It's August 16, 2013, and I'm driving. The highway I'm on will take me to the home of my childhood, and most of my adulthood; the home of my parents. Like many of my generation, after college, I returned to my parents' home, and stayed for a while. In my case, though, I got comfortable. I had enough income to be financially independent. But I remained in that house. Even now, two years after moving out, I still feel mixed feelings about returning. I'm nervous enough that I can feel my pulse through my neck.
It's November 14, 2011. I'm in the kitchen of that house, returning a dirty dish or looking for a snack. My parents had been away for the weekend, visiting my sister on the other side of the state. My father asks if I had attended church while they were away. I say no. The first domino falls.
That evening, I came out to them. They were the last in this particular chain of people I was coming out to. But I had planned on waiting a bit, until I was fully prepared to move. That afternoon, a PFLAG-recommended book I intended to present to them had come in from Amazon. I had actually just started reading it when my mother came down to the basement (yes, I lived in my parents' basement) and started questioning why I hadn't gone to church. This would ultimately lead to a much bigger fight over my rejection of Catholicism and theism in general. As it turns out, my coming out as gay overshadowed my coming out as an atheist, until about a week later. But that's a story for another time.
It's October 15, 2011. About to roll over to October 16. I'm at a Holiday Inn, in Westlake, Ohio, in a large banquet hall, filled with people my age, mostly men, but unified in one thing: games. We all love games. Video games, card games, board games. Well, two things. We are all members of the same online gaming forum, which is why we're gathered here. Most of us had just met each other in person the day before, even if we'd been acquainted through this forum for years prior. The man I had worked with all year to help make this happen is sitting next to me, while I play a fighting game on an old Sega Genesis. Beer had been consumed. I had just won a match, and was ready to be done, when my friend hands off the controller to one of the few women present, with some kind of teasing remark. I brush off the offer of a new opponent and stand up, off to grab another beer. Surprised at my complete failure to recognize an opportunity to flirt, my friend pulls me aside.
"Don't take this the wrong way, but... Are you... Heterosexual?"
That's it, I thought. I was out. To one person, but I was out.
The weeks that followed, between that coming out and my parents, included coming out to the online gaming forum, where I received the strongest outpouring of support I could have hoped for, two cousins, and an aunt and uncle. I was testing the waters. Stumbling over awkward language (using the phrase "I am a homosexual" is NOT the best way to come out). Gauging reactions, and my own capacity to deal with them. Ultimately, though, I knew none of them were the same as telling my parents.
It's November 20, 2011. I am coming back from a weekend of liberation and celebration. I had found myself among friends in Columbus, Ohio, going to my first gay bar, then to Cincinnati, to see the musical Wicked. Going back was an agonizing three hour drive, thinking of returning to an awkward home, with distraught parents, struggling to understand a son they thought they knew. When I pulled up to the house, though, I proceeded as though nothing had really changed.
In the month prior, I had been quietly working on moving out. Friends in Akron, Ohio had recently rented a house. There was room for me. I was throwing things away that I didn't want to bother moving, and packing everything else. But this evening, I wasn't quite ready to start moving out. That didn't really matter. My mother began talking with me, asking me the typical questions you'd expect from a shocked, in-denial parent about their gay child. It was at this point that things exploded, and the question of my atheism came to the fore. I left the house that night, to stay in a hotel. I stayed there for the next three days, returned home for an awkward Thanksgiving, and moved out on Black Friday.
That was it, right? I was out, now. Independent again for the first time since college. No scrutiny, no self-imposed obligation to attend mass to keep the family in peace, no denial of who I was. The people I cared about knew, and I was done coming out. Right?
It's August 17, 2013. I'm wearing two rainbow-colored bracelets, in the middle of a family reunion, with people who I mostly don't really know, and I struggle to remember their names. These people aren't that important, right? They don't need to know.
"What's going on in your life these days?"
"Hey, Michael, haven't seen you for years! What's new?"
"We need to get you a wife!"
There are people here who know, but nobody talks about it. Not even me. Mostly, I've actively chosen when and where to be out, but it's here that I truly realize, I'm not really out. Maybe they don't need to know, but I need them to know.
I'm in a complicated closet. The list of people I'm out to has grown steadily. But after I worked to tear down the closet I was familiar with, I started building a new one. One that I had voluntarily constructed. My first closet formed around me, and I barely noticed. I denied it was even there. I'm watching myself build this one, and it's worse than before, by far.
It started with my mother's request that I not tell a few specific family members. My great aunt, in her 90's, whom she insisted wouldn't understand. An uncle on my father's side, who is also my godfather. Why I listened, I'm not sure, but I did. I let their discomfort become mine.
A gay friend of mine who has been out for more than a decade helped me through a lot of things shortly after coming out myself. More than a year ago, he warned me against this. The only way that I can change someone's comfort level with my homosexuality is to show that I am comfortable with it.
This doesn't mean shouting from the rooftops, or making every introduction, "Hi, I'm Michael, I'm gay." It means not being afraid to correct someone when they say, "We need to get you a wife!" with, "You mean husband." It means not holding back when your family members are swapping funny stories about weird sleepwalking occurrences when you have one to share about your former boyfriend. It means that you shouldn't avoid talking about the cute Québécois guy you met recently as the motivation for starting to learn French. It means that when you're at a family reunion and someone proposes a simple icebreaker, to share five things about yourself that the rest of the family doesn't know so they get to know you better, you don't grab your car keys and run. Whatever the other four things are, on my turn, without a doubt, one of them should be to say, "I am gay."