Coming Out

By David Clatterbuck

I wrote this essay in two stages. The first part I wrote in April, 1995, and I finished it up in July. As I continue to define myself in my coming out process, things change, and so this story is only record of things as they were when I wrote it.

My Story, July, 1995

My name is David Clatterbuck, but my friends call me Dave. I'm currently a sophomore at Iowa State University (in Ames, Iowa), and after considering several disciplines in engineering, I have decided to major in ceramic engineering. I am originally from suburban Kansas City where my parents and younger brother still live.

When I started writing this in April, I had only been out to my friends and active in the LGB community here at ISU for two months. I only came out to my parents a few weeks ago. Let me tell you how I have gotten to the point where I am right now.

The most frequently asked question (by both gay and straight people) I have encountered thus far has been, "How long have you known you were gay?", so let me address that one first. It for sure didn't happen all at once. It's not like there is some day I can mark on the calendar and say that it was the first day that I considered myself gay. In retrospect, I have known I was attracted to men since the seventh grade. My earliest memory of being attracted to a man (or anyone for that matter) was actually a result of a assignment I had for my Foreign Language class in school. I was looking through magazines to find advertisements for products with French or Spanish names for my assignment when I came across an advertisement for Jockey underwear.

The instinctive feeling that I got from looking at that bare-chested model was unlike any I had ever experienced. I continued to be attracted to men; however, I never even let myself consider the fact that I was gay until my freshman year in college. That year, I was still in denial, but I started to consider the possibility that I was gay. Even though I didn't consciously believe that I was gay, there must have been a part of me that knew prior to that. I base this fact mostly on my actions, such as buying a copy of "The Advocate". One might be curious as to the logic I used to convince myself that I wasn't gay even though here I was buying a copy of a gay news magazine. It was basically the same logic I had been using for the previous five years to explain my attraction to men. I always told myself that it was a phase that I would grow out of or any one of a dozen excuses that I had come up with. After over five years of thinking like this, I got really good at convincing myself.

In looking back on my experiences, it is almost as if there were two different parts of me, which I did not consider to be connected. It was as if I lumped all my homosexual feelings into a part of me that I tried to keep separate from the rest of my life. I'm still amazed I didn't develop some sort of multiple personality disorder or some other psychic disorder. It is as if I my subconscious knew that I was gay but tried to prevent my conscious self from becoming aware of it.

This past summer, I started doing a lot of thinking. I finally allowed myself to consciously consider the possibility that I might be gay. Even though I knew deep down that I was gay, it took a lot to get past all those years of denial. The situation was compounded by the fact that I didn't see myself as fitting into the homosexual stereotype that society offered. It might seem ironic that I had all these stereotypes and prejudices about homosexuals even though I was gay. I guess it's just a demonstration in how powerfully society can indoctrinate people. Before going to college, it seemed like I had very little exposure to homosexuality. However, in college I began to encounter people who were more open minded, and I began to realize that I didn't have to accept things that society had taught me. I also noticed an increase in the appearance of homosexuality in the media, television, and the rest of pop culture. I'm not sure whether there was an actual increase, or whether I was just beginning to notice it more, probably both.

I am a very logical and analytical type of person (thus my interest in engineering). Once I started to become more and more sure that I was gay (I definitely still had doubts), I began to consider what my options were. I made lists of the pros and cons of coming out. At this point I knew that I hadn't chosen to be gay, but that I still had a choice to make. I could try to continue without making a real choice, I could try to live a lie pretending to be a heterosexual, or I could come to grips with my sexuality and start living my life as it was meant to be. When I began to look at it that way, the decision was obvious; I had to be true to myself. That's not to say I wasn't scared to death of the effect that my decision could/would have. My biggest fear in coming out (or so I told myself) was that everyone would find out that I was gay, and then I would realize that I was wrong (I was really straight).

I listed all the pros and cons of coming out, hoping to reach a point where the benefits would outweigh the costs of coming out. I kept going over all my logical arguments in my head time and time again. When I went back to school in the fall, I brought all these considerations with me. I set a goal to tell at least one person I knew by National Coming Out Day in October. I went to the library at school and tried to find out as much as I could. I read some books including Growing Up Gay, a collection of stories. I also started keeping a journal on my computer of all the things I felt with the hope that expressing my feelings in writing would help me deal with them. I've included some excerpts from the journal I kept.

October 13, 1994

It's been a long time since I've written in my journal, I could probably give the excuse that I've been too busy, but it would be a lie. To tell you the truth, I'm really getting sick of lies. Isn't that what my life is right now, one big lie. It really makes me depressed. This week is National Coming Out Week, and I'm disappointed in myself for not meeting my goal of coming out yet. It has been encouraging to read stuff in the daily. There have been quite a few editorials in support of gay rights, etc. ... I wonder if I'm ready to come out, because I'm still uncertain about the whole thing.

There is really an internal conflict inside of me. Am I gay? What if I'm wrong? No, it's just denial. But what if it isn't? It's a vicious cycle that I can't seem to break. Maybe it would help to list the facts and do this analytically instead of subjectively. If the only qualification for being gay is being attracted to other guys, then I guess there is no getting around it, I'm gay. Every time I walk across campus, it becomes blatantly obvious to me. There are so many good looking guys out there. How come I didn't notice them this much last year?

As every day passes, I think about being gay more and more. (if that is possible). We had a grad student sub for our Chem. E 210 professor a couple days ago. I was so attracted to him. As I was sitting there I kept thinking about ways to ask him out. (not that I would actually do it).

October 19, 1994

I haven't made much progress in the past week. I'm really spinning my wheels. I think subconsciously that I probably think that if I don't worry about it, my gayness will "correct itself". That idea is disproved every time I walk across campus and see all these good looking guys.

I really don't think I'll be able to come out until I understand my sexuality better. The problem is, how to go about figuring it out. The biggest problem with understanding my sexuality is that I have never discussed it with anyone, and I've just recently started discussing it with myself in this journal. That's what this journal really is, a discussion with myself.

One thing that I wonder is, what do straight people think about, worry about? It seems like my life is consumed by my struggle to understand my sexuality.

One thing that makes this situation so hard is the fact that two of my friends seem so much in love, and they are planning their lives together. I guess I'm just really jealous of the fact that that they have each other, and I don't have anyone.

Reasons I want to come out:

I'm really sick of lies, it is so hard (stressful) to be deceitful I'd rather tell people than have them find out by accident. I really want to have an open relationship with someone. It really scares me because I've never had that kind of relationship with anyone, not even myself. Is it even possible? I've grown so accustomed to being secretive, can I ever change. I want to date guys, and hopefully fall in love, etc. It seems almost impossible to do that from within the closet.

Reasons why I'm scared to come out:

I'm afraid that what I'll gain by coming out will not outweigh what I might loose. I'm afraid that I'll find out that I don't fit in with the gay community. I'm afraid that I'll come out and then find out that I'm not really gay.

I don't know if I'll be able to come out until I've become convinced that the things on the negative list won't come true. (how's that going to happen?)

The scariest part of coming out is the irreversibility. The bad things wouldn't be important if I could go back, if I found out I was wrong.

I spent many an hour sitting on the bean bag in my room just thinking. My friends always thought I was just taking a nap, unknowing of all the issues I was debating with myself in my head. As I was sitting there thinking, usually listening to music there was one song that really expressed how I felt. A portion of the lyrics follow:

From "I Will Not Take These Things For Granted" by Toad the Wet Sprocket

One part of me just wants to tell you everything
One part just needs the quiet.
And if I'm lonely here, I'm lonely here . . .
How can I hold the part of me that only you can carry
It needs a strength I haven't found.
But if it's frightening, I'll bear the cold . . .

Despite my best intentions, I got too wrapped up in my school work and other things to worry about my sexual orientation. I think one part of me considered the possibility that if I stopped thinking about it, the whole situation would go away. I did call one hot-line number hoping to talk to someone about my situation. The lady on the phone was real nice, but it really came down to the fact that I needed to do something about it. For the most part, I just drowned myself in other things to do to take my mind off my sexual orientation.

The last week of the semester, as my class work was tapering off, I discovered a newsgroup on the Internet called "soc.support.youth.gay-lesbian-bi". Whenever my roommate was out of the room (which happened way too infrequently), I would read the posts people had made. The purpose of the group is to provide a place for youth to discuss issues dealing with their sexuality and to provide support for youth who need someone to talk to. It really helped to read so many stories that I could relate to. I really started to realize that I wasn't alone: there were lots of other people out there in situations similar to me.

Over Christmas break, I worked, but I wasn't really that busy, and it gave me time to think about everything again. I also realized that my 20th birthday was quickly approaching. My life was probably already one-fourth over. There were so many things I still wanted to accomplish. There had been so many lies, it was time to get on with my real life. The time for action was upon me.

I made a new year's resolution to start confronting all the issues I had been struggling with, and to try to resolve at least some of them. As a side note, it was shortly after New Year's that my best friend from high school told me that his ex-girlfriend had just come out to him as a lesbian. I was slightly surprised because I knew that she had had her share of serious boyfriends. I was also surprised how well my friend was taking it. It made me see that he was probably going to be accepting when I told him. Later when I told him, he asked me why I didn't tell him then. Besides the fact that we were not in a place suitable to having a big discussion, I had already somewhat decided on a "strategy" for coming out that was much less impulsive. I had promised myself that I would try to be in a position to tell him by spring break. A promise that, unlike my previous goal of October 11, I would keep.

After I got back to school, I really worked on meeting my goals. I continued to read the newsgroup on the Internet. I went to the library and checked some books that I had heard about from the people on the Internet. The books included two novels about young men coming to terms with the fact that they were gay. I was amazed at how much I related to the feelings that the characters had. More than most books I've read, I really felt that I understood the characters and I felt this incredible bond to them. What happened to the characters really mattered to me and touched me emotionally.

I decided that what I really needed was someone to talk to and someone to give me some advice. I remembered reading in the school paper that one of the counselors at the student services center had spoken at the coming out day rally. She had said that students could come talk to the counselors at the student services center about their sexuality. I finally got up the courage to go in and talk to someone (That took a lot of work). Little did I know the whole process would be so complicated. I had to fill out a form, and then set up an "assessment appointment" where I had talk to a counselor so that they could decided what form of counseling was appropriate. After I had filled out the form and then gone in for my assessment appointment two days later, I had to wait for them to call me when there was an opening in one of the counselor's schedules.

Two weeks later, I was beginning to wonder if I would have to go back in and see what the problem was, when I got the secret encoded message on my answering machine that meant that they had an opening for me. After I finally got to talk to someone, I found out that it was well worth the wait. It really helped to be able to talk about my feelings and get them out in the open instead of being all bottled up inside. It's really amazing what a difference it made to vocalize the things that I had been thinking all this time. Later that afternoon, my counselor took me down to meet the director of LGB student services in the dean of students office. She let me check out some books and gave me a copy of the latest LGBA (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Alliance, a group on the ISU campus) newsletter. Little did I know, but I was already on the downward slope racing towards the day that I saw as my biggest fear and at the same time my biggest fantasy.

On Saturday, I got a chance to read the newsletter, and it had an ad for the group's "Valentine's Day Queer Dance" that evening. After thinking about it, I decided that it was now or never, and I made up my mind that I would go. My roommate was going to be gone for a few hours that night, so I wouldn't even have to give an excuse for leaving. Once I decided that I was going to go, I wasn't even that scared; I actually felt empowered. I just had feeling deep down that everything was going to turn out all right. And I was right.

When I got to the dance, almost everyone recognized me as someone new. Everybody in the LGB community at ISU pretty much knows everybody else, so when someone new shows up is fairly obvious. I was expecting this, and I was thankful because before I knew it, I had met a bunch of people who had come up and introduced themselves to me. Everyone I met was really nice to me. One of the things I noticed right away was how open everyone was. That was a total change from what I was used to, being so introverted myself. Believe it or not, I had never had a conversation with any person who I knew was gay before that night. It was nice to know that gay people really did exist and that there were people with feelings similar to my own. All this, and my first slow dance with another guy, were enough to close the book on the issue as to whether or not I was gay.

The next logical step after successfully coming out of the closet to myself, was to start telling the people who I cared about. I owed it to them to be honest, and I needed their support in my continuing struggle. I wanted to share with them my new found happiness and all I had gone through to reach this elusive goal. So just ten days after the dance, I told my friend Leanne. I had been going over what I would tell her for at least half a year by this time, but it was still the scariest thing I have ever done. It's hard to describe everything you're thinking at times like this. I just knew that whatever the outcome, my life would never be the same. Leanne was wonderful; I knew then that I was lucky to have a friend like her. She knew that this was an important event in my life and didn't treat it lightly. She asked questions, and most importantly was supportive. The feeling of relief that followed was unbelievable. With each person I told, it got easier and easier. In actuality, I was so surprised as to how well it all turned out. It was actually anti-climatic. I had built the whole thing up in my mind, but it turned out to be what would have to be considered the best case scenario.

After taking that tremendous leap of telling my closest friends, I found a new song that expressed what I had gone through and my feelings of relief and satisfaction.

"Talking To My Angel" by Melissa Etheridge

Don't be afraid
Close your eyes
Lay it all down
Don't you cry
Can't you see I'm going
Where I can see the sun rise
I've been talking to my angel
And he said that it's alright

I've always had to run
I don't know just why
Desire slowly smoking
Under the midwest sky
There's something waiting out there
That says I've got to try
I've been talking to my angel
And he said that it's all right

This town thinks I'm crazy
They just think I'm strange
Sometimes they want to own me
Sometimes they wish I'd change
But I can feel the thunder
Underneath my feet
I sold my soul for freedom
It's lonely but it's sweet

Don't be afraid
Close your eyes
Lay it all down
Don't you cry
Can't you see I'm going
Where I can see the sun rise
I've been talking to my angel
And he said that it's all right

On my recent trip home for the Fourth of July, I finally got up the courage to tell my parents. We had never really discussed homosexuality, so I had no idea what to expect. Even though I wanted to believe that everything was going to be okay, I also prepared myself for the worst. My parents were totally caught off guard. I had figured that my parents might have previously considered the possibility, but I was wrong. There was quite a bit of awkward silence due to their surprise. I gave them two books which I had gotten for the occasion, Now That You Know, and Straight Parents/Gay Children. All things considered, they took it rather well. Everyone remained calm, and oddly enough I was the only one to cry that first night. Their feelings ran the gamut from skepticism (are you really gay?) to guilt (what did I do wrong as a parent?) to concern (your life will be so much harder). That weekend was hard on everyone involved, but it really started to pave the road for a more open relationship to develop.

So far I haven't really experienced any negative consequences to my coming out, probably because I've just started coming out. Under any circumstance, it has made it easier for me to get used to the whole situation. I'm actually surprised that my boyfriend and I haven't received any comments from passersby when we're making out in his dorm room with the door open.

I have to admit the past few months have been hectic at times. It is a tremendous task to juggle academics, a part time job, extracurricular activities, a social life, and a romantic relationship all at the same time. I'm sure all college students feel the pressure that goes with having a limited amount of time to do what seems like a limitless list of things. In my case (and I'm sure many others), this pressure was compounded by my struggle to understand my sexual identity.

Since coming out, my life has totally changed, but at the same time it's still pretty much the same (if anyone can explain this one to me, I'm open to suggestions). I guess what I'm saying is that life goes on. And in my case, I'd have to say that I'm better off now than I was a year ago. I have an increased self-confidence, and everything seems so much simpler. It's hard to explain, but there is basically a feeling inside that tells you, this is the way it should be.

My struggle to understand my sexuality has given me a chance to explore what I really wanted out of life and what I believed. I was forced to re-evaluate everything that I had previously accepted with little thought. It has been a process of defining my entire identity for myself, the fact that I am gay simply a portion of that identity.

One thing that I haven't commented on yet is the correlation that existed between my emotional growth and my coming out experience. I won't try to establish a cause and effect relationship, but it surely can't be a coincidence that over the past year I have both grown to understand my sexuality and have undergone a dramatic increase in my emotional development.

If I could offer only one piece of advice to anyone questioning their sexual orientation, I would say: find out what resources are available to you, and use them to your advantage. Become informed, libraries are enormous sources of information just waiting to be put to a good use. Find someone to talk to who you know will be supportive and will be able to help you. If your school does not offer professional counseling services, their are numerous national support hot-lines that can help you locate people in your area that can help. Even though it may be scary to go for help, in the end you will be glad that you did.

I just hope that whoever reads about my experiences can feel a little sense of reassurance and know that whatever you are going through, there are people out there who have gone through it before and survived. You are not alone. "Don't be afraid . . . I've been talking to my angel; And he said that it's all right."

Dave, 20, is a Junior at Iowa State University in Ames, IA studying Ceramic Engineering.
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