“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.” (Rollo May)
I suspect just about everyone has to come out in one way or another, as we grow into our adult skin and assert our sense of self worth and identity. Often, but not always, we test the waters, as we aren’t quite certain yet what price, if any, we want to pay for such liberation of spirit. I had two such major epiphanies in my life, the first being the almighty and temporarily defining one of my “announcing” my sexuality, my gayness. The second was the much longer process of embracing my artistic leanings, thus releasing the most enduring of my familial restraints.
As a teenager, I frankly didn’t think too much about sex, except for my curiosity as to why I had no real urges. I simply thought that one day I would wake up and just be overwhelmed with libidinous yearnings. I was obsessed with academics and extra-curricular activities until well into college, when at last that day came to be. I was in the second semester of my freshman year at UNC and I started noticing that men (and women) were returning my notice with bold flirtation and titillating innuendo. My libido was teetering on the cusp of arousal. And by spring break, my virginity was cast to the warm Chapel Hill winds by a swarthy Norwegian graduate student who spoke little English.
I found myself gravitating towards artsy, Bohemian types and slowly separating myself from my high school chums. I was neither afraid per se of my sexuality nor for that matter very conflicted. However, co-dependent people-pleaser that I was so deftly trained to be, the terror of rejections lead me to remove any such threat. By the following year, I had a cohesive group of cronies who were either gay or at least fully supportive. I also had a large group of associates from whom I kept that secret, thereby creating a double life. Eventually those associates diminished into acquaintances, eventually becoming just lost names in a dusty address book.
The only family member that was privy to my “alternative lifestyle”, which is veiled 70’s jargon for homosexuality, was my sister Polly. In 1979, the two of us had joined my mother’s family in Washington, DC, for my Great Aunt Ruth’s funeral. One night, the two of us decided to brave the icy roads and go to Georgetown for cocktails. There we were in Mr. Henry’s enjoying libations, made the sweeter for her as she was only seventeen and didn’t even need to offer her fake ID. After the scripted fidget and stammer, I finally told her that I was gay. She knowingly chided me that she and her friends had been debating that possibility for years. Of course, Polly would be the easiest to approach of my immediate family.
At age 24, having finally moved to Washington, it was indeed time to end the parental part of the madness. My mother and I had gone out to dinner in Georgetown and were enjoying martinis when I just blurted: “I need to tell you something.” Her reaction was surprisingly mixed. She smiled reassuringly as if she had been anticipating such a revelation for a while. Yet, her trademark composure was likely compromised because I chose a crowded outdoor café, by the C & O Canal, as the venue. She grabbed my hand and simply offered: “you don’t need to continue. I know.” From that evening, until she died unexpectedly a decade later, my mother was usually actively involved in my personal life, including the melodramatic bad break-ups, like that with the anti-Christ.
Six months later, my father was in town to give a speech and, yes, we met for dinner again in Georgetown, this time at a more reserved eatery. We casually discussed politics and, at some point near dessert, I grabbed the appropriate segue and just told him. He was shocked, dismayed, and started to argue my assertion, suggesting that, in my mid-twenties, it was perhaps a phase. I was floored by his refusal to accept me; he had always been the ultimate in liberal civil rights leaders, spewing freedom prose for as long as I had a memory. Yet, with me, he slipped into some deeply-seeded Catholic guilt trip that blind-sided me and eventually sabotaged our relationship, at least until recently.
By that time, most of my remaining high school ties had essentially become soiled, knotted, or lost at sea. I had confided in one close friend later when we were college seniors. His outrage scared the hell out of me, and kept me from ever confronting anyone else, except for when events made it obvious. Ironically, I ran into him when we were in our mid-thirties and he, too, had finally come out and never acknowledged his rejection of me. Over the years, most people seemed to just know … either through gossip or assumption. No one seemed to really care, at least in my presence. We were all more concerned with paychecks, insurance, and health issues. And I am more than certain that a few cronies from my teenage years were always a bit envious that I had a freedom that their choices denied them.
Tonight I have been pondering that fateful dinner with my mother; my reminiscences have thus swirled since before sunset threw seeds from the wintry sky. It might have been the Rick Wakeman album I was tracking; or the rather long phone conversation with probably the one friend from high school with whom I have had the longest continual relationship; or the moist December air that begs for night dreams. But tonight I was thinking about the “coming out” part of my journey. It was a lifetime ago, yet that universally-shared process still makes my tears swell.
I haven’t been down that rhetorical road nor dined in Georgetown for many, many years.
(Image: “A World Apart” by Daniel Merriam, 2013.)