Many of my posts begin with a quote. Here's one from Jonathan Franzen's latest novel Freedom:
"Her father was a small-town doctor, and among her siblings and aunts and uncles were university professors, a married pair of former vaudevillians, an amateur painter, two librarians, and several bachelors who probably were gay [p. 449]."
Reading this sentence got me thinking.
I remember when I was growing up in Dawson Creek, and my mother used to tell me about people from her family. Of all the things Mom talked about to me, these stories were the most fascinating. I didn't know any of the people she mentioned, all of them distant relatives of mine in one way or another (most of whom I'd never meet), but, for some reason, even when I was a little boy, the stories about the men who never got married fascinated me. Mom would say the other people in the family thought these men were different, odd, not quite right, because they never followed the traditional path--getting married, having children, etc. Even then, perhaps, I knew my fate would be to be considered odd, not quite right, just like them.
I imagine most of these men spent their whole lives hiding the fact they were gay (at least I assume some of them did). And when I read the line from Franzen's novel, my mind began to explore what being gay must have been like in the 1940s and 1950s. How many people from that era never revealed to anyone, family members or otherwise, they were gay? How many of them denied who they were because to be gay then was worse than anything you could be--worse, even, than being a criminal? Imagine that.
Back in the mid-1980s, still not a hospitable time to be openly gay, I hadn't revealed my sexual orientation to anyone--except for a woman I worked and became good friends with in 1981, when I went up north to work for five weeks. Later, when I returned home to Kelowna, Judy came to visit me, and, after we'd spent a night dancing at Tramps (the "in" nightclub there at the time) and having a great time, I revealed to her, while sitting in my car under my apartment building, the sun coming up early on that June morning, that I was gay. I thought I was safe: Judy liked me, I liked her, and I trusted her with this information. But most of all, I knew she'd return to Prince Rupert, and I couldn't be hurt by anyone there whom Judy might tell about my sexual orientation.
The relief I felt telling that one person was immense. But, of course, I hadn't even started the real work, and anguish, of coming out of the closet--that is, telling my family and friends. Revealing my truth to Judy provided only a hint of how good I'd feel to be totally free of the secret I'd kept hidden for so long.
I remember feeling so angry that I couldn't be my true self around other people. By the time I turned twenty-five, I'd already come to the realization nothing was wrong with me. I had no reason to feel badly about myself, just because I was gay. Sure, the kids at school who'd bullied me told me being gay was wrong, and once in a while, something came up in the media to remind me many people would consider me an abomination if they knew about me.
But I knew the truth. I knew I was still me. I knew I was a good person. And I knew I deserved better than feeling miserable about myself because of something I had no control over. So the contradiction between how I felt about myself--which was perhaps the most positive I'd ever been in my life (that's not saying much)--and what others would think of me if they knew I was gay...well, let's just say I couldn't reconcile them. It made no sense to me.
The second person I told was my closest high school buddy. But, unfortunately, I didn't do it in a calm and collected fashion. Rather, I was so upset I'd been lead to feel badly about myself for so long that I was full of rage. Honestly, I was ready to explode. My high school buddy showed up at my apartment door one night, after he'd tried to contact me on the Enterphone. I'd pretended I wasn't home. I didn't want to see him. I wanted to be left alone. Something had been brewing inside me, and I wasn't up for any company that night.
His showing up at my door, after another tenant in the building had allowed him entry, set me off in a big way. At first, my anger was directed at how inconsiderate he was. Didn't he know I didn't want to be bothered? How could he be so presumptuous to piggyback someone entering the front door and show up at my apartment? How could he be so insensitive? Didn't he know I had a lot on my mind? Didn't he know I was in turmoil, and he was about to get more than he'd bargained for?
Turns out maybe I wasn't angry with him after all. Maybe I was angry at the situation I found myself in--had found myself in my entire life. Here I was in my mid-twenties, hiding a secret for that long, knowing I was all right just the way I was, but also knowing society wouldn't accept me, because I was gay. What was I supposed to do with the rage I felt? How could I make peace with knowing in my heart I didn't deserve the scorn and ridicule of the world?
And so I came out to Rob that night, in a great, long, intense outpouring of emotions. I yelled and I ranted and I balled. I cried a lot. I don't remember everything I said. I know I had no choice but to say what I did. I know the contradictory feelings I'd had built up over time, and, sooner or later, they would come out, they had to, in some attempt to relieve the pressure. Oh, the pressure. The pressure to keep up the pretense of being like everyone else. The pressure to try to be acceptable. I felt blocked. I felt pent up. I felt like only a ghost of myself. I knew something had to give or something drastic would happen. I didn't know what that would be.
So, in light of all these memories from the past, I think about all the men and women who came of age in the decades before I was born, men and women who just like me now were gay then. And I can't imagine, feeling like I did just before I exploded and had to tell someone about the truth of who I was, not being able to do it. I can't imagine living my entire life without telling my loved ones about myself. I can't imagine the pressure continuing to build inside me, not for twenty-five years but for an entire lifetime, forced to keep my truth locked inside me. How is it possible all these people kept this most personal secret so deeply hidden without going insane? Perhaps some of them did, and I just don't know about it.
I can't imagine....