I recently received an email from the child of a parent who came out when this child was fourteen years old. In preparation for writing an essay about the experience, the child asked me a series of questions. My answer follows each question below.
- What was the aha moment that you had when you finally decided to come out to your family? To yourself?
Although the process of accepting my sexual orientation took place over many years, as I wrote in Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, “I just suddenly went gay.”
The moment I said to myself “I have to be gay” happened with a kiss. Prior to that, I thought I was just curious about same-sex relationships, and I wondered what it would be like to experience one, but I never thought or fantasied about kissing. It was as if whatever happened below the waist was just sex; what happened with my face and lips was emotional intimacy. With that kiss—and the feelings it stirred up inside—I no longer could deny the reality of my sexuality.
In interview after interview with other men, I have frequently heard, “Kissing is far more intimate than sex.” Many men who have sex with men will say “No kissing.” That is simply a bridge too far. For me, kissing seemed to be the final betrayal of my relationship with my wife.
- How did your family handle your coming out? Do you remember the conversation that you had? If so, how did it go?
I have been very fortunate. After having been divorced now for over thirty years, my wife (I don’t like calling her my “ex”) and I continue to have a good relationship, and she has a great relationship with my husband. We frequently have family events together. But it took some work.
I think forgiveness comes through empathy. When she came to understand the struggle and pain I had been having inside, and when I accepted responsibility for the pain I had caused her, we then were able to move forward. Blaming each other for the fracture in our relationship would have led to being stuck there. I have seen many couples where the betrayed spouse clings to the bitterness as a way of holding on. Several books have been written by spouses who wallow in their bitterness, sometimes for years after the secret was exposed.
The conversation itself was difficult, with lots of tears for both of us. We both grew up with a commitment to an enduring, long-term, heterosexual marriage, and no matter how we justified our split, it still felt like a failure in one of life’s fundamental domains. When I began to accept that I didn’t choose to be gay, I also began to realize that I didn’t choose to put my family through the pain they were experiencing.
Life is full of predicaments, when we are faced with a situation where both the risks and the outcomes are unknown and the only choices available seem like bad ones. We must then face making decisions based upon the “least worst” of the options available. For me, ending my marriage was the least worst because I knew that I could not put those same-sex attractions away again, and try as I might, one way or another those feelings were going to find expression. This recognition punctured the barrier in my brain that had protected me from believing I was gay.
- If you could give advice to children of parents who have just come out, what would you tell them?
I would say to them, “Your parent is the same person he or she always was; you just know more about him or her than you did before. And nothing has changed about the way your parent loves you.”
- If you could go back and change one thing about the whole process and time in your life, what would you do differently?
I try to live life without regret. I believe that we all make the best decisions we are capable of at the time we make them. If later information makes those decisions appear to be a mistake, so be it. But I don’t think we can be held accountable for decisions made without enough information. I am not a perfect man. I have made and will continue to make mistakes. All I can do is be the best I can be in this moment in time.
- Was writing your book therapeutic for you? Did you learn something new about yourself while writing the book?
I learned a lot in writing Finally Out. One of the questions I had was “How could I not know that I was gay until I was forty?” As I went back and studied the course of my life growing up in the culture of rural Nebraska in the 1950s, the answer to that question became more and more obvious. Opposition to homosexuality is the product of religion, culture, and geography.
I am seventy-four now and I was born during a time when Nazis were doing experiments on gay men. I grew up in a small town in Nebraska where everyone looked alike, thought alike, and believed alike—or so it seemed at the time. I lived through the McCarthy era, when our own government was trying to purge communists and homosexuals from its ranks, and continues to be in the air now, with the emphasis on what is called “religious freedom.” I studied psychiatry, which at the time called homosexuality a “pathologic deviancy,” and I didn’t feel pathological or deviant. I did not know anyone living as openly gay until I was thirty-two.
Putting my life in its developmental context helped me understand that I had incorporated all the negative social stereotypes of what it means to be gay, and none of my early life experiences challenged those stereotypes. Those stereotypes were shattered when I joined a support group for gay fathers. What I saw was a diverse group of men whom I liked. I felt accepted without judgment. I now had a tremendous sense of freedom—a freedom I’d never felt before.
All those fears I felt about what it meant to be gay disappeared almost immediately, and I found a sense of peace that I had never known. I could stop censoring my thoughts, speech, and behavior and just be the person I always knew I was but never thought would be accepted by others.