My own meager contribution to the idea that life is pretty awesome.

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.

13 thoughts on “Better”

  1. I really like the It Gets Better Project (I think Dan Savage is awesome), and I’m glad you’re mentioning it here as the more people know about it, the better.

    Also, it’s great that you’re sharing your story. I think it really resonates in a lot of people. I can see a lot of me in what you’re saying, and it helps a lot.

    I’d like to stress out one thing you said. Sometimes, you think people will reject you, that you’ll lose your friends, that people will hate you, think you’re vile, etc. You think you need to hide who you really are and pretend to be someone who is acceptable. You reject yourself and make yourself unhappy for fear of losing what seems to be the only thing you have left: your friends.
    And then, people learn about it. You tell them, or they learn otherwise. You tell strangers. And people don’t spit in your face. They don’t tell you you’re evil.
    Sure, on the Internet, there is some aggressivity here and there. And if you face a bunch of people at once, there is a risk of mob mentality. But when you’re dealing with individuals, you’re surprised how they pause and listen to you. And as nervous as you were, you realise that it’s okay. You’re allowed to be who you are.
    Some people don’t “get” it, but they know you, they love you, so they try to understand. Sometimes, they have something to tell YOU in return, something they were hiding as well, and you just feel like you can relate to each other all the more.

    It’s easy for someone like me, who is straight, to assume things about people. It’s easy for me to use the wrong pronoun without thinking, and not to realise I’ve just hurt someone, hammered it in that they’re “different”. I put them in the position of correcting me and making themselves vulnerable, or hiding and feeling like they can’t be a good person, if they have to hide who they really are.
    I don’t like that. I can’t promise never to assume anything, but I know what it’s like to have to hide things, and constantly avoid a subject or try to find words that won’t reveal you. It sucks. It reminds you constantly that you aren’t doing things “the right way”.

    If you manage to take people for what they are, without trying to fit them in all these boxes, without assuming they already fit in all these boxes, you get to meet individuals, friends, and people who make your life richer. And if you take the risk to throw yourself off the cliff by showing yourself as you are, without your defences, there will be people to catch you.

    I’m not telling anyone to come out while in school and already extremely vulnerable, but if you don’t reject who you are, and you suffer through it, a time will come when you can be yourself openly and people won’t think twice about it.

  2. Thanks for writing this, Chuck. It’s terrific.

    I have my issues with the whole “It Gets Better” thing, much of it based on the huge issues I have with Dan Savage. But reading pieces like yours reminds me I need to get the hell over that and just realize how important everyone’s story really is, regardless of who or what inspires its telling.

  3. Sounds like you had a rough couple of decades there—glad you made it through. With any luck, your story will get a future game designer through a rough patch; then, many years from now, that same game designer will develop “Old Person Arm-Waving Game III: The Senescence,” which will be the hit of the retirement home, and you can write a super-ultra-blog post about how the new generation has abandoned narrative. No, but for real, good on you for writing this.

  4. @avistew: Sounds like you’ve got the right idea. I think the one thing we all need to get better at is overcoming the idea that acknowledging someone as different is the same as acknowledging them as bad. People all have their own ideas of what they want, whether it’s to fit in or to show how much they don’t fit in. But I think if you ask a guy about his girlfriend or a woman about her boyfriend and they correct you, you don’t necessarily have to feel bad for making them feel vulnerable. Instead, just say “great!” I’m guessing they probably don’t want to hide it or avoid talking about it, and would be a lot happier to hear that you’re fine with it.

    It’s perfectly natural to make assumptions about people — all of us are always searching for the things we have in common. I think the truer test of whether we’re all getting it or not is how we react to the differences.

    @Rain: I’m not a big fan of Dan Savage, either, but I honestly can’t remember why. And if I’m being honest, I’d gotten to the point where I’d see those “It’s Get Better” videos and just say, “Great. Whatever. Next.” I know it’s a big deal to most of the people who made them, and I don’t want to trivialize it, but it got to the point where I just thought, “Okay, yet another coming out story. What else have you got?”

    It wasn’t until I saw the Joel Burns video and then that Pixar video that I got some sense knocked back into me and remembered what a big deal it is to realize you’re not alone. And you (general you) don’t have to like all of them; it just takes one to make the connection that makes all the difference.

    @Kimari: I think you’re exaggerating, but thanks!

    @Matt: It’d be incredible if anything on here actually helps someone, but in any case it’s the strength in numbers that makes a difference. You hear the same stories enough times, and maybe people will start to realize that too many people are going through unnecessary difficulty, and it’s got to stop.

    I just can’t thank the people at Pixar enough for making that video. They said exactly what needed to be said, and I think if I’d seen that when I was younger, it could’ve made all the difference in my life. I’m even more convinced now that I need to sneak into the building and just give everybody there a big hug.

  5. @Chuck Yeah, I probably shouldn’t feel so bad about things like that. I would say it’s a personal failing of mine that I do. I mean, sometimes I do over the most ridiculous things. For something like learning someone is gay, I’d go back in my head and try and think of every single thing I’ve told them and if I might have made them feel bad and so on. Ultimately, it’s my problem of course.
    I mean, just now, I was reading that two people didn’t like Dan Savage (Rain and you) and I went all “Oh no! I like him!”. But then I have to correct myself and go “so what? I’m allowed to”. It’s not like we’re going to kill each other over that, we’ve disagreed before.

    It’s comfortable to feel reinforced by meeting people who are the same way as you are, or who fit the expectations you had of them, but ultimately you grow more from meeting people who break the mould. And if you learn your assumptions were incorrect, you need to tell yourself “oh, okay” and not “oh my god I’ve been an asshole all that time!”

    Nobody can be expected to know the right answer to any question they’re asked, the right way to act in any circumstance, and everything about everyone they interact with. So yeah, I just need to let it go.

    (And I still like Dan Savage, so there).

  6. Nice. When I met you many moons ago at NYU I thought you were pretty damn cool. That opinion hasn’t changed in over twenty-two years. Palante, siempre palante!

  7. I rarely read your blog because I can’t follow most of it. The computer game/ techie/ movies/ animation stuff is so far removed from my world (besides all the bad anime that my students like to draw).
    But this one I read. It seems to me that we grew up in such a naive time. I don’t think homosexuality even crossed my mind when I was in high school. Or maybe that was just me because my parents sheltered me so much. And I guess most of us were dealing with our own stuff. I never quite felt like I fit in because I was practically the only Hispanic in the entire school. So I’m sorry that you carried that in high school and I suspect many of us, back then, may not have known how to handle it if we knew. Here are some thoughts I have had in hind sight: I think about our (not yours) class salutatorian and can’t help but wonder if sexual orientation played a part in his early death. And it’s sad – because he was an amazing person. I think about how long it took me to find the love of my life and how I jokingly said to you when we were in our early thirties (or late twenties), “If we don’t find anyone by the time we’re 35, let’s just marry each other” You looked really scared. It’s funny in retrospect. I think about how religiously conservative our hometown was (and still is mostly) that one of my high school friends thought I was going to hell for being Catholic.
    But anyhow, I wanted to say that it’s nice to hear from Chuck the person and not Chuck the game designer and I am very happy for you that you are being true to yourself and finding happiness.
    Pilar (aka Dianita)

  8. @Dianita: Yeah, I didn’t know him all that well, but from the little I did know him, he was a terrific guy. I remember hearing from Jamila that he’d died, and it’s just tragic. If that did play a part in it, I hope that more people will start to get the message so that nobody has to go through that ever again.

    Sorry I welshed on our agreement, but by all accounts it looks like you ended up a lot better off. Thanks for the message and don’t worry about reading the video game stuff!

  9. Hello Chuck (and Dianita),

    I, too, can’t follow most of your game and computer posts, Chuck, but I do keep checking your blog because I care about you and like to see that you’re still here! And, like Dianita, I read and was moved by this post. I’m glad you wrote it and glad that Dianita commented. I feel lucky to have known both of you during high school. I had my own issues of not fitting in back then; and being friends with both of you was so important to feeling accepted and happy.

    But I realize that not fitting in is only the tip of the iceberg when you’re gay and no one knows–how much worse it is to feel like such a core part of who you are is not acceptable and can’t be shared with the people you love or care about. I’m sorry that we weren’t able to know the whole you in high school or even in college. And I’m sorry now that we all live so far apart–I’d like to sit down and talk to both of you tonight!


  10. @Jamila: I dunno, I think we did a pretty good job of not fitting in together. And I suspect that the feeling of not fitting in is pretty universal, no matter what the reason. You have to decide how much of yourself you’re willing to sacrifice in order to not be lonely. I was lucky to have you guys and a bunch of other good friends to keep from having to worry about it so much.

    Now I just hate that I wasted so many years being a homophobic, self-loathing doofus. I got way more abuse from myself than I ever did from anybody else. I dunno, maybe somebody will read this at some point and realize the message is “For the love of God, Don’t Do What This Guy Did.”

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