This was a difficult piece to write. I did not enjoy visiting this dark place, one I had to admit I have. If you too are gay, perhaps you can relate to my words.
On one of the first episodes of the new daytime talk show "Anderson," the host, Anderson Cooper, interviewed his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt. During the course of the episode, viewers learned that, at just ten years old, Vanderbilt was the pawn in an ugly and highly-publicized custody battle between her mother and her aunt; her husband, Wyatt Cooper, died on the operating table during open heart surgery in 1978, at the age of just 50; and, ten years later, she watched as her son, Carter, jumped to his death from their fourteenth-floor New York City apartment, while she did everything to stop him.
I don't presume to suggest I've lived a life filled with the number and severity of tragedies and losses that Vanderbilt has in her eighty-seven years. And yet, you might want to ask my parents if they didn't feel a sense of loss when I came out to them; if they didn't consider it tragic when the illusion of who they hoped I was, was replaced by a stranger in some respects--someone they'd have to come to terms with and learn to love again, someone who would force them to relinquish the dream of their little boy growing up to have a normal courtship and marriage, resulting in grandchildren.
And, if you could, you might want to ask that twenty-year-old young man I once was, who, in ways he wouldn't fully understand until decades later, lost his childhood and teenage years to the fear of being something he knew he could not be; who, when he should have been playing with other children his own age, was rejected by them, making him feel isolated and alone; and whose grade school experience was a living hell, defined by unrelenting verbal and physical abuse, for no other reason than he was who and what he was, which happened to be different from everyone else.
None of us sail through life free from tragedy and loss, darkness and adversity, and all of us are affected by it in one way or another. The choice is always ours as to how we let it affect us. During the opening introduction of the episode on Vanderbilt, Cooper remarked that, despite what his mother had gone through, not only had she survived and thrived, but also she had avoided becoming hardened and tough. Instead of growing a thick skin, Vanderbilt has always remained open to people and open-hearted. While watching the program, I had to ask myself the question, could I say the same about me?
And the answer was, no, I can't. As much as it shames me to admit it, the biggest challenge I have is with people. Those who know me might be surprised to learn that. When I first meet people, I seem open and accepting enough of them. Because I know firsthand how it feels to be shunned and rejected, I go out of my way to be pleasant and personable. I'm so certain they're able to tell I'm gay that I try to disarm them, to win them over, prove with a smile, a firm handshake, or a few appropriate pleasantries that, despite what they might suspect about me, I'm still all right. I'm still worth knowing.
Foremost in my mind, of course, is always the question, what if they didn't just suspect but knew for sure I'm gay? How would they react? I look for the little signs in their demeanors and mannerisms--the hand they hesitate extending to me; the embarrassed, uncomfortable flush that crosses their faces; the stepping away from me as though I could infect them. In the event a mutual acquaintance introduces us, I wonder if he or she has said something in advance, as though my sexual orientation is the only noteworthy thing about me, as though they need to be prepared so as not to let on they know.
How much of this is paranoia on my part, and how much is out-and-out reality, I don't know for sure. But what I do know is it's my reality as a gay man, and it's colored every interaction I have with people. How can it not? It's all I've known since I was a child. My guard is always up. I'm always on the defensive. I'm always watchful and suspicious and untrusting. On the surface, I appear like everyone else--willing to embrace people, to give them a chance, even to invest in friendship. But in the back of my mind are the questions, why are you being nice to me? And, what do you want?
A process goes on inside my head. The questions run as though on a continuous reel: Would you have anything to do with me if you knew I'm gay? Are you civil to me only because you think that's what's socially expected of you? Are you going to try to get from me whatever you want, then reject me as was likely your first impulse? Do you just tolerate being around me for the good of someone else, to keep the peace, to give the illusion of being open-minded and accepting? Or do you wish you could be as far away from me as possible; wish I, and those like me, would just go away?
And even when I think I have a genuine friendship going--the other person showing me in one way or another that he or she accepts me and has no problem with my sexual orientation--I still wait for cracks to appear. I know they're there; it's a question of how close they are to the surface, the degree to which they're uncomfortable being around someone who's gay. I wonder, do they talk about me behind my back? If they do, surely, it can't be anything good. After all, I'm gay, and everyone knows gay is wrong and immoral, so why should I expect anything different. The sad fact is, I don't.
Every time we get together, they have another chance to screw up, to prove what they really think of me as a gay man. Many people say they don't have a problem with gay people, but I'm not so sure. As long as you don't get into anything too deep with them, they may not have a problem, but take the conversation to the level of those between heterosexuals and watch them squirm. Few, for example, want to know about the difficulties inherent in finding a suitable partner. Few want to hear about dating problems. And, believe me, no one wants to hear about intimate issues, physical or otherwise.
Yes, I'm an adult now, still falling back on old patterns of behavior I learned when I was in school--treating people I meet as though they're the children who bullied me, who destroyed my innocence, crushed my spirit, and forced me to be fearful of everything. But where did the children I went to school with get the idea that being gay is bad, evil, and unacceptable? From their parents, of course, from adults. Kids don't come to this realization on their own--adults lead them there, usually through teaching them religious dogma, hatred, and intolerance.
I wonder if some, many, or most other gay and lesbian people have the same challenges I do being around straight people. If they, too, would have to admit they don't have open hearts. That they've been hurt too often, at the hands of too many, for too long, to remain vulnerable and gracious and beneficent. If they've been burned so many times that they had no choice but to learn the hard lessons of what people can really be like. And, as a result, they've shut themselves off, building a wall around them and trying, usually in vain, to reduce the possibility of being hurt again.