It’s Not Where You Start: God Help the Outcasts

Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start.

Today is National Coming Out Day.

Coming out is an ongoing process. The first time I told someone (out loud!) that I was gay was in 1993. It was New Year’s Eve, and for some reason I was home alone. TBS had a triple-feature of “sing-along” musicals — Grease, Viva Las Vegas, and West Side Story, each outfitted with lyrics & a bouncing ball to earn them the sing-along moniker — hosted by Tommy Tune. I watched the entire triple feature, and then some, while on the phone with my friend Amy, who was also spending the night at home, across town.

Why didn’t we just decide to meet somewhere? Neither of us drove yet, and I guess it didn’t occur to us to take a cab? Who knows. In some ways, the simultaneous intimacy and distance the phone provided was just what we needed. We were already at that point best friends. And we each had something we wanted to share with the other. So unfolded what we have come to refer to as our Epic 13-Hour Phone Call. (And yes, we called it that before epic became the most overused adjective of our generation.) I was so sure Amy was going to tell me she was gay. She didn’t. That didn’t come until many, many years later. She had a different revelation, but knowing that we each had something to share, something that made us worried and vulnerable, made it easier for me. Coming out is always a risk. Coming out the first time is terrifying. But knowing that we each were taking a risk equalized what is normally a treacherously uneven power dynamic. Of course, we both knew that we were devoted to each other and there was pretty much nothing either of us could have said that would have threatened our relationship. But that didn’t make it any less scary. 

It’s gotten easier over the years for me, but not as easier as I expected it would. I told my parents the day they dropped me off for college and thought that meant I was done, I was out. But then I had to meet hundreds of new people and I wimped out. I spent the better part of freshman year learning how to come out to people, but didn’t feel comfortable displaying a pink triangle on my book bag until I was living with new roommates the following year. And even though the rest of the campus knew I was gay, the Jews at Hillel didn’t clue in until I made a speech on the Shabbat prior to National Coming Out Day — which happened to coincide with Yom Kippur that year. When I went to work in a synagogue, as a youth director, I scared myself back into the closet — professionally, that is. It was a prime example of an environment not exactly being hostile, but being “unwelcome.” No one told me it was okay to be who I am, so I read the writing on the wall and kept quiet.

When I went to work at Prozdor, I decided that I would never be in the closet for a job again, and came out to the student body during my first month on the job. The timing happened to coincide with the premiere of Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School, so I wrote a piece for our weekly newsletter, emailed to about 1,000 families, about my experience as a student at the school where I was then working and my experience in helping with the film. The response I received was… well, it was supportive, but what was most overwhelming to me was how much of a non-issue it was. I assumed that students would have questions for me, or at least talk about me nearly out of earshot… but that didn’t really happen. Sure, one student came out to me — we remain close today — but the reality was that it didn’t even merit conversation. Five years later I found myself still having to come out to kids who had been in the school the entire time because the gossip cycle hadn’t done its job. I’m not really complaining.

Today on Facebook, one of my former students from that time, who is now in college, posted a status message:

ok, so i realize that it has the best intentions ever…..but come out on ur own time, you shouldn’t be pushed to because of some “holiday.” please take your time. :)

I understand what she’s saying, but I respectfully disagree. I responded:

Think of it this way. There’s never a “good time” to have a potentially awkward conversation with people, particularly people you see every day. Sometimes having an artificial impetus is helpful… National Coming Out Day gave me the easy opening. And in fact, today I got an email from someone I’ve known a very long time, who had been meaning to come out to me but hadn’t had the opportunity. The date on the calendar provided the opening… Think of it like training wheels. You might not have ever needed them, but it’s a good thing they exist for people who do.

It’s gotten easier for me, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t hard for others. Please do your part to make it easier and safer for kids (and adults) to be GLBTQ or just “different” today and every day. And that’s really the thing of it, right? Being gay is more “normal” now, but for the kids who aren’t normal, whatever that means, it’s still just as hard to go to school and face the mass of people who can’t handle anything that deviates from the norm. I have friends who hate that I use the word “queer” because it emphasizes difference. Isn’t equality about proving we’re the same same, the ask.

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