Tomorrow is National Coming Out Day. It is also the day that I was supposed to run my fourth Chicago Marathon, but, you know, 2020. When thinking about Coming Out Day, I remembered that this November marks the 25th anniversary of my coming out. It feels like both yesterday and a lifetime ago. It might seem trivial to say that a lot has changed over the last quarter century, yet it is so true. In today’s world, where so many teens have the bravery of living their authentic selves, coming out at the age of 27 like I did seems old. Part of the reason that it took me so long to come out was when I was a teen was because I couldn’t envision a world in which I could live my honest self. I grew up during a time when coming out in high school and college wasn’t as much of a norm. It was a time when some adults who were meant to be role models and “adults,” did not always behave as such which ultimately enforced my beliefs that being gay was a source of shame. It feels redundant to keep mentioning some of the same stories, yet these are the ones that formed and influenced me for so many years. My sixth grade teacher, mocking me for “running like a girl.” A teacher in junior high who would repeatedly tell me to “go buy a dress.” Or my childhood best friend dumping me suddenly on the last day of sixth grade and calling me a “fat femme.” And don’t even get me started about the messages from the church on homosexuality.
For those who have never had to do so, it can be hard to imagine the inner workings of what it feels like to struggle with one’s sexual identity. So here is a visualization for all of my straight allies. Imagine yourself as a tween and teen. For me, just the thought slingshots me to a feeling of utter angst. Picture yourself starting to have a glimpse of who you are and contrasting that with the bombardment of messages you get from almost everything around you.
It’s 1980, and there are not any clear role models that one can find. The only gay men you see portrayed on tv or in movies are highly effeminate and the constant brunt of jokes. You think about getting married but marrying someone of the same sex doesn’t even exist. You know someone who went to a “friend’s” commitment ceremony, yet your experience of it is seeing the photos she shared whilst making fun of them the whole time. Nice friend, eh? Imagine desperately wanting to have children and thinking that your only option is to deny who you are and marry a woman to do so, living a life that is untrue not only to one self, but other people. This is what it was like for me. These were the choices that I had to navigate. And let’s not forget that this was the midst of the AIDS pandemic, specifically during a time when gay men were the primary demographic impacted. And they were dying alone. None of these scenarios inspired the bravery that I needed to come out.
Coming out is a frightening experience to say the least. It is riddled with the fear of rejection from each and every person that you tell. The stakes are different, of course, for different relationships. But they are always there. And the downside to coming out later is one has more “explaining” to do. Coming out is also not just a “one time” thing. Coming out is something one does forever. Every time you are in a new situation, you have to choose whether to live your true self – the grocery store, security at the airport, on the phone with a credit card company, meeting a new neighbor. The world defaults to assuming that someone is straight. This doesn’t upset me. It is pure statistics. But it is also something straight people don’t have to deal with that gay people do.
When I came out, I did so assuming that I would never marry (because at that time, I couldn’t legally) and that I would not have children. Two things that I had visualized from childhood, I had to let go of, just to be myself. Of course people had commitment ceremonies or effectively what most of America viewed as “fake weddings” for second class citizens. Please know that I say that not to trivialize those who choose to have that instead of a “legal” wedding but just to illustrate the difference of choice versus necessity. This also meant that dating in the pre-marriage gay world was also different. Gay men had a reputation of being fickle and unable to commit. I didn’t believe this to be completely true. It felt more situational or an excuse. I knew couples who had been together for a decade or more at the time. But there is also something to be said for how things are different when a couple cannot be legally wed.
So with all of this, it took me a while to find my way. I joke that I had a magnet that attracted alcoholic and closeted men. Sometimes, they would be drunk and closeted. I’m not sure how I continued to attract these types. Maybe it was self-sabotage. Maybe it was being attracted to masculine men. Either way, I kissed a lot of toads before finding my prince. Fortunately, he ended up being neither. He, in fact, was one of my first inspirations to run. Watching him run the Chicago Marathon in 2016 with 45,000 other runners or so inspired me to start my journey as a runner.
Running has proven to be an amazing escape. It has provided a source of strength and validation for me. I think some of this is because it takes me back to one of the first times I was made to feel like a fag. Maybe at some cellular level, it allows me to reclaim some of the power taken from me. It has also shown me that I can be an athlete, a title I still find awkward to bestow upon myself, five marathons later. It proves to those naysayers, many who I am sure laughed when they first heard I had embarked on the road to marathoning, that I could do this. I also like how marathoning mirrors marriage and parenting. All of these are “long games.” They can all be incredibly hard at times yet they are also endlessly rewarding. And finally, all require commitment – real commitment and dedication.
The other reward I have reaped from running has been being a charity runner. Charity running has been a way for me to give something back while also getting something in return. It is a symbiotic relationship that makes the entire process more meaningful for me. Not only am I doing something for myself, I am doing something that helps many others. I have made friends who have been by my side in times when one doesn’t have the strength to continue. Together, we raise money for a common cause and log miles often at crazy times, or against the elements. Raising money for a community that is still underserved in many ways gives me that motivation to set my alarm for 4:30 AM on those hot summer mornings when I have hours of running to do to prepare my body for the challenge of the marathon. Knowing that others are counting on me helps me when it is 20 degrees out and I don’t want to run ten miles but know that I need to in order to prepare.
To say 2020 has turned the world upside down is an understatement. As I watched all of my races go away, I struggled with how to remain committed to my team, Team to End AIDS. While all my races have been canceled, HIV/AIDS has not been. I have spent a good few months trying to think creatively about how I can help support my charity when not running a marathon. Here is what I have come up with… In honor of my twenty-five years of being out, I am going to run 25 miles per week for the rest of 2020. That will lead me into the start of my training for the Paris Marathon in April 2021. (Because I was supposed to run it this past April, I am automatically registered for the next one.) While I don’t know that we will be able to travel then or if it will be held, it will give me a goal to work towards.
My favorite part of running now is that I no longer give a single, solitary shit about what I look like when I run. I run proud. And sometimes, I think of those who oppressed me in my youth or even young adulthood, and smile, thinking, “I bet you’re not running marathons.” The bottom line is people can try to chip away at your self-esteem. You may even let them do it for a while. But once you realize that they have no right to do so, a whole new world opens up. You just need to let yourself see it and believe it
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I am just $566 away from having raised a lifetime total of $15,000 for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. I am so appreciative of the generosity of my friends and family who have continued to support my charity the last four years. I know that 2020 is difficult for many and there are so many organizations people are trying to support, not excluding small businesses, and political contributions. The AIDS Foundation of Chicago helps people not only living through our current global pandemic, but also fighting a second virus, one that puts them in more significant risk with COVID.
Will you join me in the fight against HIV/AIDS? Together, we can make a difference.
If you can make a donation, of any amount, here is the link… tinyurl.com/joegt2ea2020