Happy National Coming Out Day friends! As we all know, coming out isn’t one moment. It’s a lifelong experience you share with literally every new person you will ever meet. There is no one coming out moment that defines me. But for today I thought I share one that always makes me smile.
It was spring semester my junior year of college when I started coming out. I kissed a guy for the first time when I was 17, shared a secret romance with an other man during my first semester freshman year, and along the way, fooled around with more than a few men willing to participate in my charade.
I was still “straight” through all of that. At least that’s what I told myself, my family, my friends, social media and more importantly, those poor souls who just wanted to be with me. Sorry, boys, these walls are up and they are FORTIFIED.
Eventually, I started accepting it. I remember the first time I told myself I was gay. I was in “Media and Society,” a required course for all first year communications majors at Muhlenberg. We were talking about queer representation in the media… in 2005. This was cutting edge liberal arts education at its best y’all. One day in class, we were watching the famous Ellen coming out moment from her sitcom. I sat in my chair in that darkened class room watching Ellen say “I’m gay” into the airport intercom when I finally let my self think the words “I’m gay.” While the rest of the class was studying this moment in TV history, no one knew that in my brain, a quiet revolution began. It was terrifying and exhilarating, like I was Peter Parker suddenly realizing I didn’t need my classes anymore and my abs were so tight. After class, I went back to my dorm room, locked my door and said it to myself in the mirror. “I’m gay.”
Two full years later, I said it out loud again to another person, “I’m Gay.” I won’t get into it here but a few things happened to discourage me from letting more people in. I don’t remember who I actually said those words out loud to first. Who ever you are, thank you for listening with out judgement. Gradually, I started telling everyone on campus.
By spring semester, it was a well known fact that Tim Popp was another Muhlenberg Theater & Dance Department gay. (Although let’s face it, friends, we all always knew because secrets don’t keep in a small liberal arts theater program.)
One night, one rainy Friday night, my roommates and I were drinking too much Bankers Club Vodka in our suite in Benfer Hall. Benfer suites had four bedrooms for two people each, a living room and a bathroom. I lived there with 7 other theater majors in chaotic bliss. It wasn’t uncommon to hear two roommates dueting “I will never leave you” from the musical Side Show while both in the adjacent showers at any given point in the day.
We were laying in Wilma and Magda’s room probably doing that thing we did back then where we all log rolled on top of each other… Benfer was weird. In that moment, something suddenly struck me. I was free here. No hiding or shame. Spring break was coming soon and that meant going back home to a place where no one really knew me any more… not the new me.
I didn’t want to go “home” and feel like a stranger to myself. Home is the place where you wear sweats, never shower and watch terrible TV for hours. Home is where you are comfortable. I understood comfort in a more complete way now and I wasn’t about to compromise that ever ever again.
Strategically, I knew my high school friend group would be first I’d tell. They loved me, they have been with me through various hardships, and they always accepted me for the silly farting clown I am. My family would be the biggest hurdle and I needed to be really thoughtful about that moment. I did have a plan for how I was going to tell them. I would write beautiful mother’s day cards for everyone that May, spend the summer being the best son, grandson, nephew ever. Make them realize how much they loved me and then drop the crushing news… No part of that plan came to fruition… they still love me any way. That’s family ya’ll.
Back to this rainy Friday in Benfer. So a bunch of us are platonicly cuddling in bed, drinking shitty vodka with whatever mixers we could find, and no doubt Mike, my lovable bear of a roommate, was trying to tickle us because it was a thing that was really funny to everyone in Spring ’08 when I sprung out of the cuddle puddle to announce to my friends I’m ready to tell my people back home. The room cheers with support. “That’s a great idea! And it’s almost spring break! You’ll see them all in a few weeks.” No. I replied. It has to be now. It has to be RIGHT NOW. To this day, put me in a room with positive people, a few drinks and a big idea and suddenly I’m Olivia Pope making shit happen.
I decided to call my friend Erin first. Erin and I may not have been friends quite as long as I had been with other members of my inner high school circle but we did share a sense of romanticism that no one else understood. We languished together over heartbreak and new love. I once even tried to kiss her while we were at the movies seeing god knows what because I was trying to kiss my very straight, very pretty but very much committed friend. When Erin fully blocked my kiss (we’re talking hand in my face), I dealt with the rejection like any overly dramatic future homosexual would. I went home and wrote her an email telling her how I’m the right guy for her, how I would have given her “the stars and the moon,” and how I’m not sure if I can hug her again. She wrote me back telling me she’ll “never stop hugging me.” So if any one was going to get behind dramatic drunken coming out phone call, it was Erin.
I took my Motorola cell phone (it’s 2008) to our shared bathroom as my friends waited with bated breathe just outside the door. I was flushed red from the excitement, embarrassment and cheap booze. I dialed her number because we remembered those back then and hit “send” when the most miraculous thing happened.
Remember ring back tones? Like when you would pay a premium to have a song playing while some one was calling you instead of listening to the phone ring? I pulled my phone to my ear and heard “Please enjoy this song while your party is being reached.”
Suddenly, a familiar song starts playing… something folksy with a gravel voiced crooner, instantly nostalgic but also not a song I immediately recognize. Then I catch a lyric “Say what you need to say, say what you need to say…” the crooner repeats. The song was John Mayer’s “Say.” Hearing these words, which seemed to be selected just for this moment by some divine spirit, broke me. I was suddenly ugly crying in my bathroom to a grainy John Mayer song followed by Erin’s voicemail message.
I spent the next 60 seconds sobbing into my phone. Somewhere in there I managed to say the words “I’m gay.” Or something resembling that. I don’t actually remember exactly what I said.
The next morning Erin called me to see if everything was alright because listening to 60 seconds of incoherent emotions might make you think your friend is in real peril. Also, did she hear me say I was gay? Was that real or did I make that up, she asked.
We talked it out for a while and she couldn’t have been more supportive. As was the case with everyone in my life. And while “support” doesn’t always present itself at first with a big warm hug or an immediate “I love you no matter what,” any one who puts in the work to accept you as fully as you are, loves you, even if it takes them a little longer to get where you want them to be.
My advice to you, my friends, is listen to John Mayer. Say what you need to say.
…. ok but also maybe only listen to John Mayer on this particular issue.