiences, and an even wider variety of interests. This is truly the first time in my life that I feel proud of myself, the first time in my life that I feel my differences are my strengths, the first time in my life I can say I truly feel inner-joy.
If I had it to do over again, and as advice for younger people – do not do as I did, find your inner voice. Live and work among other gay people, or in a community that is accepting. Fill your life with experiences, visit places you want to visit, do things you enjoy, indulge yourself without guilt, and do whatever it takes to love yourself first. Caution: this is easier said than done.”