Before It Got Better

One of the reasons I love getting comments is that it helps me learn who my readers are, which helps me figure out what kinds of posts people might appreciate.  A few of the comments I got on my 5 People You Meet as a Gay Dad post were from younger gay men, maybe a couple even too young to be called “men” yet.  A few said they hoped to have kids someday and one teenager, who’s still in the closet, asked “how I came to be like this”.  If you mean “gay”, then I think I was born that way.  If you mean “a gay dad”, then the answer is much more complicated.  One of the reasons I’m writing a memoir is to detail how I went from a scared gay kid to a happy, fulfilled gay man who thinks all the struggle was worth it.

Here’s a piece I wrote before my kids were born.  I performed it at a reading series here in Los Angeles called Spark.  The theme of the evening was “Surprise”.  And yes, it’s all true.  I’ve never published this anywhere before now, but hopefully, for anyone curious, it gives some insight into how I came to be like this.

“I’m gay.” Two words I didn’t hear much growing up in the 80s.  “You’re gay.”  That, I heard a lot.  That was easy to say.  Everybody said it.  Because you didn’t have to mean it.  You didn’t have to think about what the word “gay” really meant, only that it was bad.  If you said “I’m gay,” you’d better mean it, because then, suddenly, everyone would be thinking about what “gay” really meant.

Being a gay teenager in the 80s meant being terrified, pretty much all the time.  Terrified of not being able to throw a football, of not producing ample quantities of drool over Samantha Fox or Kelly LeBroc, of not laughing hard enough when some kid got called a “faggot” – or worse, of being that kid.

I wanted an adolescence like the horny teenagers in “Porky’s” had, where all that mattered was getting laid.  Getting laid wasn’t even on my five-year plan.  I just wanted to feel human.

My best friend Greg wasn’t helping.  My other friends liked Greg because his dad gave him a Playboy, and when we went over to his house, he let them look at it.  I just wanted to get back to watching MTV’s world premiere of Janet Jackson’s “Pleasure Principle” video, an underrated gem.  I was terrified my friends would suspect something was wrong with me, and sometimes, I had hints that they did.

This being New Jersey, we were all in a bowling league together.  I assigned myself the job of leading a team cheer every week.  “2, 4, 6, 8 who do we appreciate?  You, you!  You’re team number 2!”  One week, this twelve-year-old twit from a rival team came up and asked, “So, are you guys gay or something?”  My friend Dave shook his head, then pointed to me and said, “No, just he is.”  I knew this was his idea of a joke and that he didn’t actually think I was gay, but still, a voice in my head warned, “He’s onto you!  Retreat!  Retreat!”  I eventually stopped the cheers.

One time, Greg and I were hanging out, playing “The Legend of Zelda”.  We’d just uncovered the entrance to the ninth dungeon at Spectacle Rock, when out of the blue, Greg said the most hurtful words anyone had ever said to me.  “I could never be friends with someone who was gay.”  I wasn’t sure what exactly about our quest to save Hyrule had provoked this, but clearly it had been on his mind.  So there it was: my greatest fear emphatically confirmed, underlined and bolded. If I ever told Greg I was gay, there’d be no more friendship.  I’d be sitting alone in the cafeteria, with no one to discuss ALF with and forced to save Hyrule on my own.

Of course, that was 17 years ago.  A lot had changed since then.  I knew Greg must’ve met some gay people in college, that he was probably on good terms with Ned from Accounting.  I was sure he’d seen “Ellen” and “Will & Grace” and Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance in “Philadelphia”.  One thing that hadn’t changed in all that time was that Greg and I were still close.  I saw him every time I went back east, and we talked on the phone every few weeks.  But still, my love life was something we never discussed.  If Greg knew I was gay, and he was cool with it, he would’ve brought it up by now… wouldn’t he??

I couldn’t believe I was about to move in with my boyfriend, Drew, happier than I’d ever been, and I was still afraid of being rejected by somebody I considered my best friend.  I realized I hadn’t come as far as I’d thought, that on some level, I was still that scared teenager, full of shame.  And there was only one way to change that.

I mustered whatever courage I had, and I dialed Greg’s number.

Coming out of the closet is one thing at which practice never makes perfect.  Though I’d done it dozens of times by this point, I still made all the rookie mistakes.  Being nervous, assuming the reaction would be bad, and the worst, starting with the words, “I’m sorry…”.  In this case, it was, “I’m sorry to do this over the phone,” which, although true, was far too dramatic a setup.  As was what followed: “Greg, I have something very important to talk to you about, something I’ve needed to say for 17 years.” Then, I stopped.  How the hell do you go from there to “I’m gay!”?

Greg knew something was up.  He was totally silent. Too silent.  Too long.  Finally, I just said it.  “So… I’m gay!”  Still nothing. Absolutely nothing. I couldn’t bear the quiet, so I kept talking.  “It’s been a really long process, and I hope you’re not hurt that it took me so long to tell you, but that’s more a reflection on me than on you and, hey, have you seen Philadelphia?”

“It’s okay. You can stop,” he said.  He took a long pause. “It’s fine. I’m cool with it. I’ve… I’ve kind of been going through the same thing.”

WHAT?!?!?

“I’ve been… you know, questioning.”

Oh my God. He couldn’t even say it. Here I was apologizing for being so slow in coming out, and it turned out he was even further behind in the process. He hadn’t even accepted himself yet. His voice was shaking.  He was petrified.

It became clear that Greg had been questioning his sexuality for years – and that his question had pretty much been answered. But he hadn’t told anyone. Anyone.

I tried to be supportive, I tried to say all the right things. I told him about Drew, and about how happy I was, hoping he’d see a light at the end of the tunnel.

I reminded myself that when he answered his phone a few minutes earlier, he had no idea that his lifetime of hiding was about to end. We talked for half an hour, and it was easily the most open talk we’ve ever had, and then we said goodbye. I didn’t want to overwhelm him, and besides, I was still a little overwhelmed myself.

I had certainly considered the possibility that Greg might be gay. If there was one person I’d ever known who was even more secretive about his love life than I was, it was him. His dad’s Playboy aside, girls and sex were subjects the two of us never discussed, and I think that’s part of why we became such good friends, though I guess I always assumed he was doing me a favor.

But somewhere along the way, I dismissed my suspicions. I mean, come on, the guy was in his 30s now. He had to be straight. The only other possibility was that he was gay and even more in the closet than I was. What were the odds of that?

I thought back to what he’d said that day at Spectacle Rock. “I could never be friends with someone who was gay.” And then I remembered what he said next: “Could you?” Suddenly, I realized that his statement hadn’t been motivated by hatred, but by fear. It was a possibility I didn’t even consider at the time. Back then, I was crushed. And I had to respond. But how? I was caught off-guard. I was afraid. All I could say was, “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know.”

And what followed was seventeen years of “I don’t know”. It seems absurd now.  All that time we were both struggling in private, we could’ve been there for each other, had someone to talk to, someone to share with, someone to make us feel human.

Growing up gay was hell, and there’s nobody I would rather have gone through that with than him. If only we’d known. If only we hadn’t been so afraid.

In the weeks that followed, Greg and I talked a lot.  I felt like we got to know each other for the first time.  Not only was I seeing a new Greg, but Greg was becoming a new man, day by day.  Within a week, he’d come out to his whole family.  A few days later, it was his 31st birthday, and he gave himself the best present he could think of.  He took a dozen of his closest friends out to dinner, and he made a big announcement to the whole table.  In an instant, his hiding was over.

Greg didn’t have any bad experiences coming out.  No rejection, no hostility, no drama.  Just like with me, the fear was so much worse than the reality.

And during his whole coming out marathon, he had to make one really hard call, to his best friend from college.  When Greg shared his news, his friend got quiet at first, and Greg started to panic.

Then the friend cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and said, “It’s okay.  I’m cool with it.  Actually, I’ve kind of been going through the same thing.”

Me (l) and Greg (r) at the Simpsons ride, 2008