Friday, March 30, 2012

Gay 101: Why "Coming Out" Is So Hard to Do

Chandler Massey (left) and Freddie Smith, stars of one of the greatest stories ever told on “Days of Our Lives.”
There are so many different ways to be gay -- no matter what that idiot Carson Daly says!

Though a moral majority would like nothing better than to shove all gay people into a box, label it "sinners" (or in Carson Daly's case, "wimps"), and ship it off to Siberia, there's really nothing cliche about being gay. Sure there are some common threads: A lot of us dress well, hate sports, love female singers and are obsessed with lists and countdowns, but I've known quite a few slovenly gay men who live for football, have never been into Madonna (or Streisand, or Garland), and can't even be bothered to open incoming email.

In other words, gay men are as predictable and unpredictable as straight men. There's more emotional and mental variety in gay bars and clubs and in your local Gay Pride Parade than many straight people might think.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the process of coming out of the closet. I've seen it done so many ways. Some fling open the door at a very young age, dressed head to toe in bright fluorescent colors. "I'm here, and I'm queer!" they announce, even if they don't say a word. Others, spend years peeping through a crack, opening and closing it, never daring to step all the way out until they can be sure it's completely safe. Others still, like the character in Beginners that finally won Christopher Plummer an Oscar, decorate their closets quite nicely -- with a wife, kids, a dog and a white-picket fence -- never choosing to relocate to a bigger space in the main house until their twilight years. Better late than never, right?

I can't pinpoint the exact moment when I figured out that I was gay. I can't say it was something I struggled with as a teenager. I was terrible at sports, I was more interested in playing with girls than playing with them, and I always knew that I was different. But I grew up a black kid with a funny Caribbean accent in the middle of Florida. "Different" meant so many things. I had so much on my "outsider" plate that it was easy to backburner my sexuality.

I was probably in college before I gave a name to my sexual orientation. I'm not sure why I kept it to myself for so long. I wasn't exactly terrified, but fear did play a supporting role. Part of me didn't want to give people another reason to think I was "different." Another part of me didn't think it was anyone's business whom I was sleeping with -- or whom I wanted to sleep with. And yet another part of me didn't think it really mattered. Straight people never announce that they're straight, so why should I have to announce that I'm gay? I had no intention of going the wife and kids route (though I've lately been seriously reconsidering the kids part). I was just going to go where my life led me.

Shortly after I graduated from the University of Florida, it led me to New York City. They say if you can make it there you can make it anywhere. Well, if you can't be gay there, you can't be gay anywhere. Within a year, I had nothing left to hide. I'd swung that closet door wide open, and stepped out into the light. As an adult, I've always been more or less sartorially sound, though -- no fluorescent for me, only tasteful, muted tones.

My friend Cara, who served as my wingwoman many a gay night out, once helped me make a list of everything I required in a man during downtime at work. (See, that obsession with lists again -- I'm even considering writing an entire book devoted to them!) One was "Must be into pop culture," next to which Cara drew a picture of Jennifer Lopez's butt, which was as big a star as she was at the time. Near the top of my love list: "Must be out of the closet"!!! It's the one rule I've broken more than any other.

Though all of the boyfriends I had up until the age of 35 were out of the closet (except for one, who was out to everyone but his parents, to whom he wasn't close, so to him it didn't matter), since I left the gay capital of the world (New York City, for those who haven't been paying attention), every single guy I've seriously dated (all three of them) has been cowering in the closet. I say "cowering" because there's a difference between living by the don't-ask-don't-tell code of conduct and quite another to live in crippling fear.

That's what I get for dating guys half my age, many of whom are -- or were -- still dependent on their parents. I believe that my last relationship fell apart mostly because the guy I was with, who was very slowly starting to crack open the closet door, was so uncomfortable with who he was: a good person who just happened to be gay.

I wouldn't dream of looking down on anyone who chooses to remain in the closet. Everyone, gay and straight, must live according to their own schedule. Although I think I'm through dating guys who are not 100 percent out, it's not because I'm passing judgement. It's because if I've learned anything about love in the last six years, it's that this particular kind of mixed relationship doesn't work.

For all of my acceptance of the closeted psyche, the one thing I never understood is the denial part of being gay. Lying to your parents and friends is one thing, but how do you lie to yourself? No matter how convincing you are at it, can't you see through your own lies? It's something I'm only starting to comprehend, and as much as I hate to admit it, it's because of Days of Our Lives.

Who says daytime soaps can't be informative? I'm learning more by watching Will Horton's coming-out storyline on Days, than I've ever discovered by watching any talk show -- including Oprah's, which never taught me anything other than how to win friends and influence people by expertly negotiating that fine line between humility and self-importance. It has a lot do do with the flawless performance of Chandler Massey -- who, mark my words, will be an Oscar-nominated movie star in the near future -- but it's also because of how slowly and carefully his story is being told. The writers haven't missed a single beat.

Will's coming-out process is a lot more angst-filled than mine was, but not for all of the cliched, stereotypical reasons. He's neither the macho jock whose public image is on the line (Teddy, last season on 90210, which featured Days co-star Freddie Smith in a similar supportive role), nor is he Kurt on Glee. Will occupies that gray space in the middle of the gay spectrum where so many of us live and love. I like that he has a strong support system (including two sexy grandmas who figured out he was gay before he did!), parents who could go either way when they find out, and no stereotypical Bible thumpers and neanderthals frightening him into staying put on that closet shelf.

Unlike so many televised coming-out stories, this one doesn't involve a love interest who is nudging him to come out already. Yes, Will kissed a guy, a total stranger, and he liked it, but Will is struggling with his self-image as much as he's struggling with his sexual preference. What does it mean that he's gay? Can he still have a family? Will his religious great-grandmother think his soul is damned? Will it always be the first thing people think of when they look at him?

These are all valid questions and ones that need to be asked and answered. It's a shame that daytime soaps have such a bad reputation for being campy and unrealistic (which, for me, can be a large part of their charm) because this is a story from which every young gay person struggling with his (or her) sexuality can learn something. So can us old, out and proud geezers. The next time I see my ex, I'm going to give him a big hug and tell him I understand completely.

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