Coming Out

by Ben Gertzfield

Ever since I was little, as far back as I can remember (maybe first grade or so,) I always had more female friends than male, and always played four-square or Chinese jump rope instead of softball, kickball, or any of the other stereotypical 'male' games. I don't really know why, but I felt more at ease with female friends than male friends. This isn't true any more, of course, but it's interesting to reflect back on who I was, long before hormones came in and ruined everything.

My family life also wasn't the best -- my mother was twice divorced by the time I was 8, and we had moved around Illinois several times. I've never been too close to my mother, unlike a lot of other gay men I know, but hey, I can be weird! In school, I had trouble 'fitting in' a lot of the time -- all the guys I knew were interested in sports, sports, and, umm, sports. To this day, I don't see how anyone can be interested in watching a bunch of sweaty men play with some balls.. Err, umm.. Strike that, reverse it, thank you. ;)

In school, I was in the gifted program, which separated me from the rest of the crowd even more. The only friends I had were the outcasts -- the bookworms, the socially challenged, etc., etc., etc. Being alone gave me a lot of time to reflect, think about who I was, and who everyone else was. The situation grew worse when I moved from grade school to middle school -- the guys were supposed to begin to get interested in the girls, go to parties, and do whatever you're supposed to do at parties. I never participated, so the realization that I was different from a lot of other people slowly surfaced in my mind. By eighth grade, the good ol' hormones began to kick in.

Around the end of junior high, I started to have sexual feelings I'd never noticed before. Things like noticing every single time the Soloflex guy came on the television to a sudden interest in just what was under those underpants I saw every day in the locker room in gym class became a high priority to me. For a long time, I didn't think about my feelings -- I knew they were what I had, and that girls didn't particularly interest me, but I didn't think anyone else was like me.

I knew about 'fags', however. I knew from television and my mother that they were bad people who were pretty disturbed, (what a twisted view of reality the tube gives us!) and that they were to be avoided. I don't really remember the event that made me realize, "Hey -- there are other people like me! We have a name, 'gay'," but I do remember how relieved I was when I did find out. I felt quite uncomfortable, still, with the idea that I was so very different from just about everyone else I knew in school. Seventh, eighth, and freshman year in high school were spent dazed and confused, until I found IMSA.

The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy is the United States' only three-year public residential high school. About two hundred students from all over Illinois are accepted each year, and in 1994, I became one of the lucky few. IMSA is an amazing place -- I found that I was surrounded by people who actually knew what Xanth was, people who understood the meaning of 'fnord', and people who were actually (gasp!) interested in getting all they could out of their public education! I was, in short, in heaven.

One of the greatest gifts IMSA brought me, besides the nurturing environment, was the Internet. IMSA, in 1994, had a 56K link to the outside world -- through it, I found the Internet Relay Chat, and through that, #gayteen.

#gayteen was quite a scary place, the first time I went onto it! I kept looking over my shoulder in the computer lab, checking to see if anyone would see the forbidden activity I was participating in, the taboos I was breaking. I remember clearly the first private message I received from a user on #gayteen.. "What are you wearing?" That did it -- I was leaving.

An evening a week or so later, however, I got up the bravado to come back onto the channel. I found that, unlike in the middle of the day when I had tried the channel the first time, there were ten or twenty other users on the channel! I was flabbergasted -- it was absolutely amazing that there actually were other teens out there that were worried about the same things I was, laughing about the same things I was, and talking to me, me, about who I really was! I stayed on the channel for about eight or nine hours that evening, and I learned more about me than I had learned in the previous fifteen years of my life.

Over the next few months, I saw so many things -- I found what love felt like, what a broken heart felt like, how to make impressions, how not to make impressions, what a gay pride flag looked like, (I notice rainbow flags almost everywhere now!) what a 'troll' was, what a 'twink' was, and all sorts of interesting gay trivia. I met people from all over the world -- what being gay meant to them, what it was like with their parents, their friends, their peers. I saw friend after friend tell me what it was like when they told the world who they really were -- I saw successes and failures. But by April 1st, 1995 (okay, so it was a poor choice of date ;) I was ready.

My entire family (aunts, cousins, mother, sister, and me) have their birthdays around the end of March/beginning of April, so we usually have a massive all-encompassing birthday party around then. In 1995, it just happened that I was ready to come out.

I basically took each member of my family aside, and talked to them for a little while about who I really was, and asked them what I should do about it. One at a time, I told each member of my family, saving my mom for the last. I got words of encouragement, love, and support from everyone -- and I had them stand a safe distance between my mom and me when I told her, "Mom, I'm gay." She stood there, mouth agape, for a few moments, then said the words I'll never forget.. "What the heck am I going to do about grandchildren now?"

Thank you, mom, for being cool about it.

It's been almost a year now since I came out to my family, and little by little I've come out to all of my friends at school. We organized Coming Out Day Week (okay, okay, so that's kind of silly) activities, and had speakers, chats, and a dance at the end of the week. Every single part of my coming out experience has been positive -- I've made so many new friends, learned so many new things, and had such a great time over the past few years. Coming out was easier than I had thought -- and it opened the doors to my life. In the immortal words of Glinda, the Good Witch of the South..

"Come out, come out, wherever you are.."

Ben Gertzfield, 16, is a student at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, in Aurora, IL. He plays trombone and keyboard, loves to hang out on IRC and FurryMUCK, and can't go a day without listening to They Might Be Giants. He can be reached online at wilwonka@imsa.edu and is always looking for penpals.
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