The It Gets Better Project has thousands of entries, and I think it’s frankly wonderful that it’s gotten ubiquitous enough that individual entries don’t stand out all that much. But I haven’t felt like I had anything to contribute. I talk about all kinds of mundane, personal stuff on here, but I’ve never talked about being gay except where it intersects with politics. Partly because it’s not really anyone’s business, partly because I never felt that there was much to tell.
Besides, plenty of people have already covered it more eloquently than I could: there’s the moving address given by Fort Worth city councilman Joel Burns. Employees of Facebook shared their stories in a compilation video. The pastor of a church in my hometown sacrificed his privacy to explain his situation and explain how he reconciles his sexuality with his religion. And there’s the amazing video above from employees of Pixar, taking their personal stories of the difficult times they went through, and turning them into a message of hope.
And that’s when I realized I was missing the point. These individual messages are powerful, but the most powerful thing is the outpouring of support for the cause; the real power is the number of individuals willing to come forward. The thing that strikes me the most about the videos is how much they have in common, how many of the same experiences we’ve all shared — gay, straight, or otherwise. The message is that we’re not alone, we’re not the only one in the world going through this. I can’t help but wonder how my life would’ve changed for the better if I’d seen these videos when I was 13, or 16, or 23, or, in my case, even 32. And when doing something as simple as sharing your story can have such a profound effect, then keeping silent no longer seems like staying private or showing decorum. Keeping quiet just seems irresponsible.
So here’s some of my experience, and some of the stuff I’ve learned over the years. Stuff I would tell myself if I could go back in time to the most miserable points of my life, before I came out. And it starts with the promise that your life can be absolutely amazing, if you let it.
I was relatively lucky: I was bullied in middle school and teased in high school, but more often for being a nerd than for being gay. The worst I got was “sissy.” Other kids had it far worse, and to the kids who’ve had the courage to come out while still in school: you’ve got my respect. My own response was to try desperately to keep it hidden. The most horrifying thing I could imagine was how I’d be abandoned and my life would be ruined if anyone ever found out. I found out later that the people who I genuinely cared about already knew or suspected, and they didn’t care.
You’ll frequently hear people talk about choice when they talk about being gay. And there is a choice: you can choose to accept who you are, or you can choose to build your entire life based on other people’s expectations of you.
For my part, I put being gay into the “unacceptable” category, believing I could compartmentalize it and keep it from ruining everything else. I thought if I denied it long enough, I’d eventually get “better.” I thought if I prayed hard enough, it’d go away. I buried myself under schoolwork or, later, regular work, convincing myself that it was an acceptable substitute for having a personal life. I convinced myself that nobody could ever find me attractive, because it was easier than admitting to myself that I wasn’t attracted to the people I was supposed to be attracted to.
And I got better at convincing myself I was happy, because I was doing The Right Thing. I believed what I’d been taught. Gay people all act and talk a certain way, like they do on TV. They’re all promiscuous and hedonistic, because they lack willpower. All they talk or think about is sex. And they’re so tiresome: they all define their entire lives around being gay. There were all the made-for-TV movies and documentaries about how horrible it was for women when their husbands or boyfriends came out; how selfish could those guys be? I didn’t have anything in common with that! I just wanted — desperately wanted — to be normal, so surely that couldn’t be me. Those people were different. So I could be an ugly social reject with no possibility of ever finding love, but at least I was better than them.
That was my choice, and I lived with it for over fifteen years. I heard my friends talk about who they were attracted to, and I’d duck out of the conversation or become silent and sullen. I’d see them start relationships, get married, have children, and realize that that was never going to be an option for me. I’d see someone I was attracted to and I’d go quiet, because I was embarrassed and ashamed that I hadn’t done a better job of suppressing it. I convinced myself that I was happy and that everything was fine, without realizing that I’d lost all hope.
When I was younger, I would’ve said it was melodramatic to compare it to dying, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it. I’d effectively killed a part of myself. And over time, I got more preoccupied with thoughts of how to finish the job. There wasn’t any one event, but a long, gradual process of just giving up. I’d withdrawn from my friends. I’d lost around 40 pounds because I just didn’t care about eating. And for months I’d spend every night in bed staring at the ceiling, asking myself what was the point of going on like this. What was the point of living when there’s no hope of ever being anything but broken and lonely?
But then, the part that I never, ever would’ve believed: it got better. I met another gay guy and actually got to know him instead of dismissing him as a stereotype, which had always been easier. I realized I didn’t have to talk or behave a certain way, or let it take over my life. I could stay every bit as boring and nerdy as I wanted to be, and I didn’t have to be ashamed of myself for it or anything else.
For years, I’d been afraid of how my friends would react if I ever came out. The reaction from the first friend I told? He said “Really? Good on you!” without skipping a beat, and he bought me a beer. What about the friends I’d had for longer, would they be angry that I’d been lying to them for so long? They said okay and made a joke. But of course my friends in San Francisco would be okay with it; what about my friends from home and college? I got congratulations, and then they returned to treating it as a non-issue. I’d spent so many years withdrawing from my friends for fear of losing them. Not only did I not lose anyone over it, but I’m a better friend now that I can be open and happy.
And now, six years later, I can honestly say that I’m open and happy. On the surface, it doesn’t look like much has changed in the past six years. But there’s a world of difference. I don’t feel the constant need to watch what I say, out of fear. People complain that gay people are always going on about being gay — I used to be one of them — but they just don’t understand what it’s like to be surrounded by people casually talking about their relationships without the fear that they’ll slip up and use the wrong pronoun. And now, even at my lowest points, I can go to bed looking forward to what’s going to happen tomorrow instead of feeling the hopelessness of having to face everything alone.
It’s no epiphany; it’s an ongoing process, and I’m getting better. At first, I was happy that I could still be normal, but I’m getting better at understanding that there’s no such thing. I put so much value into not conforming to a gay stereotype, that I didn’t realize how judgmental I’d gotten. But if normal’s what we value, then we’re always going to be valuing ourselves and others based on how well we conform to other people’s expectations. It may be a while before I stop feeling a little apprehension at the sight of a Folsom Street Fair or pride parade, before I’m able to remember what each of those people had to go through in order to be open. “Be True to Yourself” is such a simple and overused concept, but so difficult to practice. And sometimes, even more difficult to respect in others.
So to the younger me, and to anyone reading who’s been going through similar stuff: believe that it does get better. Nobody can guarantee your problems will all disappear. You’ll still run into bullies. You’ll encounter people who will judge you based not on who you are, but on a part of what you are. You’ll be pressured to conform to what other people expect of you. You’ll be told, either explicitly or more subtly, that you’re sinful, lustful, weak, confused, selfish, mentally ill, or undeserving of love or family.
But I can guarantee that you will also experience moments of such profound joy that you’ll find yourself with tears in your eyes. Moments of inexplicable kindness, or unexpected beauty.
And they’re compounded, as each one builds on the last. You can’t predict them, and you can’t control them. But you have to choose them, and to do that, you have to accept that you deserve them.
The greatest moments of my life have always been simple things: time spent with friends. A message of encouragement that I hadn’t expected. The exhilaration that comes from finishing a project. They’re all better now, because I can be more honest with my friends. I’m getting better at accepting encouragement with grace. I’m better able to appreciate work I’ve done, without immediately looking for faults because I must’ve done something wrong. And now I can add the simple things I’d long thought were unavailable to me: holding someone’s hand in public, or just plain talking to a friend about a guy I like. Add up enough of these simple moments, and you end up with a pretty spectacular life.