Here's a cautionary tale for a Friday in early spring.
On the elimination episode of "Dancing with the Stars" this week, I saw ten young dancers, each in his or her teens, each purported to be the future of professional ballroom dance. I couldn't disagree. These five young men and five young ladies were spot on in their movement, as well as confident and aggressive. I was impressed with their skill and their poise, and it was a pleasure to watch them. If they are the up and coming face of ballroom dance, as far as I'm concerned, the industry is in great shape.
As I sat there admiring their talent and their beauty, something occurred to me. Perhaps I could have been a great ballroom dancer, too. I certainly like dancing. I've always liked to dance. While I've never taken formal dance lessons, how do I know I wouldn't have been as talented as any one of this young group? Maybe thirty or forty years ago, I would have been considered the future of dance as well. Who knows?
Then I began to think about the choices, or the lack of them, that were open to me when I was a teenager, in terms of activities I could involve myself in or potential careers I could pursue. It wasn't only dance that interested me. I was attracted to any number of fields, including the travel industry, hair styling, and interior decoration. The performance arts appealed to me, too, such as figure skating, acting, and singing.
Here's what happened. I had been teased so badly for so many years about being gay--when I didn't yet know I was gay--that I eschewed any of these interests or potential career paths. I remember thinking seriously about becoming a travel agent, a hair stylist, or an interior decorator, even looking into the schooling that would be involved, and envisioning myself in any one of them. But, in my heart, I knew none of them was meant to be. Not for me, anyway.
Back in the 1970s, it was women who pursued these areas, or gay men, and, as a result, I knew there was no way I could show any outward interest in them, let alone actively pursue one as a field of work. What would people think of me if I did? What would my family think of me, my father, who had always been so hard on me? What would I think of myself?
If I showed a serious interest in any of them, perhaps I really was gay after all, like so many of my classmates had thought I was. And, because I was so sure I wasn't gay, or, above all else, didn't want to be gay--couldn't accept that possibility--I turned my back on choices that might have been open to me, that might have been so much better than the ones I made.
Who knows how talented I might have been in any one of them? Perhaps I could have been a world-renowned designer, or an Olympian figure skater, or, yes, an award winning ballroom dancer. So many gay men, who had the courage to pursue their interests and their talents and their passions, are famous today for what they've brought to our world in terms of making it more beautiful and a better place to live. I might have counted myself among them, too.
Who knows where I would be right now, how different my life might have been, how much more of a contribution I could have made if I hadn't concerned myself with what people thought of me. And all because being gay then was so stigmatized, and I considered it so important to prove to everyone, especially to myself, that I wasn't gay, I wasn't what they thought I was.
I'd show them. I'd show myself. I'd be the straight, masculine male they didn't think I was. No matter where my talents and passions lay, I'd turn my back on them, and I'd pursue a career a man could be proud of (although I had no idea, at the time, what that would be, or whether I could really follow through with it).
Ironically, I ended up in the banking industry. There may be a lot of men in banking now, but, back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, bank branches were filled with women employees. Almost all the men in banks were managers. You rarely saw a male teller or ledger keeper, discount clerk or administration officer.
So I'd eschewed female dominated careers for years, because I was so convinced they were tied to sexual orientation. Yet I found myself in one. I was a teller for nearly seven years and never, ever wanted to have anything to do with numbers. I hated math in school, scarcely passed it, didn't understand the supposed logic of it, because my mind didn't work in that way.
Instead, I wanted to be in the arts. More than anything else, I wanted to create something. I wanted to make people more beautiful, make homes more beautiful, make the world more beautiful, because I'm an escapist at heart, and any time I can avoid reality and immerse myself in some kind of fantasy world, comprised of softness and comfort and beauty, that's where I want to be.
I have so much admiration for any young gay man who has the courage and the temerity to follow his heart, and to be what he wants to be, despite what people think of him. Clearly, not being gay for me was more important back in the day than being who I was meant to be. And I have enormous regrets that I failed to pursue any one of my passions that I might have been so good at, that I may have been so much happier doing.
If you are young, and male, and possibly gay, heed my words. Always, always be true to yourself. Do not turn your back on who you are and what you are most passionate about, because you're worried what people will think of you. So what if you're gay? It turns out I've been gay for the past fifty years, and I've been out for nearly half of them. And, you know what? The world hasn't come to a crashing halt because of it. I've gotten this far, and you will too, despite what people think of you (which doesn't mean anything anyway).
Don't do like I did and regret for the rest of your life choices you made because, above all else, you didn't want people to know you were gay. It's not worth it, believe me. It's just not worth it.
I pray we've come far enough over the past forty years that men can be whatever they want to be. That choices are no longer made on the basis of denying who you are. And that each and every human being can use his or her God-given talents to the best of their ability, regardless of what other people think of them.