Andrew, in his own words:“My earliest LGBT-related memory is a not-so-flattering depiction of a lesbian couple on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show in the early- or mid-Eighties. I was probably 7 or so and remember wondering why the members of the audience seemed so hostile and angry toward the women. There wasn’t anything particularly remarkable in how the women looked or behaved during the segment. I had no real concept of what “lesbian” meant at the time and it wasn’t until college and moving away from my small-town midwestern roots that I first met openly gay and lesbian men and women. Gayness wasn’t really on my radar or the radar of my hometown through most of my childhood and adolescence. Images of LGBT persons on television or in movies were few and far-between, LGBT civil rights were not the mainstream political issue they are today, and amazingly (and fortunately) I don’t recall anti-gay slurs being thrown around in the schoolyard with any regularity toward me or anyone else. To me, and perhaps to my hometown contemporaries, the idea of same-sex attraction seemed so foreign, so “other” and “alien” that it wasn’t possible that I or anyone I knew could really be gay. Despite the feelings I was having to the contrary, it just didn’t compute! Weren’t gay people psychologically disturbed? Immoral? Or at the minimum inappropriately flamboyant in their displays of sexuality? While here I was… so quiet and “normal!”
So… boring! So I guess some of the experiences that had the most impact on me as I began negotiating the paths of self-acceptance and coming out were when I had the opportunity to meet LGBT persons whom I viewed as “normal” and “boring.” Persons who had friends and long-term relationships and professional careers. These individuals had such an impact on me because they helped me see that all of those assumptions and stereotypes I had internalized growing up were false. I could be who I am and be gay because being gay wouldn’t sentence me to some ambiguously disastrous future. It wouldn’t automatically change all of the other aspects of myself that were important to me. Being gay could be a part of my identity and I would not have to reject myself for that part or dramatically alter other parts to make it all fit the narrative I had been fed all those years. In short, I could begin to embrace myself completely for who I was and take the first steps down the long road of self-acceptance.”
Scot, in his own words:“I came out to myself long before I came out to anyone else. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t feel a sense of “otherness” because of who I was attracted to, but it took me a very long time to be honest with myself and those around me. The first gay person I remember meeting was my high school girlfriend’s mom, and I was afraid to meet her because she might instantly know I was gay. Conversely, I was also excited because I had never before, to my knowledge, met another gay person. I remember that she seemed so normal and comfortable in her own skin, and I also remember wanting that feeling more than anything in the whole world.
The growth of a visible gay culture made it easier to accept my “gayness.” A year before I came out to my friends and family, Ellen Degeneres came out, and there suddenly seemed to be gay people everywhere! It was like a queer Renaissance! By the time I went away to college, TV shows like Will & Grace were popular and the media was finally giving sympathetic attention to hate crimes committed against gay people such as Matthew Shepherd. When I eventually stepped out of the closet in 1998, I became obsessed with gay culture, wanting to learn and consume as much as I could. I joined as many LGBT groups as I could (including one called The Swarm of Dykes) took every single LGBT-focused course that Ohio University offered, and wrote several letters to the school newspaper advocating for gay rights.
The biggest challenge I faced when coming out was gaining the love and acceptance of my mom and my brother. They both had a very typical reaction – shocked, angry, and confused. It took a long time for them to come around, but there’s no awkwardness about it anymore in my family. My sisters, who are 14 years younger than me, grew up knowing I was gay, and both have been involved in Gay-Straight Alliances in high school and college.
Along the way, I’ve also struggled with learning how to build that most significant relationship: the one I have with myself. I’d love the opportunity to travel back in time and warn myself that, unless I focus first on fostering a healthy level of love and respect inwardly, I’m going to go through a lot of heartbreak (and that I’m also going to cause some). I’d tell myself to love me no matter what.
Over time, being gay has become less political to me, and more about how I live my everyday life. I don’t necessarily need to shout that I’m gay from the top of any roofs (although I wouldn’t mind doing that), but I believe that I can influence change on a more personal level. I became a teacher for a very grandiose reason: to change the world. I believe that I do that by teaching my students about our interconnectedness as humans and the importance of valuing the differences of others, instead of fearing them.
My personal belief system can be boiled down to my fascination with the character of Superman and his higher sense of purpose. He may be god-like and nearly invincible, but he inspires me because of his commitment to protect and fight for those who can’t defend themselves. To some people, he represents that which is unattainable, always floating high above the earth and looking down at us, but they’re missing the point. To me, he represents something more grounded and simple: our capacity to love and care for one another unconditionally. This will always be my hope for humanity, and it will always be the reason that I continue to teach my students to oppose those who seek to oppress others or who take advantage of those who cannot defend themselves.”
Kelvin, in his own words:“When I look at my coming out process I have to honestly say I’m blessed to have the circle of love that I have. I came out to my siblings when I was 19. Both my Mommy and Mom (foster mom) went through the discovery of my sexual identity with me. Although it wasn’t easy for Mom and I it certainly made our relationship stronger. When I told my little brother 4 years younger than me he was convinced that I was joking with him. By the end of our conversation he told me that he now had a different perspective on what it meant to be gay since now he knew he had a gay brother. The clown in the bunch, my baby sister, had my favorite reaction. She looked me dead in the face and said “ok…and? you want a cookie or something?!” You can’t help but to love that girl! She always keeps the bunch laughing. My big sister seemed so unfazed. As far as she was concerned people were coming out the closet left and right. I was no different. I surprisingly never personally came out to my baby brother, but I’m sure by now he’s figured things out! I was afraid that living in my truth would tear me from the bond I shared with my siblings, but instead it verified the strength of our love for one another.
Once I came out to my siblings I thought my work was done. I would soon realize that if I wanted to live a life equal to that of my siblings then I would have to give voices to the injustices suffered by the lgbt community. The coming out process is never finished only started! After a Day of Silence event held at Ohio University I came out on facebook. Then came one of my first major challenges, my father’s side of the family. Two awkard phone calls were quickly followed by the fear that I may have been outed to my father. Thus setting the stage for me to come out to him months later. It didn’t go well. It was the first time I had really received negative reaction to my coming out and the topic quickly became the elephant in the room when ever I was around my father’s side of the family. Through out that whole process with my father’s side of the family not once did anyone say to me “I don’t care that your gay I still love you” not even my own father. Sadly I think it’s the underlying reason that with them I stay so distant.
Needless to say the negative reaction pushed me even harder to be vocal about lgbt issues. This passion led me to become a student leader. I co-founded a chapter of a lgbt organization for students of color called SHADES at the largest public university in the country The Ohio State University. Hands down the best thing I’ve done yet with my life as the chapter is still standing. Through my experience I learned not only how to find my voice as a leader but also as a black gay man. That in it’s self has it’s own special challenges, especially when it comes to dating. One big lesson I quickly learned is acceptance in difference. How could I possibly expect someone to accept my difference if I couldn’t accept theirs? I also learned the understanding of processes. I had to go through a process of accepting my sexual identity and I must afford others that same right to process. In cooperating with others it’s important to agree to disagree because not everyone will be on your exact page all the time. This does not mean their not in the same chapter! In closing I would like to give one of my biggest and currently practiced lessons, knowing when to sit down. There will always be something to shout about, something to get angry about, something to cry over. All of this can be very draining and it’s not your job to take on the world. Stay in tuned to your spirit and know when it’s your time to take a break from it all and just do you. I promise you when ever your ready there will be so many issues to give your voice to upon your return! “
Todd, in his own words:“Being gay to me means living a life in which even here in 2014, you have to be cautious and retain somewhat of a filter when it comes to who you’re talking to and working with. Despite the common refrain that “you can or should just be who you are,” it isn’t always possible (especially in the Midwest) if you’re aiming for a better position at work or want to retain the friends and colleagues as closely as you previously may have been with them. It means maintaining separate and distinct groups of friends and family depending on how they view me and gays in general. It isn’t how I primarily identify myself, but it seems some people once they find out you are gay, they think it’s your one and only characteristic. I look at it as a part of who I am, but not the only part.
I’ve had multiple challenges when it comes to this, even when it really shouldn’t matter to others. I’ve came out (and been found out about) by friends from high school and college. Luckily, it turned out I had a great support system and mostly good friends.
There was one person in particular when the topic came up in conversation somehow (I think we were joking around and he then asked me when I didn’t laugh at something “wait…you don’t like guys, do you?”) that he began quoting the Bible and questioning my integrity as a person. In my own house. This friend of four plus years felt strongly enough that he should inform me what I should and shouldn’t be doing or be seeing. The same friend that was there for me when I was down and at my lowest (after a breakup…with a guy). I knew he was a very conservative Christian, so when describing that breakup I was very generic in terms of using the right words (they/them/etc.) instead of blatantly lying and instead of using the word “him”. He helped me paint that same house in the sweltering heat. He went on a couple roadtrips with me and we went out to grab dinner and drinks together. But here he was, in my house, high up on his soapbox, telling me how I was a morally wrong person.
On the flip side, there have been friends that have been very supportive. Especially given their background.
One friend grabbed my phone off the counter at a party and started going through it. I didn’t notice it until too late and hoping to maintain our “don’t ask, don’t tell” friendship, I grabbed it out of his hands. He had happened upon some content that wasn’t exactly heterosexual, so he handed it back to me. I’m sure I was white as a ghost and I couldn’t think quickly enough to make an excuse to save what I was sure to be another long friendship ending as to how that stuff ended up on my phone. He put his hand on my shoulder and said “it’s okay, you’re no different to me now than you were five minutes ago.” I could tell from his demeanor and his face he wasn’t joking and I continue to treasure our friendship to this day. That was coming from one of the straightest, gun-loving, truck-driving guys that I had known.
The gay community in Columbus is actually pretty good. Coming from Kansas, I suppose it’s all relative though!! There’s the Short North, an area with some gay bars/clubs and several areas around town with predominantly gay neighborhoods. I would feel fairly safe walking holding hands with another guy downtown near the Short North, but I’m not so sure about everywhere here in town. It seems like you can end up seeing some of the same people out and about all the time, but that could be due to me maybe not exploring as much or it’s just what tends to happen when people frequent a common place. Columbus has a big Gay Pride Parade and festivities in June. I was shocked when I went to it the first year I moved here. Shocked there were so many people at it and who all was at it. It was encouraging to me to see that not just gays, but entire families…including parents who brought young children, came out to see it and support gay causes. That really kind of opened my eyes as to the good people out there and parents that are trying to raise up a new generation of those that embrace cultures and lifestyles that are different than their own.
My coming out story is not nearly as dramatic as most people’s it seems. I was 22 years old when I finally came out. It was prompted by fear of being outed by some friends that I had went out to have some drinks with, one of which was my high school prom date (a girl, in case you’re wondering). After we all had a couple drinks, one of the girls noticed that I appeared to be checking out one of the guys there. She asked if I was checking him out and without thinking who I was in the company of (drinks can do that lol), I said something to the effect of “yeah, he’s cute.” The table got quiet and they asked if I was gay. After quickly sobering up to what I had just said and in front of several girls all from my hometown, I said that I was bisexual. It was a lie. At the time it seemed like the easier way out and would hopefully “not offend” them. I had just graduated from college and several of them were still in college, so you know…”it’s college…everyone’s bi and that stuff just happens.” Looking back, I’m somewhat ashamed that I felt the need to hide what the truth was…that I was gay. Just in order to maintain weak relationships with friends that I’d occasionally go out drinking with and gossip about people back at home with.
I had to triage the rumor-mill that is small-town America and the next morning I called my mother, older brother and younger sister to let them know the truth. There was a silence of a couple of seconds on the phone when I told my mom, after which she did what everyone who comes out hopes to hear “oh, I love you no matter what…that makes no difference to me.” Within a couple months (and even occasionally to this day) whenever I speak of a boyfriend, she will say “oh, but how does your roommate feel about that?” or “is that your roommate that just walked past? (the webcam during a Skype)” Despite, being corrected several times to this day, she still thinks of who I’m with as a “roommate”. Perhaps it’s really difficult for her to pronounce boyfriend….I don’t know. So, it seems that she isn’t fully on board. My older brother took the news matter-of-factly. He basically said, “okay…did you have anything else to talk to me about?” Our phone calls are a minute or two at best, so I wasn’t too surprised at his reaction. I was most surprised by my younger sister’s reaction. She was immediately and whole-heartedly supportive of my situation. I truly felt bad about the situation, speaking to her…telling her this, because I knew she would most likely get verbally assaulted by the other kids at school. She was 16 and just starting her junior year of high school at the time and I knew how information like that spreads like wildfire in a town of just 4,000 people. I could handle people saying negative things to me when I came back to town to visit family and friends (even though you shouldn’t have to hear that), but I was more worried about what she would have to put up with after word got out. She said on the phone that day that she would defend me, my reputation and our family to the hilt. I know she did that, and in small-town USA defending a gay didn’t win you any favors. Even in 2009. My little sister gives me hope that the next generation, and the ones after that, are more understanding and more caring than the previous ones.
I think the advice I would give my younger self is don’t hide. Don’t hide who you are or what you believe. I didn’t stick up for myself quite a few times and I didn’t stick up for the gay community by standing idly by while derogatory jokes or comments were made. I felt it was easier to stay silent, or hide the truth than to stick up for who I am and what I am. I would tell my younger self that even though it may not be the easier route, you should take care of yourself and your community by embracing who you are and defending your right to be who you are.”
Patrick, in his own words:“For me being gay has always been second to who I am. There was a while where I thought that was my only identifier, but the truth is, at the end of the day, it’s not what gender we’re attracted to that defines us. I’m a huge nerd, I’m proud of that, and I’ll go on for hours talking about Star Wars or the newest Green Lantern; that’s who I really am, and thats the person I really want someone to get to know. Being gay doesn’t define me, it’s just another feature of me as a person. (And to be fair, I never got any of the useful qualities; I have absolutely no fashion sense.)
(With regards to challenges) I grew up very overweight and more than a little socially awkward. Dragon shirts, zip-off kakis, the works. I was the bottom of the rung through middle school and high school. It took me a long while, but in the past few years I’ve finally found a place that I’m happy to be. Coming to terms with, and being happy about being gay was a big step on that road.
The Columbus gay community is not like any that I’ve seen anywhere else. With so many colleges, the city feels very young, and it definitely shows in the gay culture. Columbus has drag queens perform at major city events, our Pride Parade is one of the biggest events of the year, and there’s no shortage of bars and restaurants that are gay owned/operated. The city has gone past just being accepting, the gay community here is a part of everyday life.
My coming out went very well, if not exactly as I expected. My dad served in the Marine Corps, and my mom was a Playboy Bunny. I just assumed that he’d go all… alpha male: “no son of mine…,” that kind of thing, and my mom would shrug it off. Ended up being that he didn’t care, and she cried because she wanted grandkids. It all turned out fine though, I just had to explain to her that I didn’t like children on a good day, and even if I was straight, they probably weren’t in my future. Probably the best moment my… gay career (if you can call it that) was something my dad said when we went to dinner a few months ago: “The proudest moment of my life was when you came out to me, because it meant you trusted me enough to say it.”
If I could tell my younger self anything, it would be to stop trying so hard. I spent almost all of my young life trying desperately to get people to like me, or notice me–but that doesn’t happen until you’re comfortable with yourself. Once you’re happy being around you, other people will be too.”