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.”