Updated: Nov 21, 2018
Yesterday was National Coming Out Day. I was having a conversation with a friend about how, as queer people, we're never really done coming out. We come out to parents, friends, relatives, co-workers, etc, and, in my case, I recently came out to myself all over again. What follows is a piece I wrote for You're Being Ridiculous (who you should totally check out and submit some writing if you're in the Chicago area) and their reading series that coincided with Pride Month. It was extremely validating to write this, so I hope you enjoy.
My story is about that voice we all have. The one that constantly says “Don’t be yourself. I don’t know who you should be, just don’t be you.” For me, it comes in shouting whenever I feel anxious or depressed or both. The thing is, now, I know it’s bullshit. For a long time, though, I agreed with it; that voice ran the show for a large part of my life.
But in my childhood, it didn’t exist. Because I had no concept of what was “normal” and what was different. As a blissfully unaware kid, I idolized female characters in books, movies, and TV shows. I didn’t know what it was about She-Ra and Jem & the Holograms but I always found them more compelling than their male counterparts. I was constantly drawn to the fantastical, Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz, fairy tales and mythology. This is all to say I was a really incredibly queer kid.
I would also wear feminine clothes whenever I could. I’d do it at home sometimes, but my favorite place to dress up was at my grandparents’ house.
My mom’s parents were wealthy, avid travelers, so whenever they’d go on vacation, my dad and I would house sit. My grandmother had a fabulous wardrobe, and I loved running around their house in her luxurious garments. But like all good times, my days of dress-up couldn’t last. Grandma found out about my shenanigans and locked all of her gorgeous clothes away.
It was around that time I realized there might be occasions when it was better to hide that part of myself. Playing dress up at home and at my grandparents’ place was one thing. But never in public, and definitely not at school. If it wasn’t cool to be a boy and be a fan of girl characters, then it certainly wasn’t cool to run around in girly clothes. I was already getting teased for having longer hair and sitting with my legs crossed.
So I knew I was different, I just didn’t know how. When I learned that gay people existed, I figured that’s what I was. I took that identity because it was all I knew, even though it never seemed entirely honest. And I did the only thing I could: I started listening to the voice.
I got through elementary and middle school as well as I could. It helped that I became friends with the another gay kid in my grade. And since we were stuck in a small, rural town outside of Erie, PA, I needed him as much as he needed me.
High school was better. I gravitated to the punks and the nerds, and we created a makeshift weirdo support system. Dyeing my hair and embracing my teenage angst were concrete ways of pushing the limits of acceptability, but I could only go so far. Attending a conservative school in a conservative town was not a place to be conspicuous.
After high school and throughout my twenties—and half of my thirties—the voice all but took over. It told me it would be safer let others influence me. Most specifically, my circle of friends and my then partner. For years I followed everyone’s lead.
My best friend from high school got into the drag scene, and to this day does shows at the sole gay bar in Erie. This wasn’t surprising—he was such a diva—and while it should have been a moment for us to bond, I felt like I couldn’t express any of my queer feelings to him. In my mind, it would have taken away from his spotlight. He was a drag queen with a larger than life personality. How could I possibly compare? There was only room for one flamboyant, fashionable gay in our friend group. And it wasn’t me.
On a physical level, I was the most visible I had ever been, working at the Borders Bookstore in Erie. But mentally, I was hidden. I suppressed my queerness and didn’t say or do the things I wanted. I’d wear cool clothes, but nothing too flamboyant. Grow some stubble, but shave it when it gets too long. Be kinda gay, but don’t you dare overshadow your best friend. And all of this was my normal. I didn’t realize anything was wrong. It was just how I thought things should be. I didn’t recognize that the voice had consumed me.
But every once in a while, my real self would show through. I realized my friends had become overly critical of other queer people. Which is surprising because we weren’t the standard idea of gay men. We were all outsiders, but it didn’t translate into being accepting of others.
Here’s an example, I love bears. The heart wants what it wants, and my heart wanted beards, bellies and body hair. I was excited by this newfound attraction as much as I was terrified to let anyone know. Because of the few times the subject of bears would come up, it would always be followed by catty judgements from my friends. And to make matters worse, every summer in Erie is a weekend called "Drenched Fur." It’s a bear convention at an indoor water park. And I wanted to go so bad. I’d float the idea to my friends as an ironic event. “Wouldn’t it be, you know, funny to go and laugh at all of the big, hairy, wet, gay guys? Hilarious.” Never did get to go.
After working too many years at Borders, I went to college just outside of Erie. There, the voice was quieter. I made new friends, got involved with the campus LGBTQ group, and I dabbled in calling myself queer, but it was complicated to explain to people. It felt like a phase, something I couldn’t maintain. The voice convinced me that the identity I knew was true wasn’t real.
It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago years later that my authentic self started to emerge. I went to grad school at the School of the Art Institute, and for the first time in a long time I was away from Erie and my old life. I couldn’t help but feel inspired by all the undergrads being themselves and living their best lives. It fueled my desire to wear fantastic clothes, dye my hair, paint my nails, and express myself however the hell I wanted. I was free from my small hometown life, maybe it was time I started acting like it. And that’s when the voice took a backseat.
Even in writing this, even as I’m speaking right now, I feel that goddamn voice looming. It says I shouldn’t tell my story. That even though I now have a wonderful, supportive goofball of a husband, and an accepting and beautiful circle of friends, I don’t deserve to feel happy. Even though I’ve finished my first novel and am hard at work on a second, and I’m making art again after far too long, I should doubt myself. The voice is voracious in wanting me to stop. But you know what? It’s not in control anymore.
Sure, I still suffer from anxiety and depression, and as long as I do that other voice will exist. Some days it might even take over. The difference is that I know myself now, I remember that incredibly queer kid, running around in high heels and pretending to go on adventures like Alice and kicking ass like She-Ra. I think about how much it sucked that I had to wait so long to find him again.
But now that he’s back, he’s not going anywhere. We have a lot of catching up to do.
Hope you enjoyed delving into my weird weird mind!