Coming out is a big subject, it’s important to just about all of us, it means many different things to different ones of us, and it’s changing all the time.
I had a friend in college—we never talked about our sexuality back in 1957—and at first we took the same path after graduation. He went to graduate school and I did, and then I got married to a woman and went into teaching in the midwest. I had children. He came out during graduate school, started a small business, and had a group of people he worked with who were gay or gay friendly and who knew he was gay. He made a success of his business and is still there now. I left teaching, divorced my wife, and came out. I started writing. Occasionally I exchange letters with my friend from college. We write about being gay and coming out and our lives now.
Now, even though we are the same age (75 years old) and both out, the quality of our being out is very different. I think that probably it has been hard for each one of us. Being gay was hard in our generation. But it’s been hard in different ways for the two of us. He was out far longer than I was, and I think it must have been hard for him being gay in the South. It may be that he had to develop protective measures in his business and in his social life. Today he is an admired, successful business person, working largely within the system. When I divorced my wife and came out, I began to become a rebel, very publicly violating closely held values in the community I lived in at the time. My birth family were deeply offended by my coming out, and for a long time I lost my place in that family. (I must say I managed—because all three of us wanted it—to maintain a close, loving relationship with my two children, which I still have.) It may be that once one becomes a rebel, it is difficult to stop being one. At least, I have not found a way to make that difficult transition. The only way I could come out was to get to a point where I no longer cared very much what other people of my generation thought about gay people. I’ve have been out for thirty years now, and I can’t imagine going back to a place where I cared very much what people think about me. I am not a part of the community of straight white people that I used to be a part of. I had to fight to get where I am, and some of that residual anger still hangs around me, like the odor of tobacco hangs around a person who has recently smoked a cigarette. It is my rebelliousness that fueled my drive to write my novels. My friend from college and I differ, at least in part, because of the way we came out, and when we did it, and where we did it, and, of course, why we did it.
None of us are given entire freedom to choose the moment or the conditions under which we come out. It is apparent that Matthew Shepard did not choose that moment—tied to a rail fence on the prairie above Laramie—to come out, and Jason Collins and Michael Sam were careful even while they were courageous. It is true for gay people, as for every other person in the world, that we have to play the hand we’re dealt. That’s what makes my coming out so very different from yours and is a major part of what makes me different from you.