Twenty-two years ago I was born again into a life where no one could hurt me. A place where words like faggot and homo and fudge packer no longer held the weight they once had because I was no longer ashamed. I no longer hid behind the “No I’m nots” and “Shut ups.” I did not choose this new life; in fact, it had always been my life. The choice was living it authentically.
Spreading my wings, I had to learn to fly. I stumbled, I crashed, but I eventually found my balance and lift. In doing so I left some behind, but I gained others who have never stopped flying beside me.
My gayness has come with many privileges. That sounds funny, doesn’t it? Especially at a time when the Supreme Court of the United States is considering whether or not our right to live openly in the workplace is allowable. But being free from hiding, once out, can never be taken away. That is a privilege.
Most of my privilege comes not because of my gayness but because of my life as an academic, a writer, a public speaker. I’ve been given platforms and status because of these things. I’ve been invited into spaces typically not reserved for people like me. And I never forget it and I use it as my fight. That’s why I will always say “My husband” and “My family” when having small talk over wine and cheese at some reception for something or another. I will always tell my story through these little subtleties because I never know who may be listening, who’s narrative needs disrupted on what marriage is, or who needs to see someone like them.
But not every person who identifies as LGBTQ+ has these privileges. In fact, I’m one of the lucky few. It’s well documented that over 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ+ because their families could not accept who they were; trans women, and particularly trans women of color, are being beaten and killed; and LGBTQ+ teens who come from families who reject them are eight times more likely to attempt suicide than their LGBTQ+ peers who come from accepting families.
Being open and out is not always safe. It doesn’t always come with privilege. Coming out is a decision that each person has to make in their own way.
Last fall I gave a talk at a college in Connecticut where I shared my coming out story on stage in front of hundreds of students. After the talk, everyone had cleared the auditorium except for one student who waited to tell me he had something to say. He stood there, nervous, his eyes searching. I knew exactly what he wanted to tell me.
I put my hand on his shoulder and told him it was okay. A tear fell from his eye and rolled down his cheek. He bit his lip. “I’m gay but I can’t tell anyone because my parents will disown me.”
“You have to love you,” I said.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “In my home country I will be sent to prison for fourteen years or put to death.”
I didn’t know what to say. We stood there, a moment of awkward silence between us, and then as I started to speak he beat me to it. “I needed your story today to remind me that I’m not alone.”
Tears welled up in my eyes and then I did something I rarely do but the only thing that seemed right in the moment: I gave him a hug. If you know me, I’m not a hugger . . . but that’s a different story.
I told him to be brave but to only share his story when he was ready. He said he planned to tell his family after college, when he had a steady job, but he knew he’d never see them again after that.
Sometimes being who we are means walking away from other people’s expectations of what they want us to be. And that’s the caveat for this strange world we live in. And if we make it to that point and have been extended privileges that allow us to live free and open, we must fight like hell for those in our own community who have been marginalized by being open.
For some, that’s marching, throwing bricks, and shouting in the streets (let’s not forget Stonewall). For others, like me, it’s using my ability to show up in places typically not reserved for people like me but to be 100% authentically me while I’m there. It’s throwing punches and it’s extending olive branches. Both are necessary; neither are wrong.
Existing as ourselves can be the biggest form of resistance.
Happy National Coming Out Day, y’all!
Cover photo by –ted from Flickr Creative Commons.
Tonight I will go to bed as a 39-year-old, and tomorrow I’ll wake up and be 40. In a switch of a minute, I’ll be in a whole new decade of my life.
Ten years ago I ushered in my 30s with a private party that included over 200 guests and a band of drag queens twirling glitter. I was so afraid of being “old” that I wanted my 20s to go out loud—and long—into the night.
This year I celebrated with a handful of friends over a quiet dinner. The only glitter I dusted off was from a card that read: A Wish for You!
Tonight I’ll likely be in bed by 10.
I’ve loved my 30s. It’s where I discovered my voice and the real beat of my own drum. It’s where I found my people, said goodbye to a few, and allowed myself to finally be let go by others. I’m sad to see what’s felt like the best decade of my life disappear overnight, but I am embracing this crossroad. I’m at a place where I can look back for miles and appreciate, while looking ahead beyond the horizon and dream for what’s to come. This middle part of life isn’t scary or threadbare. It’s f-ing fantastic and I’m going to live it up . . . even if it means I’ll have to start using more eye cream.
If my 30s were spent coming into my own, my 40s are going to be spent on the things I Iove (and only on the things I love). I will learn to say yes to the right opportunities and no to the things that do not get me any closer to where I want my life—and dreams—to be. This middle part is going to be selfish and selfless because only now have I learned to balance both. I needed my 20s to learn how to be selfish, my 30s to be selfless, and now these equal parts will carry me forward.
At that quiet dinner a few nights ago my niece—who will turn 20 two days after my birthday—said she couldn’t wait to be out of her teens and into a whole new decade where it will all really happen. I was too quick to add, “Well, your 20s are nothing. Your 30s is where it’s really at.”
I wish I wouldn’t have said that. “Old” folks say stuff like that. But we both laughed it off in a moment between two people, half-a-life apart, imagining what’s in store and who we’ll be 10 years from now.
And that’s what growing older is really about. That anticipation keeps us moving at any age.
The candy apple red two-door Nissan—with jet black windows and a spoiler on the back—kept whispering my name as I made a beeline to her in the parking lot of the dealership. My husband, Cory, examined the sticker price details on a used four-door sedan. He hadn’t noticed my departure.
A dealer shuffled across the lot toward me and the red sports car. “You wanna take it for a spin?”
“Yeah,” I nodded.
I yelled for Cory to come. He shook his head as he approached. “Really? This?” He kept stealing glances at the four-door sedan.
I was barely over thirty but well over the line toward an early mid-life crisis. The car I was there to trade in was a maroon four-door that had practical gas mileage. I longed for something new; something fresh . . . something fast. Something that proclaimed to the world that I was still full of youth and not . . . aging.
After a jaunt around town and testing the limits on its speed, I got my way that day and we drove off the lot in my brand new sports car. The first of its kind I’d ever owned.
For almost ten years, that little red car treated me well. I took her on several cross-country trips as I made my way to and from Indiana. I used her to pick up #1 New York Times bestselling authors from the airport, and let a state Senator or two hitch a ride. Everyone commented on her beauty. “Wow, nice ride!” they’d say. There were arguments and apologies and celebrations in that car. There were, indeed, many memories.
This week I said goodbye to her. I traded her in for a wagon. This summer I will be forty, and the last couple of years I’ve stolen glances of my own at other cars on the Interstate; more practical cars that could fit more than one box in their trunk. Cars that ten years ago I wouldn’t have given a chance. As I walked away from her for the last time, I felt guilt and sadness. I had left a part of my life behind there in the parking lot of the Subaru dealership. My entire thirties. I thought somehow that little red sports car knew I wouldn’t be back and that I’d left her for something steadier.
“What will happen to her once I leave?” I asked my dealer.
“Well, we’ll see if it’s something we can sell on our used lot, but, if not, we’ll send her to auction.”
As I drove away in my new twilight blue four-door wagon, I imagined a sixteen-year-old kid driving away in my old car. He’ll probably see it on some lot as his dad checks out the sticker price on a more reasonable sedan, but he’ll win the argument and that little red car will get him through high school and college. I hope it makes him the coolest kid in school.