Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are
That was the first thing out of my dad’s mouth when I came out to my parents in 1995. It was followed by a teary-eyed bear hug while telling me he only wanted me to be happy. I actually came out the first time a year earlier when I was 25 years old. Although I knew I was gay long before that, I just didn’t know how to articulate it. I spent a lot of years suppressing my feelings thinking that people just don’t do that—people can’t possibly act on those feelings…can they? As I navigated through the real world and widened my circle of friends, I learned that people did indeed act on those feelings and I began to feel a little closer to finding myself.
At the time I came out I worked at an advertising agency. My friend David and I used to go out after work for martinis quite a bit. I knew he was gay although we never talked about it. We were hanging out one evening and David said he had something to tell me. “I’m sorry, but this isn’t going to work out between us,” he said. “I’m gay.” I remember thinking he was really full of himself to think I was hitting on him and replied with some annoyance, “David, I don’t want to go out with you. I’m gay too!” It was the first time I had ever said it out loud. I didn’t plan to say it but for whatever reason (martinis) I just blurted it out. The look on his face was priceless. He erupted into a huge grin and hugged me. It felt so good to say it. I accidentally (drunkenly) chose the perfect person to say it to as he helped me through the process somewhat step by step—like a gay buddy system.
In 1995 I began dating a woman and it was getting serious. I didn’t want to hide her from my family and friends and so I knew I had to come out to them. The first person I told was my brother Paul who took the news splendidly. He was very supportive as was his wife and he agreed to be with me when I told my parents. Before telling them, I prepared a letter in case things got ugly. I wanted them to have something to read once they calmed down if my announcement didn’t go well. My dad lived in California at the time but was in town and staying at my mom’s house. Since the two of them were there, I had to seize the opportunity. They were both in the kitchen, my mom sitting at the kitchen table and my dad leaning against the counter drinking something out of a coffee cup that most likely wasn’t coffee. Paul was there too, sort of hanging around off to the side, ready to jump in if I needed him. I was so nervous but kept it simple. I told them that I was gay, I was dating someone, I was happy and hoped they would be happy for me too. That’s when my dad responded with his “Republican” line. He couldn’t have chosen a better way to put me at ease.
My mother, however, in a period of about 15 seconds, zipped through the five stages of grief. Oh, wait…make that four. She never quite made it to the acceptance stage. “You can’t be gay! You were with Ed all that time. Well, if you’re gay than you can just forget about me. What did I do wrong? I never should have let you move in with that friend of yours. I knew she would turn you gay. Fine. I hope you’re happy—you’ve ruined my life! I can never tell anyone about this.”
As I was leaving I presented them with the letter I wrote, hoping my mom would come around. She did come around at some point—as much as she was able to, anyway. Within days, the rest of my family knew. I didn’t even get a chance to tell them because even though my mom declared that this was so terrible that “I can never tell anyone”, she told everyone. Two of my brothers were very accepting of me and never made a big deal about it. One of my other brothers just seemed to not really want to think about it and the last one was homophobic to the point that he regularly used gay slurs (though never pointed directly at me) and proudly displayed a “No Fags” magnet on his refrigerator along with a few other items of questionable appropriateness, especially considering he had young children at home. Though my mother told me that my news was sure to kill my grandparents, they were just fine and accepted my girlfriend pretty much the same as they accepted my brothers’ girlfriends or wives.
Sometimes I forget that not everyone is gay. That’s how comfortable, or perhaps complacent, I have become. In a way, that’s a good thing because it shows how comfortable I am in my own skin. There are plenty of straight people who assume that everyone around them is heterosexual, so why shouldn’t I simply assume everyone is gay? The problem is that when you assume…well, you know the rest of the saying.
Though it’s been a long time since first coming out, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. My partner and I live for the most part in a cozy little bubble. My partner’s parents accept our relationship. The community in which we live is somewhat diverse and we feel accepted by the people who live in it. We have a circle of close lesbian friends, some with kids near our daughter’s age, and straight friends who have never treated us any differently than anyone else. It’s easy to feel comfortable. Too comfortable sometimes. It occurred to me that I’m not as safe in that bubble as I thought. I’m beginning to realize that coming out as gay isn’t enough anymore and instead, am thinking more about how my partner, her daughter and I need to come out as a family.
My partner’s father is from India and her family has a huge network of Indian relatives and friends. When friends and family visit the U.S., several gatherings take place that we are expected to attend. The visitors tend to speak mostly to my partner and lavish attention on her daughter. Though I am introduced as her partner and the way I interact with her and my stepdaughter clearly indicates that our relationship runs deeper than friendship, most of them don’t appear to look at us that way. I end up feeling like the weird friend that always tags along. We clearly make some of them uncomfortable as a couple so it seems they feel a need to separate us into little packages they can tolerate.
Recently, my partner’s nephew flew here from India and stayed at our house overnight before she drove him to Wisconsin where he is attending college. He’s a nice enough kid but our awkward exchanges made me feel like he sort of wondered what I was doing there, in my own home. I’ve met his mother and spent a good amount of time with her when she last visited. We seemed to get along well; she engaged with me more than many other relatives or friends have. When her son came to stay with us she sent him here with gifts, which is customary. However, they were addressed only to my partner and stepdaughter, not me, even though she is well aware that we’ve lived together for a few years now and bought a home together less than six months ago. Of course it’s not about the gifts, but I was hurt to have housed and fed and engaged with her son only to be left feeling like an outsider.
Gatherings of my partner’s extended family and friends have often left me feeling like I don’t belong there. Most of them are doctors and being doctors is most often what they choose to talk about. Rarely has anyone asked what I do or where I grew up or even what I think about the weather. At a recent gathering I interjected something about myself thinking it would create a dialogue and was instead met with disapproving silence. It’s sometimes difficult to decipher whether the cold shoulder is driven by homophobia or classism. Perhaps to some I simply have the wrong gender, the wrong profession, the wrong ethnicity, or the wrong number of digits in my salary. For a while now I’ve tried to chalk it up to this just being the way they are and struggling to learn to deal with it. But each of these gatherings has made me increasingly uncomfortable and angry and I end up taking it out on the wrong party—namely, my partner who is just as stuck in the middle as I feel. I just don’t do well with being ignored or made invisible. My partner and I deserve to have our relationship acknowledged. I came from a family chock full of secrets and there is no way in hell I’m keeping any more just to spare someone from having to confront their biases.
Part of me doesn’t care what anyone thinks. But when my partner’s own sister uses phrases like “if Barb is still around” when talking about my stepdaughter’s future, she’s not just fucking with me, she’s dismissing the family her sister and I are building, albeit not as traditional as hers.
Our family was formed differently than most. My partner became a single mom by choice. She and I didn’t meet until her daughter was four and I became a stepmom (for lack of a better word) to her daughter about a year and a half later. Soon I will have been in my stepdaughter’s life almost as long as I haven’t. I’d be lying if I said that forming our family in this way hasn’t created obstacles, but we are committed to this relationship and know that we are in it for the long haul.
So, 17 years after coming out, I’m finding myself in that place of needing to come out all over again except this time as part of a queer family, not just queer, and with both rainbow-flagged barrels blazing.
We’re here, we’re a queer family, get used to it. I’ll keep saying it until it sinks in. After all, it’s not something bad, like we’re Republicans.
Photo credit: essygie on Flickr.com | CC 2.0 Some Rights Reserved