I am 20-year-old Bill Baumgardt from Ocean County, NJ -- yep, you guessed it, the Jersey Shore.
I was born and raised in this county and attend community college locally as a Liberal Arts major. A couple of semesters ago, I had the honor of being chair of the college's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Students and Friends group. It was a rewarding and interesting experience for me. I took the position as an opportunity to pay back the organized gay community for what it has done to help me.
Growing up gay in O.C. was not easy. Homophobia was the "in thing" in high schools, and that is when a lot of the harassment started.
But, fortunately for me, I did have a good family growing up. Despite my parents divorcing in my sophomore year, which was no big deal for me (I had seen so much of it already), we always got along as any "normal" nuclear family would have gotten along in a similar situation.
I guess I knew I was gay at the age of 10. That is when I really knew what my attraction was. I could not bring myself to say the word "gay" until about 8 years later, however. Plus, I had always been a rather gentle person, renouncing violence to solve conflicts, etc. So I would get called things like "sissy, fag, etc." I always felt this abuse was sort of what I deserved and so, I felt like I had no direction in life or purpose. To boot, I really did not understand my attraction, because there was no one around who would have understood "me" as the individualist I am. I mean individualist in that I always refused to buy into the current brouhaha of the majority of the school as much as I could.
Unfortunately, a lot of my negative energy toward my inner self turned toward others. Not that any of my peers at the time were much better, but they only had the problems normal heterosexual youth have. Not like I did. And, most of my friends were girls, so that made it harder to cover up. I would get asked (I will be polite) "why aren't you dating so and so", or they never could understand why I gravitated toward them.
"I always had friends of all ages and both sexes" I would tell them, which is very true. Throughout high school, I always felt like a person trying to get out of a horrible dungeon. I thought I could only escape at night, alone, and secretly. Then, I would die there after a few years of this. And my dungeon door could never be opened until at least after high school, and if it did I would have to bear the terrible risk of the evil guards (my fellow students) coming to take me to the torture chamber (high school buildings). Fortunately, though, I was only minimally victim to any actual physical violence. Intimidation was a better tactic for them to use on me. And, to boot, my own internalized homophobia fed the fire within and without. (pretty melodramatic isn't it)
Well, later on in those years I entered a "pre-homo" stage -- that's what I call it now at least. I started to go to the county library and check out books. I know the library info is confidential and if anyone asked I could always tell them I was doing a report or something. I never went to the school library since if a book even existed there that was pro-gay, my name would appear in the back, and well...you know what..
I read and checked out books often, throughout my high school years. Many of them I had no interest in because the subject matter wasn't for me -- but if it came up after I typed in "homosexuality" into the library's computer, I took it out.
Right after high school, I answered ads in the personals for folks who wanted friends, or well... you know... I am human. The only worthwhile respondent was Jack (not his real name). He called me one hot August night shortly after my graduation. We arranged to meet about 20 minutes later at a local convenience store parking lot to see about meeting for some coffee at a local restaurant. I was a little paranoid that he may have been an ax murderer or something, so I played it safe. I even told him my name was Tom at first when he called.
Eventually, it turned out that we went to his house, which was no problem for me because it was a familiar area. And until about seven o'clock the next morning we sat on his couch and talked. I got a large history of how it is to be gay, what his story was, relationships, etc. It was great to know there was an actual living validity to what I felt. And, I was also glad he did not talk about football or baseball -- both of which I loathe. After that, we talked again a few times, and met once thereafter, but we lost touch after that. Jack played an important role in my life, by showing me I was okay and be as successful as he was at the age of 40. I will never forget him, that is for sure.
Well, around the same time as this I found a slip of paper in one of the books I had from the library, with the name "OLGA" on it. Along with that was a phone number. I called it and found that there was a place for me! (Jack was closeted so he had no idea it existed). So on August 31, 1993, I went to my first meeting of Ocean County Lesbian-Gay Alliance. I met many people -- most of which were older though, but good people. They answered a lot of my questions by telling their own coming out stories. And then there he was -- a fine looking 20-year-old Italian guy with the same problems I had. I thought I was going to melt! Well, to cut to the chase he was the first person I ever fell in (over the cliff) love with. However, we only became friends. And, we do agree to this day it was the best route, given our situations at the time.
I still, two years later am involved with OLGA as much as time permits. I always try to help out with any "youth" issues, by directing them to the GLB youth groups in Asbury Park -- only about 30 miles away, or to the group at Ocean County College. Both groups help people have their needs met better since it's geared more for younger people.
That night, my life shone a new light of hope and peace, and of fascinating stories too long to mention here, but I will never forget them or the words "you will be fine" from one older lesbian whom I never saw again.
Through Ocean County Lesbian-Gay Alliance, I got referred to Gay and Lesbian Youth of NJ, run by a larger parent organization the Gay Activist Alliance Of Morris County. GALY meetings were held about 50 miles away from me in an undisclosed location in an area near Rutgers University, which also has a large GLB alliance.
Well, my first meeting was grand. Although I was not ready to "come out yelling" as I put it, I never felt more at home than I did there. I was only 18 at the time, so I was the youngest at the meeting. Most others there were 19 or 20, and had already come out to people. But, GALY never pressured me to come out, it is their policy not to. We discussed many things, and I mostly listened and asked questions. Well, after the meeting ended I was invited to hang with the other two remaining members. We drove around awhile and saw many parts of the city I had never been to before. It was a rough but very rewarding thing for me, because I had never been with any young gay guys before, and I was not much into meeting new people because of my shyness. It was my first day out in the world, I suppose, except at the diner after my first OLGA meeting.
After having dinner with one of the guys, at a local restaurant, we exchanged phone numbers and said we would keep in touch. We did, and often he gave me the honor of showing me what there is in NJ for gay youth. Well, after the third meeting, I began to head back home to Ocean County. My brother had previously told me my timing belt was dangerously frayed, and he would "get around to fixing it." As luck would have it, the belt failed and I was stuck on the Garden State Parkway on the way home.
No problem, I thought, I will just get a tow truck and have AAA tow me home, with no problem. I will tell my folks that I went to the movies or something. Well, the tow truck was too busy to take me home. He would tow the car to nearby Monmouth County and return it to me the next day. I was given a ride to a rest stop where I would be safe and call home.
On the way home from the rest stop, my dad and I talked and he asked me: "Not to be nosy, but were you meeting some girl from the personal ads? I saw the phone bill and I wish you would not run it up like that." I snapped a quick "no" and said to myself: well, I guess now is the time to tell him like I planned to while waiting for AAA.
I knew I could no longer bear lying to myself, my friends, and my family any longer. So I changed the subject about my female platonic friends, stressing platonic big time. Then came the question. "Could you be gay? I hope you do not mind me asking, but I have thought so for awhile." I quickly snapped back with a half sarcastic "Yeah, I am." I was warned not to be sarcastic, as my Dad hates sarcasm. So I said "Yeah, Dad, you've got a queer son." He said, "Oh, are you sure?" I said, "Yeah."
We finally got home after what seemed an eternity. Both of us had to work, so we said we would talk the next day. By then it was midnight. The next day, work was a sheer living hell. Here I had just come out to my folks, and had my brother to deal with next. And, worse off my new car I loved so much was probably ruined. A timing belt is a crucial thing.
Well, I got home and my car was delivered soon after. Then came my brother and Dad. I got the same usual questions from him as my Dad, and he got the same answer my Dad did. Well, he did not take it as well as my Dad did. I felt like saying "For God's sake, I'm the one who's gay here! What is your problem?" But my brother is another story.
He felt as if it was his fault and I should go see the pastor immediately. Which I did. I got along well with the Pastor and his reaction was kind of like "Bill, God's promise and the death of his son Jesus was not only guaranteed to heterosexuals. Jesus is your savior, and never forget that. But, there is a hunger within you. Go slow, be safe and smart." He hugged me at the end. I never forgot that. In my heart, I knew he was a fair minded man who cared a lot for his parishioners. Plus, that denomination is not too terrible on its treatment toward gay people. They do allow gay and lesbian members.
I did know, though, that if I was not welcomed in that church, there are some Christian denominations which are very open and affirming toward gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and they are not afraid to admit it. Also, in many locations individual churches of all denominations do too.
Later on in the year, I came out to my mom, whom I had not told yet. I felt it best not to as of yet given the fact she was already having problems settling with my dad. So, one night, I told her. With my brother sitting alongside of me, to boot. She cried, but her husband had some gay colleagues in his life, so he had better advice to give than I could at the time. He is a rather objective person, so it worked out well.
All in all, my family was -- despite their own problems -- very accepting. It does take time, often. They do get along well with my partner, however and always welcome him at family functions, like Christmas. I am fortunate to have them as parents, as I know many are not. You see, I have come to learn there are different levels of acceptance many of us get from people. The first I got from my family was "You are still my son, you know."
My friends, I told individually. None of them had any real problems. One of them has a gay brother, so she basically guessed it, after months of suspicion. I had to "educate" some of my friends about it, and they were very supportive. I am still Bill to them, and we actually get along even better now that I am out. I was fortunate not to ever have a bad reaction from anyone, be it other family, friends, neighbors or co-workers.
In fact, one of my neighbors shocked me when she asked "What is that pretty rainbow pin you are wearing?" I said "It is because I am gay." She said, "Well, I knew you were probably before you did, but what's the pin?" I laughed and dumbfoundedly said, "It's the colors of the gay pride flag." She said, "Oh, that's nice, I never knew that before. I thought it was the rainbow coalition or something. You know, my nephew is gay and I had a ton of gay students where I taught school." I guess she told me more than I told her that day, huh?
Well, this is just a part of the beginning stages of my coming out story. It is quite a complex and eventful chain of events, that I could probably write a book on. Coming out to the degree I am out takes time and a lot of talking. It is a process. But, I knew that in my life, I had to do it from the ground up, and go from there. Some do it differently, and that is OK too. I made the decision to be out so that I could help eradicate some of the homophobia in the community, which I have I felt in many ways. But I dealt with my own issues first. That was a priority.
In closing, I would say to a queer or questioning teen in the closet, a few things. Be strong. Be safe (remember the only safe sex is no sex, though.). Get information if you need it, there are many areas that have well organized groups and establishments you can go to. It pains me to see the cry for help written on a bathroom wall. I know, I have seen it all. Remember you are not alone, and that you are a good person. Stay at peace with yourself in this hostile world.