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Open closetTwenty years ago today, I became a free man. I uttered the three words that I never thought would come out of my mouth: I am gay. Looking back, I am amazed by how much I have grown in this time. It’s not just my life that has changed these past two decades. Our society and world as a whole has made huge leaps, too. I came out not expecting to ever be legally married. I mourned the fact that I would not raise a child. And I fretted about what life had in store once I revealed my true nature to the world.  Today, I am blessed to be married to a man that is not only incredibly smart and handsome but has the patience to put up with me. We have two beautiful daughters who bring us much joy. And I can’t picture my life to be any other way.

I came out at twenty-seven, which at the time, and still for some gays, is the equivalent of being ready for retirement. To think that nowadays, kids are coming out in high school and middle school is a huge marker of the progress we have made. To contrast how things have changed, I grew up with middle school teachers who taunted the effeminate kids and an elementary teacher (who is likely a closeted lesbian) who gave me a complex for the better part of my life for running alongside me while playing softball at recess and pointing out how I ran like a girl. None of that should happen to a child. It’s one of the ways that today’s world is now better.

People often ask, “When did you know?” It’s hard to answer with an exact age. But I remember having an attraction to hairy chests from as young as four or five. Interestingly, that penchant has remained. But it wasn’t without some pain along the way. If I had a dollar for every girl I dated with an errant nipple hair, I would buy those Ferragamo shoes I’ve been visiting at Nordstroms. But in all seriousness (the nipple hair on girls isn’t a lie, but not the important part of my story), my point is being gay is something that is always there in a person. Coming out is just when one is ready to say the words, realizing that once they are uttered, there is no going back in the closet.

I came out at an older age for a few reasons. First, I desperately wanted to get married and have kids. I knew from fairly early in my adolescence that girly bits didn’t hold my interest. But I thought it was a “phase” or wondered if I just “tried harder” if I could make it work. Once one comes out, it is easy to see how ridiculous this concept is. We are who we are. We are attracted to those whom we are attracted. You can’t force it.

In my early twenties, I started to realize that I didn’t want to live a lie. It would be unfair for me to marry a woman and have children with her knowing that this “phase” of being attracted to men was going on a decade long. But I still held to the thought that time would “cure” me. It would happen. I just had to be patient. All fallacies, some unfortunately ones that people still subscribe to. See reparative therapy.

Another problem was, at the time, I didn’t really know any gay guys. The only people I knew who were gay weren’t friends. They were just the eccentrically flamboyant guys from high school who were ridiculed mercilessly. I certainly did not want that to happen to me. Then something pivotal happened. I took a job where 75% of the staff I worked with were gay men. It was running a posh executive dining room at The Boston Company (now Mellon Bank). So no shock there. But it changed my life. I became friends with these men and realized that they weren’t as “foreign” as I imagined. Two of the waiters were a couple who at the time had been together for at least a decade. My chef and his partner had been together for over thirteen. I started to realize that one could live life as a traditionally married couple would. This was almost a decade before legal marriage became a reality.
I worked with them for almost year before I was ready to verbalize it. They, of course, had me pegged the moment I walked through the door. The first person that I actually spoke the words to was my friend and one of the waiters who was in a long term relationship, Pierre. I remember asking him if I could meet up with him because I needed to talk. His husband, Richard was out when I got there. So I only had to do this in front of ones person. I was nervous even though it was totally safe. Another gay man wasn’t going to react in an unpredictable way and shame me. But I was still antsy. He asked if everything was ok and I pussyfooted around the topic. Deep down, he knew what I wanted to talk about. The best was when I said, “Maybe you can guess?” His reply was exactly what I needed, “Oh no, girl. You have to say this one.” I did and he was right. We spoke for a long time. I told the other guys that same week. It was like a weight had been lifted from me. I felt alive. I was getting closer to being authentic for the first time in my adult life.

The work had only just begun though. I needed to tell my family and friends. An interesting coincidence was, at the time, my mother and sister both worked for The Boston Company. Prior to me working there, my mother had worked on the same floor with these guys for a few years and loved them. That gave me some confidence. I also knew that I had to do it soon because of the proximity factor. I was confident enough that my mom would be ok with my proclamation. I also knew that the only thing likely to upset her would be being the last to know. So, I had to rip the bandage and do it.

The opportunity presented itself one Sunday afternoon while she was folding laundry. She had been saying for a while, “I just want you to be happy.” And things like “I want you to find the right person.” Emphasis on person. So I knew it was safe. She would also periodically mention wanting to introduce me to her salesgirl at the Chanel counter. This particular day it came up again, “Why don’t I introduce you to my friend at the Chanel counter?” If I wasn’t so nervous that I could have thrown up, today’s retort would have been, “Why? Will she give me deluxe sized samples?” But instead I said, “Mom. We need to talk. I’m gay.” Over her folding the whites, we had a long conversation. I knew she was genuinely okay with it because, the woman who can cry watching a Charmin commercial, didn’t cry until well into our discussion. Even then, it wasn’t about her. It was because she worried about how others would treat me.

My dad was at Home Depot while this unfolded (note the butch contrast). I told him when he came home. Then my sister. Then my closest friends. Each time, I was filled with one part terror immediately followed by one part relief. Everyone was incredibly supportive. Some said they had suspected it for a long time. Hmmm, was it my penchant for Gucci belts at 16 that gave it away? Others were more surprised but still completely supportive. I was blessed to have a group of people who loved me for who I was. Unfortunately not everybody has that. I was lucky.

Sometime after, I was chatting with Pierre and said “I’m almost done coming out.” He laughed and said, “Oh, honey. You’re never done coming out.” The innocent fagling that I was, thought once I tell my family and friends what more could there be. The reality is you never stop meeting people. Situations always come up when you must choose whether to make the statement or not. At first, I remember thinking, “it’s nobody’s business.” Sometimes that’s true. Other times it’s the easy way out. Twenty years later, with a husband and two daughters, I almost always proclaim it. This is who I am. I’m proud of who I have become. I’m proud to be married to my husband. And for our girls, if I have any shame about who I am, what message does that give them?

I haven’t seen many of the friends from The Boston Company for ages now, though we stay connected on Facebook. They helped me to be myself back when I couldn’t have done it alone. Even though time and distance separates us, they will all always have a special place in my heart. Coming out was the best gift I ever gave myself. Closets are for shoes and clothes, not people. And since there’s now plenty of room, maybe I should go get those Ferragamos.

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Closets are for Clothes
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2 thoughts on “Closets are for Clothes

  • November 7, 2015 at 4:47 pm
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    Beautifully written, Joe! I know that you are busy with your family life, not to mention your world travels 😉 but have you ever thought about writing about your experiences in a book for children/young adults? I’m sure it would be helpful for a lot of young people.
    It broke my heart to read that you and others were tormented in school by teachers, especially the part about elementary school, our elementary school. What is wrong with people who are working in a profession geared to helping children?? I truly am sorry that it happened to you.
    Keep on writing! Give those little ones a hug from this old teacher!

    Reply
    • November 7, 2015 at 7:18 pm
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      Thank you! I intend to write a book someday. It’s been on my list of things to do ever since Mrs. Sartanowicz encouraged me to copyright the book I wrote in third grade. I’m getting closer to being ready. All of the encouragement really makes me think it’s my calling. Just so you know, the teacher I referred to from elementary school was an upper grade teacher. My early teachers were/are all incredibly inspirational to me. Where the ball was almost entirely dropped by our school system was in middle school, which unfortunately, is where adolescents probably need even more support and encouragement.

      Reply

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