The Gift of Being Out
I always fear bad consequences when I come out to other people. How will they react, will there be more pain than gain for them, for me? Coming out may be easier for some in 2012 than it was fifty years, twenty years, a dozen years ago, but for most it’s still tough. I’m thinking of all the gay people who found coming out to be fatal, all the teen suicides, all the societies that treat their gay citizens as outcasts.
One recent Sunday, my sweetheart’s aunt and uncle were passing through town and took us to lunch. This same couple had also traveled some distance to attend our wedding. In the course of lunch the subject of marches on Washington came up. My sweetheart’s aunt mentioned having been at Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I’ve only known one other person in my whole life who’d attended that world-changing event. If I hadn’t already known, I would have realized at that moment that I married into exactly the right family for me.
The conversation continued along those lines and I mentioned having last marched on Washington in 1993. My new aunt asked if that was when the Quilt was there. She was referring, of course, to The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which has been at the National Mall many times and was there, in part, during The 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. Were we at the same quilt exhibit? It doesn’t matter at all. The fact that we were comparing notes on the subject was a gift of being openly gay.
Since I officially came out to my brother’s family, my sister-in-law has spared me the angst that still goes with sharing who I am. She’s eased my way through the world in an altogether unexpected role, sort of a guardian angel opening paths through family that were previously blocked by brambles of fear. In the past few years she got in touch with one of my birth family’s first cousins, who happens to live in Florida, where I reside at the moment. My sister-in-law tested the waters for me so that when I actually got together with my cousin there was no awkwardness and we could just enjoy each other—and our respective spouses. Her spouse happened to be male. What a sense of freedom came with the privilege of being nothing other than queer old me.
Most recently, my sister-in-law and my brother got together with another first cousin. This cousin and his wife are staunch Catholics, yet my sister-in-law came out to them for me. They have no problem with my gayness. I always loved this cousin—love all of them as a matter of fact—and being out to him gives me a sense of wholeness I never experienced before. Acceptance is nourishing. Rejection is a kind of starvation.
My youngest cousin never batted an eye. She made a point, each time we got together over many years, to let me know she knew. This quasi-communication we had was a way to connect with each other in the presence of my unenlightened mother. My young cousin simply told me that a childhood friend, who I knew when they were both little kids, lives with another woman and their children. The first time she told me, I wasn’t certain she was saying she knew and accepted that I am gay. By the third time, I was convinced and consequently invited her to our wedding. How astonishing: these cousins that I’d grown up with, and hidden from all my adult life, now knew I’d married another woman—and the world didn’t end!
On our most recent visit to New England to see my side of the family, both my brother and sister-in-law said they wished our visit could have been longer. As we ate at the local breakfast hangout that last morning, our sister-in-law introduced us to her whole middle-aged aerobics group, with the apparent delight of someone bringing friends and family together.
At our memorable Sunday lunch, my sweetheart’s uncle also had a story about the 1993 March on Washington. He worked for a federal agency at the time and, as it happened, a gentleman in his field arrived from Cape Town, S.A., for a meeting just as a million or more queers marched through the city. The visitor later told my uncle-in-law that he saw all these high-spirited gay people and he simply joined the march. “This,” he declared to my new uncle, “is democracy!”
That story never fails to make me smile. It was a story I would never have heard, a gift I would never have received, if my sweetheart wasn’t out to her family and if we marchers hadn’t left our closets and come out to the whole world.