Thomas, in his own words:“Queerness is creativity; it’s curation. There’s an artistry and a poetry required to define yourself by your own terms. If you are told that everything you find to be beautiful or desirable is wrong, a path is forged to a certain freedom, to decide what you think is right, and true. I know that for so many of us this creates a constant anxiety, it can be really draining emotional work. But I know that for myself, it’s what saved me. The liberating revelation that my love and my life were to be entirely my own creation. It’s inspiring.
I didn’t always feel so empowered. I grew up going to Catholic school in the Midwest. When I told my parents I would be attending a demonstration for gay rights at the Kansas State House, my mother–she’s Italian–she grabbed the kitchen counter and burst into tears, repeating, “I just want to have grandchildren.” I was fourteen. Coming out, then, seemed impossible. It would be a part of myself that I would keep hidden, I figured.
I was lucky, though, because it was at my all-boys Catholic high school that I met my best friends: the Gay Lunch Table, we called ourselves. We were young and in this ostensibly repressive environment, but it never felt like that when we were together. We had our own lingo; we made each other laugh. If anyone ever tried to give us trouble, we made a game of it, coming up with unapologetically effeminate ways to make them uncomfortable. We felt tough, and not in spite of our homosexuality, but because of it.
I try to remember that every day. I’m older now, and less afraid of who I am. But it’s a good reminder: let your confidence be a shield. I read a lot of gay authors, try to follow gay artists, and there’s such a resilient beauty that runs through our history.There is both elegance and endurance. I find it very motivating. I feel the power of a family line, like I am from a long tradition of dreamers forced to reinterpret their world. So that’s what I try to remember, and what I try to put into my own work: queerness presents an opportunity to imagine a more beautiful world. Feel the power of that, wear it like armor, and embrace the grace of being gay. “
Henri, in his own words:“To me, being gay doesn’t mean anything per se, except considering my sexual orientation : I have always seen myself as an ordinary person, a human being like millions of past, present and future others, with the same potential, the same basic personality. Yet I am aware of belonging to a minority, a fact that has its positive and its negative sides. The positive side is that I got more sensitive to racial prejudice and to any form of discrimination, and that I am strongly against labeling : nobody should be reduced to a formula. The negative side is the awareness of being obliged to justify our being gay, to defend ourselves against fear and hostility.
The first challenge was to live in a happy couple, since I didn’t imagine myself remaining single. But living with someone proved not to be simple. I was not always prone to compromise, to change ideas or to accept my wrongs. Yet there we are, Maxime and I, happily together for nearly 45 years, glad to share everything that is essential to both of us, and to plan our future life.
Another challenge was to be successful in my professional life, and I was, thanks to personal endeavours but also to chance to a certain extent.
The third challenge, or was it just a wish, was to be surrounded by a web of close friends and sincere relationships. With the help of Maxime, it has been a success.
I never said bluntly “I am gay” to my parents, but they knew Maxime and understood how close to each other we were, so when I told them that we were going to live together, things were clear. At first, my father said he was concerned about the honourability of our family, but I knew that both he and my mother would never reject their son. Later, when after some years our couple turned out to be stable and happy, they showed their affection to both of us and my father supported our marriage quite willingly (my mother had unfortunately died in the 80’s). My sister and my brother-in-law were at first reluctant to accept homosexuality, but they soon overcame their reserve and have always been in very good terms with both of us. Their son has known Maxime since he was born and never questioned our relationship or our sexual orientation. Recently, during a family lunch, when he was about 10 y.o., one of his sons asked if Maxime and I were a couple, and when I answered yes, he said “then you are in love with each other ?”, and I said yes again, but he added “but isn’t that bizarre, two men together ?”. I told him that it wasn’t, the best proof being that nobody cared. He seemed satisfied, and never changed his attitude toward us.
In my professional life, I decided, without being necessarily explicit with everybody, not to conceal my private life. I think it gave me more strength to remain true to myself and proved to be the best attitude.
To my friends I decided to be completely open, and if I lost some (but none I cared most for) because I did, I decided not to have any regret.
We don’t know if Brussels is the liveliest place in Europe, but there are enough opportunities to meet people, enough cultural and sports activities for gays with all tastes, as well as bars, sauna’s or more. Some friends from abroad find people here less sophisticated than in big cities like Paris, but we can’t really judge. Belgian citizens are fairly open and being gay is widely accepted. Yet it might be a problem being gay in a very few neighbourhoods with a majority of migrants, especially Muslims. But there are certainly conservative Christian or Jewish circles where being gay is a real problem too.
(Advice to my younger self) Study hard, exploit your capacities, don’t be afraid nor naïve, act towards people like you would like them to act towards you, never fail to pay homage to liberty, equality and fraternity, be tolerant, open and respectful to anyone but be firm in your convictions, hold on to your critical sense and never let anybody nor any book tell you how you should think and what you should believe.”
Maxime, in his own words:“Being gay means being what I am and being honest about it. If some people don’t approve, sorry it’s their problem, not mine.
Of course we are lucky to live in a society where that is possible. I always think it’s so sad when we meet young people who can’t live freely, have a relationship or simply have sex because of the stupidity of the world around them.
Being gay was a tremendous opening on the world. You realize that being different can be OK and you yourself will think twice before judging other people. Practically, it gave me and my lover/now husband a life so much richer with friends from all colours and cultures. At 69, soon 70, I don’t regret a minute of my gay life. I must say I shared that life with someone I have loved for 45 years and whom I still love more every day. Some people say that love becomes affection when you get older. Maybe, but the love part hasn’t disappeared as far as I’m concerned.
I’d say the main challenge has been to build a happy relationship with Henri day after day, which is probably not always easy, although I sometimes think we were meant and programmed to go through life together. Even our differences and our errors have taught us so much. Where would be the fun if we were completely alike with no flaws ?
Another challenge in my life was of course my profession but that’s not the subject. I did a job I liked and I was well paid for it. I even had the luxury to work with people from all over Europe which was another source of enrichment.
What was important too was not to live centred on ourselves and to try to add our little stone to the temple of humanity ; we don’t belong to a particular religion, but we strongly believe that it is important to have values and to fight for them at every possible level. The French motto « Liberty, Equality, Fraternity » is an ideal that should at least be striven for even if we know it will never be attained. And of course we ourselves have always shown concern about that ideal applied to gays all over the world.
I must have felt I was gay around 14 or 15, that means at the end of the fifties and at the beginning of the sixties. Things were not so easy at that time. Homosexuality was still condemned by law in most European countries. Moreover my parents were no intellectuals and were not prepared to have a gay son. Although I myself accepted the fact quite easily -maybe I had no morals- I didn’t come out at school or at the university. At least I never pretended to have girlfriends. With the exception of two minor episodes when I was still in college, my sexual life started at the university but with boys I met in bars not in the class rooms. My stays abroad, especially in Holland and in Germany (I recommend Munich), to improve my language knowledge were also an excellent opportunity to let off steam.
As soon as I started working with people who on the whole were quite liberal, I became more and more open and came out to my parents very quickly after I met Henri. That was in 1970. I brought him for lunch to my father and mother (separately since they were divorced) without making great speeches. It probably didn’t take them long to understand. Luckily neither Henri nor me come from very religious families. And after let’s say three or four years we were more and more considered as a part of the family. Since then, nobody whether it be family or colleagues would ever have thought to invite one of us without the other. The whole world around us knew we were a couple and treated us as such. Maybe some people didn’t approve but we live in a world of political correctness be it in Belgium or at our workplace and nobody would have dared to express a direct disapproval.
(Advice to my younger self) Advice? Don’t follow any advice! Think things over honestly! Live your life! And let’s hope it turns out as well again. If I were cruised by Henri in another life, I think I’d fall for him again and would be ready to start all over.”
Ariel, in his own words:“I have never felt guilty or shameful about being gay; however, one of the greatest experiences I faced as a result of my sexuality was letting go of the expectations that society and my family planned for me. Society tries to teach us what is right and wrong, and coming out of the closet is a rebellion against those expectations and rules. You have to learn to live not just to be accepted, but to be yourself. The world out there is a big place and there is a space for everyone.
I came out when I was very young at the age of 14. Being still an adolescent, I had to educate the people around me, especially those whom I loved the most, like my father. This was a big challenge because they had little-to-no understanding of what it meant to be gay: for them, the raunchy, dirty sex acts where the first things to come to mind. Moreover, these were always filtered through a religious/moral lens. They were not immediately able to think of the love and companionship that might be involved in my relationships. Coming out at this age was especially difficult because one depends on his/her parents for everything.
Now I’m glad I came out when I was so young because my family has had many years to process, learn, and get over their fears and prejudices. Today, I live very openly with my family and they are very accepting of my life. For example, when my boyfriend comes to visit from the United States, he stays with me in my bedroom at my father’s house. During holidays, he comes to all of the family parties, and my grandmother even buys him a present. Today, when others see this, they often tell me how lucky I am; however, what they don’t realize is that this level of acceptance took more than ten years.
Panama is a very small country with a very small gay community. Gay people want things to change, but they are too scared to do anything about it. Because of pervasive homophobia in society, many feel that there is more value in staying in the closet than taking the risk of coming out. Moreover, there is a lot of discrimination (gender, race, class, etc.) within the gay community itself. Change is happening, but it is slow and incremental.
To come out of the closet, I wrote a letter to my mother (as I was used to doing at the time to say important things), but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. She talked to my father that the same night and then the nightmare started. They thought I was confused and sent me to a psychologist the very next day. Thankfully, he was a good man and didn’t try to change me.
My mother was upset and did not talk to me for several days; however, I did not pay that much attention to either of my parents because I never thought I was doing anything wrong. After a few days, my mother got over it and soon became my best friend—I could even talk to her about boys. However, in a country where machismo runs strong, there was not much that she could do immediately to change my father. Within the space that she had, she did what she could to protect me. I was lucky to have her by my side.
For my father, it was much more difficult: he was so sure this was a choice and that this was something that I could change if I wanted to change. I could have made things easier for myself just by telling him that I was going to try to change even though I had no intention of doing so. But I refused. I told him that if it was so easy to change, that he himself should try to change his heterosexuality to be attracted to men. We stopped talking and we grew apart. Every once in a while, he would repeat his question, but I always had the same answer.
While most of my friends were out having fun at this age, I was at home grounded because I refused to change. Now, I think about it as a joke, but I was basically grounded for six years with very limited freedom or time to go to parties to socialize with friends. The upside is that I had plenty of time to read, think, and understand my sexuality and what it meant to be gay. This only made me more confident in my ability to combat their homophobia with well-articulated arguments.
Coming out is a continuous process: as we go to our jobs, hang out with friends, shop for groceries, spend time at parties, go to large dinners, we are constantly meeting new people and one never stops coming out. If you are not entirely honest or coy, people will often gossip about what you are doing, so I just prefer to be honest to remove all of their fun.”