By the time this column is published, I will have, hopefully, sent the following "coming out" letter to my two closest, male friends from high school. As a 19-year old college sophomore, I am finally beginning to explore and identify - through the fog of stereotypes and my own personal homophobia - what it means to be gay. My sentiments, detailed in the letter, are probably nothing new or exceptional. But I feel the need to share them with a larger community, and I'd really appreciate any feedback that you might have. For me, this letter represents the first step in what will be a long, slow journey towards the truth.
December 9, 1998
Dear Mike and Chris,
I have no idea when I will actually give you this letter, since it is, without a doubt, the most difficult letter that I have ever written, a letter that was written today, but has been in the making for over six years. There is no easy way for me to say what I need to tell you, but I think writing everything out that I have to say will be easier than telling you face-to-face. I worry about leaving things out or forgetting to mention certain things that are important to me.
Last August, I had the first kiss of my life. It was one of the most powerful, transforming experiences of my life and it was with a guy. Since the eighth grade, I have known that I am gay.
I think of all the ways you may be feeling now: betrayed, misled, shocked, and quite possibly angry. I have heard you openly denouncing homophobia and it is that demonstration of open- mindedness that has given me the courage to tell you. At the same time, however, I am afraid that your sentiments may not be completely genuine. In this day and age, in some places, it is very "in" to be against homophobia. At my liberal-minded school, homophobic people are denounced and even shunned. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether someone is genuinely unafraid of gays or whether they are conforming to the liberal mentality of their environment. And so I worry about how you will react. This, coming out, is an intense and scary experience. I have an enormous amount of fears about the reaction of my close friends and I fear losing them. There is so much I have to say to you - I don't know where to begin; even my writing skills are failing me.
If I were you, I would feel that the person with whom I was friends has been lying and misleading me for six years. And that's true. I have pretended to like girls, I've admired female porn, and I've "lusted after" women. I've gone along with these activities, and I've even initiated them myself - as recently as Thanksgiving. It is something so automatic that I catch myself doing it constantly. It's a defense mechanism, and I don't think you'll ever really understand why it exists unless you understand what it is like to be gay. Every hour of every day for the past six years I've been reminded that I am gay. Like your skin, it is something that can never be taken off. It's with you always and it freezes in a world full of strong, cold winds of oppression. To protect myself from the hatred, the abnormality, and the stigma that gay people experience, I have dressed myself in many "straight" layers to keep warm. I have felt silenced, oppressed, and ridiculed every time I've seen and experienced homophobia. Internally, I cringe every time I hear "I don't care if they're gay as long as they don't come on to me," every time I remember an offer from one of our high school friends to join the "KFC: Kill Faggots Club," and every time I think of what would have happened to me, what would have been written on my locker, had I been "out" at our high school. Seeing the signs at Matthew Shepard's funeral, "God Hates Fags," "AIDS Cures Fags," and "Matt in Hell," has filled me with intense fear and anger. You can see why anyone would want to protect him or herself from the outward hatred of the world.
What's more, it is often that which is not spoken that is almost worse. Homosexuality is just not acknowledged as being something that affects us all. It's those "other," inferior, amusing people that adults whisper about, it's the freaks that live in the inner-city with everything but their eyes pierced or hairdressers or interior decorators who prance around in parades wearing pink triangles, or it's promiscuous men with AIDS. It's something to be "cool" with from a distance, but something that will never really affect us in our sheltered, suburban lives. You have no idea how lonely and isolating it is to be gay. No one acknowledges the feelings you have, and those that are gay are too afraid, like you, to be honest about it. On television, practically no one is gay. You never see a gay couple married or with kids (even for me, the thought of that is too much to handle). You can never discuss with your friends who you are really attracted to. You feel inferior, freakish, and defective because of the spoken and unspoken messages of the world, from the ignorance of a woman in Kansas holding a sign saying "God Hates Fags" to the fact that our high school "Christian Lifestyles" book never once mentioned gay people.
I never chose to be this way. It's not something I did to get attention. I had no choice. Whether it was genetic or environmental, I do not know, but there was never a point at which I thought "Maybe I should be gay." I don't know anyone who would choose to live such a difficult life, filled with fear of getting the shit kicked out of you, loss at an inability to ever be perceived as normal, and sadness at the inability to have your own children. As much as we liberally preach against conformity, we all need to feel a sense of belonging. When you're gay, a sense of belonging to the straight world can never be fully realized, no matter how hard you try. No one - no matter how much they detest conforming to the norm - wants to feel defective or alone. In addition to the outside force of the world, I've also concealed my homosexuality from inner forces within me. My biggest problem has been that I've never been able to view myself as gay. I can make gay jokes and laugh at them because I've never felt like the word "gay" ever applied to me. Yes, I've always known I was "not straight," but I could never bring myself to label myself as "gay" because I never felt as if I identified with people who were gay. I don't enjoy wearing bright, pastel colors and tight clothes, I don't feel the need to march in parades or wear pink triangles, I don't act feminine or talk with a lisp, and I don't feel attracted to guys that do. In short, I couldn't accept that I was gay because I couldn't see myself as part of the gay community. I've recently come to realize, however, that my conception of gay people was limited by the stereotype promoted by the heterosexual world. I've gone to some support meetings in Boston this winter break and I have been amazed at the people that I've seen. Sure, there are many that completely "act the part" and are queens, but there are many more that are more masculine than me: football players, basketball players, many Catholic school graduates. Seeing, time and again, the stereotype of promiscuity, femininity, and personality crushed by real life examples, I've realized just how homophobic I, myself, have been.
I hope my explanation gives you some reason as to why I have misled you and why I have conformed to society's accepted norm. I certainly couldn't be honest with you if I couldn't be honest with myself or face the ignorance of the world. I've struggled for the past six years with the loneliness and the isolation and, like I said, to protect myself, I have basically created two worlds: a straight world, where I have lived most of my life, and a gay world, in which I have talked to other people on AOL or was able to think about being gay. The task ahead of me is simply this: to integrate these two opposing, separate worlds. I need to be comfortable being honest in all aspects of my life. This is clearly no easy task, and I am going slowly. Other than you two, I have told only Karen - back in the summer after graduation. I am not out at my college. While you three know now, it may take weeks, months, or years for me to tell our other friends or even my parents.
I hope you don't think that I am a completely different person now. You now know something more about me, but I am the same person you have been friends with for the past six years. I knew I was gay at our junior prom, I knew I was gay the day we graduated, and I knew I was gay when we were celebrating on Mount Washington, having hiked to the summit. My point is this: while you never knew it, you have unwittingly been friends with a gay person all these years. My being gay has never affected that which was important to our friendship. Yes, being gay is something that walks beside me always, but it has never completely determined who I am as a human being. It is simply one of many aspects of who I am.
I don't want anything in our relationship to change. And yet things will change. I need to be honest with you because as much as my homosexuality should not determine my whole identity as a person or affect my relationship with you, it is, nonetheless, a part of who I am. I have so many fears about how you are going to react.
First, I worry that you are going to pretend to be okay with this, but really be weirded out by who I am. I worry that you are going to feel that I am not the person you were friends with and feel like our friendship is based on a lie. There is nothing I can really do but hope that this doesn't happen. Besides covering up being gay (and, I admit, this is a huge thing to do), I have always been honest and genuine in my actions and feelings, in my jokes and laughter, and in my friendships. I worry that you are going to say "it's no big deal," and then start forgetting to call me to hang out, watch a movie, or go camping. I want you to talk to me about this; get out your discomfort, talk about what makes you feel weird or uncomfortable about it.
Second, I worry that you are going to be weird around me when it comes to discussing girls and sex, which is something we do a lot when the three of us get together. I worry that you are going to be overly cautious about what you say so as not to offend me and that this over-cautiousness is going to kill the fun we have when we are together. I worry that you are going to feel that you can't relate to me anymore because I'm not heterosexual. In fact, I would feel a loss if all of a sudden, the jokes, the comments, and the humor stopped. Believe me, I don't get offended by gay jokes and by gay humor and I don't think I ever will, as long as it's not mean-spirited. Please don't think I ever took jokes or remarks personally. With you two, I've never felt it has been mean-spirited and so I have felt free to joke around about it. We often have joked around, pretending to act gay towards one another. While I would hope you know this already, I want to be completely clear: I have never taken those jokes seriously and if I ever pretended, like you, to "act gay" towards you, it was in the spirit of joking around and certainly not the result of a deep, hidden longing for one of you!
Third, I worry that you are going to be uncomfortable in certain situations around me: sleeping in the same tent, standing around in your boxers, changing, and sleepovers. You should know that I have NEVER looked at or thought about either of you sexually. I guess it would be analogous to looking at a brother, sister, or parent sexually: you just don't do it or have the desire to do it. I would never disrespect friends like that, and I feel too close to either of you as friends to even contemplate something like that. As I said in the beginning, this has been the most difficult letter I have ever written. I just re-read what I wrote up until now. Parts of it are too melodramatic, other parts seem self-pitying, and many sound self-absorbed. I don't think I'll ever be able to convey all that I feel to you as precisely as I'd like. So many mixed feelings and hopes have developed through the writing of this letter. I don't know; I want two conflicting things: part of me wants this letter to open up a conversation between us, to allow our friendship to grow stronger without the burden of my concealed sexuality, while another part of me wants everything to stay the exact same way.
I've talked a lot with people at the groups I've gone to about my biggest fear: telling my straight, guy friends. I've been encouraged by their stories and I've been encouraged by the things I have heard you say to me in the past - from Chris' general open-mindedness to Mike taking a vow of silence for a day in support of gays. I think that my revelation to you both is going to put those sentiments to the test. I hope you will have the courage and the will to continue to call me a friend.