Sunday was the LGBT Life Online panel held at the PFLAG (Parents, Family & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meeting here in Visalia.  The Tulare-Kings PFLAG invited this group to speak on blogging and online activities of the LGBT community in the central valley.  From left to right, Andrew, web manager for Tulare-Kings PFLAG‘s website and Facebook pages, Melissa of GayPorterville.com, Brooke of GayVisalia.com and GayCentralValley.com, Justin of My LGBT Plus, myself representing QueerLandia.com and the soon to be discontinued QueerVisalia.com, and Ted of My LGBT Plus sat on the panel.  Each gave an overview of the history and objectives of their respective organizations.  A question and answer period allowed the audience a chance to ask about the various groups and how they operate.

This is the first time I’ve been on such a panel, and it was not too long ago that you’d never have gotten me up in front of a crowd like this.  I was amazed that I was completely calm, and was looking forward to the event before hand, and enjoyed being before the group.  The past few years have seen quite the change in my personal growth, even if I do say so myself, in that I’m much more relaxed and confident.  That’s a big change for me, and I think much of it has to do with deciding to be an out gay man.

In years past, the burden of hiding something so basic to my personality was crippling.  It prevented me from relaxing, as I was always, even unconsciously, concerned about revealing in some manner that I was gay.  Being that closed down, and living in fear of being ‘outed’ by one means or another, left me in a state of constant anxiety.  I was afraid that if anyone found out, I would be ostracized from friends and family, and that I might even be physically assaulted.  There was another battle going on, inside my mind, as well.  Every example, that I saw, of what a gay man was, was a negative one.  Growing up, and well into my adulthood, I never saw a positive gay role model.  The only images I saw were negative, of hated and mentally deranged individuals, and since I knew I was not like that, I concluded I could not be gay.  The fear of being thought gay, and seeing only negative images of what it meant to be gay, I simply went into complete denial, trying to ignore the idea of sexuality altogether.

Growing up with this fear, and not even really being consciously aware of it, created a deep aversion to anything that might draw attention to myself.  For a long time, I did virtually nothing that would cause anyone to notice me.  When I did engage in activities that would set me apart from most of my peers, it would be something like my CB radio (and later HAM radio) hobby, or my interest in science fiction.  Those pastimes could be attributed to being a “nerd”, or “brainiac”, and the lack of a girlfriend could be easily explained by that social status.  “Nerds” might talk about girls, but they seldom actually had the opportunity to interact on a social level with them.  It was a great cover, and didn’t have to be thought about.  It just happened, and the rare conversation about the opposite sex could be slogged through by simply listening and agreeing with whatever the other guys were saying.  It allowed me to push the subject of my sexuality very far down, away from my conscious thought.  The one thing that was never gone, however, was the fear of others thinking I was gay.  That fear was always there, even though I didn’t think about it directly, most of the time.  That created the fearful and introverted JimmieJoe.  He’s only recently learned to live life a bit more openly.  It’s a process, it doesn’t happen all at once, and I’ve still got a long way to go.

I think a turning point occurred on July 17th of last year.  (Actually the process had been occurring for some time, I just realized it on that date)  I attended the birthday party of a friend (Ted, in the above picture), held at a local club.  The host wanted to do a bit of a roast, and asked me to participate.  I was nervous as the date approached, not sure what I would say, and really not sure I would be comfortable up on the stage, in front of a small but not insignificant crowd.

Here’s part of what I said that night (the first half didn’t get recorded).  Since roasts are difficult to pull off without sounding mean-spirited, I just made a couple of comments, then told the story of the first time I saw him.

While I was up there speaking, I realized I wasn’t all that nervous after all, and that I was enjoying myself!  As I stepped down, I really felt good about it.  Not that I thought my delivery was all that smooth, or clever, or well thought out, but that I had managed to pull it off without being dripping wet with nervous sweat, or have a serious cracking of my voice.  I even got a couple of laughs at the beginning of my “set”.  (I wish that part had been recorded, darn it!)

I think all of this is directly due to my coming out.  If I was still in the closet, I would not be able to stand up in front of a crowd (or as in this panel, sit in front of one) and speak about myself.  That would be drawing attention, and could not be tolerated.

Now, after years of being out, first to just a few, then to a few more, and then just completely out, I can relax.  I can blog here, on QueerLandia.com, write in the online forums of the Visalia Times Delta, or anywhere else, and not be worried about anyone finding out I’m gay.  Now, that’s a given, and I don’t particularly care if anyone knows.  That burden is gone, and I’m constantly amazed at how freeing it’s been to lose the fear.  I know I have a long way to go, and to the outside observer it might seem that I’m still a very shut-off, reserved, introverted person, but you should have seen me 25 or 30 years ago!

Who knows?  Ted might even get me out on the dance floor, someday!

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