In honor of October 11’s National Coming Out Day, I felt it necessary to share my story in hopes that it will bring encouragement to those struggling with their own identities and assure them that oftentimes the fear and shame of coming out are far greater than the reality of doing so. Of course, this isn’t to say that all environments are safe to come out in. It’s important to discern when is the best time and place to come out with minimal risk. Coming out may seem stressful and terrifying right now, and there may very well be repercussions for doing so; but it’s a major step toward the emotional and mental wellbeing that comes with living life unapologetically, and few things are more rewarding than that.
This is my coming out story.
The sky was gray, and the biting wind cut through my clothes. I had just gotten the news that the Southampton retail store that I worked for had gone bankrupt. I’d be out of a job by the end of the week. I was devastated. I had become so close with my work-family that I couldn’t imagine working for a different company, with a different team. But there was one guy that I would miss more than anyone—let’s call him Ethan. He was the center of my world at the time, but he was just a phase. Just a phase. However, he would be the catalyst for me to face a piece of my identity that I had tried so hard to ignore.
Ethan was the total package: he was intelligent, a great listener, and he had arms the size of watermelons. We were the only stock guys at our little Hamptons store, so we usually had alternating shifts, which meant we didn’t see each other as often as I’d have liked. My heart would race whenever the two of us were scheduled to work together! I’d get to spend the entire day with him, listening to his pearls of wisdom and watching his biceps pop as he pumped bike tires.
One day, when he was feeling particularly playful, he chased me around the entire store, trying to take a selfie with me. I hated having my picture taken, but he didn’t seem to mind that minor detail. After several minutes of playing cat and mouse, he cornered me in the manager’s office and pinned me to the ground, his muscular body pressed up against mine. As he proceeded to take the selfie against my will, I was overcome with emotions. I was angry that he ignored my pleas to stop taking pictures. I was aroused by his mighty physique pressing into my back. And I felt guilty for letting myself feel any sort of attraction toward a man.
Up to that point, I had been a raging homophobe, and everyone knew it. I was very open about my close-minded opinions. I grew up with the impression that gay people were all Hell-bound perverts, but no parent or pastor ever taught me that expressly. It was something I picked up on from the way those role models talked about gay people; their tone would lower to a whisper, as if discussing some filthy secret, and their faces would show the slightest cringe. Obviously, I didn’t want to be associated with a group that my role models viewed so poorly, so I made sure to tell everyone that I was not a member of such a minority.
When I would tell people that I was a homophobe, I would argue that it was an actual phobia, a fear. It wasn’t that I hated gay guys; I was genuinely terrified of them turning me gay. I was afraid that they could draw out the feelings that I had been burying for so long. But now, looking back, I do think there was some hate mixed into the fear. The gay men who were out and living promiscuously created a negative stigma for the entire gay community, so they were making it harder for me to come to terms with the idea of identifying as a gay Christian.
After our selfie debacle, I tried to distance myself from him. I can fix this, I thought. It’s just a phase. I reminded myself of that every day for months. It was just a phase. Just a phase. Just a phase. Our shifts began to overlap less and less, so I was able to repress most of my feelings for him in time. However, the emotions came rushing back when I got word that our store was closing. Questions swarmed through my head: Would I ever see Ethan again? Would I ever get to tell him how I felt about him? Why do I still have such strong feelings for him? Could I truly be gay?
Tears began to well up in my eyes. I started breathing heavily. It can’t be true. It’s just a phase…but what if it’s not? Dark, ominous thoughts of ending my life began to creep inside my head. My life was over! I didn’t want to be gay. I couldn’t be! What kind of life is that? My parents would probably kick me out, and I’d have to live on the streets. Even if they didn’t, it’s not like my family would ever come to my wedding or acknowledge my love as equal to theirs. And what did any of it matter? I was destined for Hell, and for something that I didn’t choose to be!
I had to talk to someone before doing anything rash. I couldn’t risk my family’s judgment, so I called my best friend and asked him to meet me at Starbucks. He was the first person I came out to, although I was still struggling with accepting it myself. We talked for a few hours and he managed to bring me back down to reality. He reassured me that there was no reason to tell my family yet. I needed to embrace and explore my own feelings and identity first, and it was going to take some time before I gained the courage to tell them.
Interestingly enough, the next person I came out to was Ethan. I called him and expressed the feelings that I had felt so strongly for him. I needed to close that chapter, and I felt that confessing my feelings was the only way. He thanked me for being honest with him but told me that he was straight, which was fine since I was trying to move on. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that he was the first guy I fell hard for, but I’m glad he was there to force me to confront the feelings that I had been burying for so many years. He may have just been a phase, but my sexuality isn’t.
After that, I kept my newfound feelings to myself. Even though I was getting comfortable with my attraction to men, I could not fully accept my identity as a gay man. I still couldn’t utter the phrase, “I’m gay.” Despite everything, there was still a tiny voice in my head telling me that my feelings might just be a phase after all. Just a phase. Maybe I just hadn’t met the right girl yet. Then I transferred from community college to a private university where I met Professor Shea. She stood out from the other professors due to her skull scarf, short bobbed hair and anti-establishment attitude. I took an immediate liking to her, so I began staying after class to talk with her.
One day, she asked me point blank, “So, do you have a girlfriend? Or a boyfriend?” I was stunned! Me? Have a boyfriend!? I’m not gay! But she responded sweetly, “There’s no shame if you are.” No shame? That was the first time anyone had said that to me, and it was the epiphany I needed to finally begin accepting my identity. She continued to mentor me throughout the semester, giving me the courage to come out to my family and friends, one by one.
Each person was scarier to come out to than the last, but each time was met with grace and love. First was my brother; his only concern was that my first crush at the new college was for the bad boy with tattoos, gages and a permanent cigarette smell. “I’m fine with you being gay, but why him? Anyone but him!” he exclaimed.
My mom was next, although I didn’t really choose to tell her. I woke up crying one morning, and she came upstairs to comfort me. I was so choked up that I couldn’t form coherent sentences explaining the overwhelming stress of living in the closet, but she put her finger up and said sweetly, “I know.” She brought me downstairs to tell me dad, who received the news much less enthusiastically, “I’m not going to wish you a happy gay life. But you’re still my son, and I love you.” Considering that I thought that he might throw me out of the house, this was the sweetest response I could’ve imagined.
It was months before I told my sister; because my parents didn’t think she was old enough to hear it. She was 17. When I finally did tell her, her response was priceless, “Well, yeah. Wasn’t it obvious?” I continued to tell cousins and grandparents, and each one responded with the same level of acceptance and love. However, full acceptance didn’t come right away. Many family members needed time to adjust. For the first few months, my parents even tried to console themselves with the thought that my newfound gayness might just be a phase, but I knew better. And now, so do they.
I had built up so much fear and inner turmoil about coming out to my family, but love overcame any judgments they felt about the “gay lifestyle.” Thanks to them, I’m finally comfortable with my identity as a gay Christian, realizing that those identifiers aren’t mutually exclusive. My family really surprised me, and I feel infinitely closer to them, now that I can be my true, confident, semi-flamboyant self around them. I’m finally living life without shame.
If you don’t feel comfortable being your genuine self in your home or school, you might want to spend some time at The Hamptons LGBT Center in Sag Harbor (44 Union Street). This community center is a safe space for people of all genders and sexualities, and it’s a great place to relax, study or meet new people without fear of judgement or bullying. Call 631-899-4950 for drop-in hours, or visit lgbtnetwork.org for more information, such as other locations and services. And if you’re contemplating suicide, please call the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386 before making a decision you can’t take back, and remember that you are valued and loved.