February 2008

Just when you think you have it figured out…

I was sitting at Denny’s recently, trying not to listen to a group at a nearby table gossiping about some of their friends and the trials and tribulations they were going through, when I started thinking about two friends of mine. Each reacted to my coming out differently, and I had thought I knew how things would go when they found out. Boy, was I ever wrong.

Dennis and I met in Mrs. York’s Norcross’* 6th grade class, way back in 1968.  We have been ‘best friends’ ever since, with only a few years of not much contact when Dennis became a born again Christian at about age 18.  Since I had been sure that I was an atheist since about the time we met, I thought this would be the end of our friendship.  While we went several years with only sporadic contact, we eventually became close again.  Over the years, Dennis attended several religious colleges, and graduated from the Fuller Seminary in Pasadena.  My ‘best friend’ was a Southern Baptist minister!  I often tell people that I may be one of the only atheists around with his own minister!

Don and I met in high school.  We became fast friends pretty quickly, and ran around a lot during our school years.

After high school, Don went to Arkansas, and attended a Christian college in Searcy.  After he came back home, we picked up our friendship, and even worked together in a fast food place his father owned.  We were part of each other’s families, going on trips and get togethers, and pretty much thinking of each other as brothers.  Over the years, our friendship was steady, with each of us stopping by the other’s home unannounced, and not thinking anything of it.  Don got married, had a couple of kids, and generally did the domestic family thing.  I, of course, was firmly in denial, trying to convince myself I was straight, and just “relationship challenged”.

Fast forward to 1996.  I’m getting to the point where I can no longer fool myself that I’m straight.  While I hadn’t taken that first step and finally and firmly admitted it to myself, something was about to push me over that edge. I met a young man, and we became friends.  At one point, he asked if he could move in with me.  At that time, I told him I’d consider it, but it was going to be a last resort.  I wasn’t thinking of the move in as anything other than him needing a place to stay, but I was still reluctant to tell him yes.  A week or two later, he came over, and didn’t leave for almost two years.  The first night, he slept on the couch. The second night he climbed into bed with me.  That was the night I went over that edge.  No more excuses or illusions.  Jim’s gay.

Now, the house I lived in at the time was a rather small, two bedroom place.  My California King waterbed filled up one bedroom, and my (then our) computers and radios filled up the other.  Don came over quite regularly, and so of course he met the roommate before too much time had passed.  He also noticed that there was only one bed in the house.  After a few weeks, he got up the nerve to ask where my “roommate” slept.  I told him that he slept with me.  Well, things went downhill fast.  I was completely surprised by his reaction.  He didn’t want to have anything to do with me after that conversation.  I had really thought that he would be upset, but that he would get over it and we’d go on with a somewhat altered relationship. Instead, our friendship ended.  We’ve seen each other only a few times in the past 12 years (16 now), usually at a funeral.  His feelings on the matter are rooted firmly in his religious beliefs, and the Bible’s (apparent) condemnation of homosexuality.  It really confused me for a long time, how he could have a best friend who was an atheist, but he couldn’t have one who was gay.  You’d think not believing in his god would be worse, but apparently not.

The experience with Don made me extremely reluctant to come out to Dennis.  Fortunately, he lived in Southern California, so it wasn’t too hard to keep him in the dark.  My roommate was just a roommate, and there was no way for him to find out.  Then came the computer, and the internet.  I had been trying to talk Dennis into getting a computer for years, and he always resisted.  After my constant harping about being able to chat anytime for free, and all the other uses an internet capable computer would offer, he finally agreed, and got online.  I was still in my “Dennis closet”, since I wasn’t completely out, and none of my web pages had any indications that I was gay.  After years in Southern California, Dennis moved to this area, so we were able to hang out and spend more time together.  As I became more comfortable with the idea of being out, I was still not sure that I wanted to let Dennis in on this part of my life.  Don’s reaction had not been what I expected, it shook me, and I wasn’t ready to have that happen again with someone I had known for an even longer period of time.

I like playing with web pages.  My personal pages have gone through several versions, and currently have several links to gay sites.  I even have a link to an older site I had made years ago, that was set up to respond to some of the religious right’s rantings about gays.  The “GodlessGayGuy” has his own website, and I finally put a link to it on my personal page.  Although it occurred to me that some people might find this link, and be taken aback by it, I really didn’t worry too much about it.  I also thought that Dennis might stumble upon it, but I knew I’d have to tell him eventually, and it might be easier to have him find that page on his own, than have to tell him myself.  Well, he did find it a couple of years ago.  I got an IM from him one day, and we were chatting, pretty much mindlessly as is often the case when IM’ing, when he asked me what this “GodlessGayGuy” thing was.  I responded that he knew about the Godless part, but that the GayGuy part might be a surprise.  I was sweating bullets at this point, waiting to see what the reaction would be.  Low and behold, it was pretty much “oh, OK. That’s cool.”  And it’s not been an issue between us at all.

The friend I thought would be cool about the news freaked, and the one I thought would freak was cool.  You just never know how it will go.  In the long run, it’s better to be out than not.  It takes a lot of energy to keep that closet door closed, and you can’t really live your life while you’re in there.  Once you do come out, you will lose some relationships, and others will continue and become stronger.  It may surprise you who stays and who goes, but you’ll be the better for it.  The ones who go weren’t really a friend after all, and sometimes realizing that is a painful part of personal growth.  It gets better. (this was written before the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign)

Of course, everyone’s experience is different.  I didn’t come out, even to myself, until well into middle age.  I can support myself financially, and between California law and department policy, I can’t be fired for being gay.  There is little risk to my being out, at least as far as my being able to support myself is concerned. If someone doesn’t like me because I’m gay, as far as I’m concerned, it’s their loss, I’m not going to worry about it.

Although I endorse being out, you have to decide when that is possible for you, and act accordingly.  Don’t let me or anyone else rush you.  Just be ready for some surprises!

*Dennis corrected me.  I don’t know where I got the name York, but as soon as I saw his text message that the correct name was Norcross, I remembered.  Now I’ll have to figure out where “York” came from.