On some level, I’ve always known I was gay, even if I didn’t have a word for it. Some of my earliest memories from childhood were of awkward struggles to relate to the other boys around me. Those I struggled to relate to the most were those boys who, even at the age of ten, had an aura of budding masculinity. They were always tan, and showed early aptitude for athleticism. I was a blond-haired mama’s boy with pinkish skin that would turn red or white, depending on the season. And my skin was thin. I cried when I had to be away from my mother for an extended period of time. Sleepovers. The first few days of kindergarten. Church camp. I had separation anxiety before shelter dogs made it fashionable.
I always knew something was different about me, and my mom and my sister were the only two people with whom I felt completely safe. They provided me with a sense of security, and maybe even more importantly–a sense of Oel ngati kameie. In the fictional Na’vi language from the movie Avatar, it means “I see you” not just in the sensory perceptive way, but in the “I understand you” way.
So at the tender age of 24 when I was ready to come out, it only made sense that I would tell them first, specifically my sister Karen. She had recently began telling me that there isn’t anything I could say or do that would make her love me any less—not in subtle ways, but literally saying that out loud at the end of our frequent phone conversations. What I didn’t realize immediately is that she was practically begging me to come out. It was the closest she could come to saying, “I know you’re gay and it’s okay,” without coming right out and saying it, on the off chance that I didn’t know I was gay. Because of this, I knew she would be a good litmus test for how my family would accept the fact that my 20-year “awkward” phase wasn’t really a phase. I was going to be awkward for the rest of my life.
While I had a tentative plan to tell her, my need to tell someone kind of came to a boil when my first serious boyfriend broke up with me right around my birthday. Hands trembling, I picked up the phone and dialed her number. Already fighting back tears, when I heard her say “Hello” my tear dam started to burst. Picture every natural disaster movie where you’ve seen this happen. There is a low rumbling sound. Geysers of water shoot outward from fissures that appear on the surface of the damn. Suddenly, a piece of concrete the size of a Hyundai blasts free, and the dam crumbles with the weight of tears that have been held for too long. I struggled to find my voice. She knew immediately something was wrong. And while I don’t recall the specifics of the conversation after that point, it did involve me telling her that I was gay. And as cliché as it sounds, it was a tremendous weight off of my shoulders. The weight of that secret is unimaginable until you’ve carried it, this worry of the very real possibility of being rejected by your family because of who you are at your core. It is completely terrifying to risk the longest love you’ve ever known.
After talking a while, I asked Karen if she thought I should tell our mom.
“Yes, because she kind of already knows,” was not quite the answer I was expecting. When pressed, my sister said that they talk about me quite frequently, each asking the other if I had come out yet. Perhaps if my family had played poker more frequently than New Year’s Eve, they’d have made a friendly wager. Feeling relieved, I hung up and called my mom. Again, many of the specifics of the conversation escape me. While I felt confident that her love for me wouldn’t waver, I was about to utter words that would not only change my world but also hers. In a moment, she would grieve my wedding and any grandchildren she’d been looking forward to me giving her, and I was keenly aware of that. In order to protect myself from the pain of a negative reaction, my brain blocked out most of that conversation. I remember my mom being quiet for a moment, and then telling me she already knew. She asked if I was scared of getting sick, a thinly-veiled reference to AIDS, the disease that had robbed my family of my brother Robbie barely 10 years before.
I guess now would be a good time to mention that my oldest brother was also gay. I was only 13 years old when he died at the age of 25. He had come out to my dad on Christmas Eve. Both of them had been drinking, and it didn’t end well. It wasn’t a smart choice, and should he and I meet in any manner of afterlife you can bet, “What the fuck were you thinking!?” is going to be one of the first things I say to him, quickly followed by a hug and “Thank you.” My family didn’t handle Robbie’s coming out well. He was estranged off and on from our family. They got it right the second time with me, but only because Robbie taught them about love, loss, and second chances.
After telling mom, I called Karen back to fill her in. I told her that I had left it up to mom as to whether or not to tell her husband. He came from a Southern Baptist background, and I didn’t want to cause any problems in their marriage, especially since I lived 8 hours away. We were discussing how we thought he may react when the call waiting kicked in. “Hang on, it’s Mom again.” It was at this point that I realized that real life indeed sometimes unfolds just as it would in a scene from Will & Grace or Modern Family.
I clicked over to the other line. “Hello?” I said, expecting to hear my mom’s voice. “Well son, it don’t make no difference to me,” I heard my stepdad say in his booming voice, thick with an accent that seems to come uniquely from the part of Missouri where I was raised. I laughed nervously, completely caught off guard, and then he put my mom on the line. She had decided to tell him, and he was fine. I then asked mom what she thought about me telling my brother Roger. She said she thought he would be okay with it, but I wanted to think about it a little bit longer. We hung up and I stood in the silence of my apartment, feeling like a different person than I did an hour ago. I began to gather my thoughts, thinking about what I needed to do to prepare for the next day when the phone rang again. I looked at the caller ID and saw that it was my brother. A smile grew across my face as I realized what was happening. As I was in my apartment in Cincinnati, emotionally exhausted, the phone lines began to light up in rural Missouri for what was going to be an epic night of the Telephone Game. My mom had called my brother to tell him, and I believe it was the first of many calls she made that night. Because I don’t recall having to come out to the rest of my family. Ever. Aunts, uncles, cousins—all knew and none seemed to care. It never occurred to me to ask my mom why she did that. Whether she confided in them for her own support, or wanted to spare me further awkward conversations, I am grateful that she never expected me to hide who I was from anyone.
I tell this story, with too many words for it to be as late as it is, because it’s June. There are more Gay Pride celebrations in June in the United States than any other month. One of the reasons we celebrate Pride, in addition to defending our hard-won civil rights, is visibility. Before I came out, I often felt alone. Yes, I had friends, but they were compartmentalized into gay friends, church friends, friends from high school, work friends—each knowing only a facet of me. But there was no one who had known me my whole life, the real me, all of me, until I made the choice to share that with them.
Oel ngati kameie. I see you too.