The moment I decided to come out for real for the first time – as in, not when I came out to my dog when I was 16 or 17, and not the many subsequent phases of coming out I later traversed – was easily the most terrifying, exciting, vulnerable, courageous, and exuberant I’ve ever felt, and it was, without question, the most transformative experience of my life.
It was 2009, and happened to be my 21st birthday. I was home from school on summer break, and I laid in bed that night paralyzed with an anxiety that I couldn’t put my finger on. I’d finished another year with impeccable grades, my running was going well, I was working steadily and saving up money, I had friends who cared about me and a family who loved me, and despite all of the things I had going for me, something was robbing me of being me.
Looking back, my life was pretty unremarkable, but it was one that I was proud of and content with. I grew up in New York, Virginia, and Maryland, moving with my brother, sisters, mom and dad every couple of years as my dad’s work offered new opportunities. I’m the youngest of four kids in my family, adored by my parents but at times isolated from my siblings; after all, who wants to hang out with their baby brother all the time? I craved their love and deep down I knew I had it, but at times I could convince myself otherwise.
What I know now is that yearning had nothing to do with them, and everything to do with me. I can remember as a young boy feeling so care-free and uninhibited, without fear of judgment, shame, rejection, or consequence. Sometimes I chose to build elaborate structures with Legos or Lincoln Logs with my brother; other times I drove my Power Wheels truck around our cul-de-sac with a pair of stockings on my head pretending to have long hair and played Barbies with my best (girl) friends.
As I grew older, things changed. I discovered that “Barbies were for girls,” so I never let anyone outside of my family know that I liked playing with and dressing them. I learned that the baking and gardening I so loved to do with my mom was looked down upon by the boys at school because it was “girly” and “gay.” I learned that boys were supposed to like girls, and that each gender had a pretty specific set of norms to adhere to. As a result, piece by piece I shunned different parts of myself, letting others’ expectations of me instill a fear that forced me into silence and left me a shell of my complete self. I learned to isolate myself because that was my best defense against people finding out who I really was.
As my fear grew, I channeled my energy into sports – soccer, baseball, swimming, basketball, sailing, running, etc. – hoping this was a more acceptable lifestyle choice for someone like me, and genuinely still something I enjoyed being part of. I found camaraderie in the pool and on the field, court, trails, and track. Out there, all that really mattered was how fast I could run or swim, how far I could clear the soccer ball, and what my free-throw percentage was. I found my refuge in sports. I felt safer in that realm. I didn’t have to worry too much about if the other things I enjoyed were deemed “too gay” because I left it all at home and here I was just a cog in the wheel that aspired to help win games, races, and meets.
Eventually, though, I was proven wrong. As I transitioned into my teenage years, boys stopped talking about what their favorite color was and what their favorite game in PE class was. Instead, they started talking about girls. A lot.
“Oh no,” I worried. “How can I contribute to this conversation without exposing my truth to everyone?” It felt so unnatural and uncomfortable for me to talk about having feelings for girls.
So I didn’t. I sat in silence and hid myself from the people I spent hours and hours with every day. In fact, I hid myself from pretty much everyone. I held my breath because I didn’t want anyone to ever know that I “wasn’t normal.”
This pattern continued year after year, example after example, into high school, college, professional sports, new cities, and new friends, until I realized and reverted back to what I knew when I was 5 that I’d forgotten by the time I was 21 – that even though I’m not the way society says I should be, I do still have value, and that I shouldn’t be limited by other people’s choices, expectations, feelings, judgments, opinions, or beliefs.
Like I said, it was my 21st birthday – August 1, 2009 – and I decided to give myself the greatest gift I could think of. I called my aunt who lived a mere 10 minutes away and, much to my surprise, she answered. She must’ve known something was serious if I was calling her that late at night. My voice trembled as I asked her if I could come over to talk, and she quickly agreed.
“What am I going to say?!” I panicked as I drove to her house on the water in Annapolis.
When I arrived, I feigned a smile as she answered the door, and we settled in on the comfy couches on the screened-in porch out back, only in the company of a couple of her dogs.
The paralysis I felt in bed earlier that night returned. My mouth was instantly drier than the Sahara Desert, devoid of any semblance of moisture. My palms were sweating, knees weak, arms were heavy (I couldn’t resist). My heart was racing. I had a lump in my throat the size of Texas. Tears were welling up in my eyes and started running down my cheeks. I instinctively buried my face in my hands, afraid of the truth I was about to expose.
My aunt looked at me with concern in her eyes, but patience for me to find my words, and eventually I was able to piece together a few syllables; though, in the entire duration of what ended up being a several hour conversation, I never said the words, “I’m gay.” That was too much for where I was at the time, and it took another several years after that particular night for me to be able to say it without hesitation.
And herein lies the power of National Coming Out Day. It’s a day where we celebrate our ability to speak for ourselves and embrace who we are. It’s a day to combat the silence of the corner we’ve been backed into, whether by ourselves or others. It’s a day to remember our decision to choose freedom, liberation, and authenticity, and to inspire others to find the courage to do the same, if that’s what they want, in their own way and time.
“If I raise my hand and if I say I’ve gone through this…if I talk about my stuff, then I hope it gives you permission to talk about yours.” (Rachel Hollis)
Visibility matters. Representation matters.
As a young person navigating my own path before I knew about the LBGTQ+ community, even though I was surrounded by love and acceptance, I still found an overwhelming loneliness in coming out. I hope that by telling my story, someone else will see a glimmer of hope for a life that’s better on the other side of the closet door.
You are not alone. You have a community of people who are waiting for you and encouraging you to exhale and acknowledge and love yourself so that we can extend our arms and embrace you for who you are. Happy National Coming Out Day!