Today, October 11, is National Coming Out day. In my lifetime, I have seen the concept of being “outed” change so much, it would be difficult to describe to someone who didn’t live through the events of the past 50 years that have changed our country, our world, so much. There is debate on many fronts – about the nature of what it is to be human; about what should be taught in schools; about what is “true” and what is “science”; even the nature of faith. Much of my life has been spent in recovery from lessons I would hope fewer children are taught now; but I know there will always be opportunities to give others encouragement to accept themselves, to stand up for others who need support, and to tell someone that they are loved.
Perhaps time doesn’t heal all wounds, but instead allows us to move beyond them and honor their lessons. I will probably spend the rest of my life continuing to learn and grow, and occasionally contribute to that in others; one of the reasons I write here is to try to share something with strangers out there who might be facing challenges that I faced, similar if different – and to say, hold on. Hold on to hope, to faith, to love – they are all real, they are eternal, and they surround you. But today the hours are winding down, and for the moment, I feel the best I can offer, now at least, is to share the letter I sent to friends and family on October 11, 2012 – like everything I write, it came from the heart. Since then – life has indeed changed. Life has truly become better – not easy, not carefree, not without challenges – but better. In that spirit – a look back at how my own path to becoming the best I can be took a big step towards growth, 10 years ago, today. The title to my email was –
A Voice in the wilderness no more
Family and Friends, far and wide, close and distant – Today is a day for sharing. I have exciting news to share – news I could not have imagined just a few years ago. Behind the headline is a larger story, one I wish I could convey in a more personal way but my hope is you will accept my offer to journey through with me. In it, perhaps, is something that will touch your life or the lives of those you love, and it is my gift and privilege to invite you to pause, listen, and perhaps see my life in a different light.
My news is that as of last month I am one of the newest members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, or GMCLA. About 16 months ago I first attended one of their performances, and when they came out on stage – before even singing a note – I felt my heart welling up with tears. When I saw these men walking out in front of an audience, something about their openness and their pride spoke to my soul in a very deep way – because of the wounds that still lay deep within me. Later on, I heard a concert of spirituals that lifted my heart, and finally last June when I attended with a friend, he encouraged me to try out. When I auditioned, I knew that if I was selected, to stand with these men, to openly share not only my identity as a member of a chorus but as a representative of thousands, millions of voices that are not always heard – that I would take that privilege as a sign to fully share my story with you. It isn’t brief, but I hope you will take the time to find the meaning it offers.
It probably isn’t a surprise for me to tell you I am gay. It’s kind of funny for me to say that, still – when I was a kid, and I knew my feelings even then, gay was not a word in common use for that population. The words were uglier, and it was the 70’s, and at least in my sheltered world, there were no homosexuals – none that I knew of. They were solely characters whispered about in obscure movies and condemned in Old Testament stories. I remember my Mom complaining bitterly about how “they were stealing that beautiful word and making it ugly!” In any case, you may have assumed years ago that I am a fairy, a faggot, a queer, a homosexual (I don’t think many use the term sodomite anymore, but, whatever). But this isn’t about labels or names.
What is more important for me to tell you is how I came to the point of being able to finally embrace, willingly, and accept a part of me that I was taught, indoctrinated, even brainwashed to hate, reject, despise, and try to destroy. Because in that history is the core of whatever I have to share with you that really matters.
Many of you receiving this directly, today, “National Coming Out Day” 2012, have known something of my family life; some are family. But, unfortunately, my family life was a lot more destructive, in a well-intentioned way, than those of you who might have been a distant part of it could have known even then. It’s nothing too different from many children, but through whatever set of circumstances, disparate threads weaved together over time to form a rope, a net, and in some ways a noose that bound me more effectively than any prison. It’s not necessary to go into details; I know my parents loved me, but like all parents, they had their own brokenness and challenges. With my Dad out of the picture at a young age –probably for the best, for me – and my Mom impacted by disabilities and emotionally shattered – I was a child alone, and poorly prepared to face being different in addition to the rejection I already felt.
I don’t regret that I was brought up in a home where faith – or a form thereof – was a central facet of life. I was, as I see it, blessed with a gift of intelligence that allowed me to burrow away from the loneliness of rejection by my peers, and economic limitations, into a world of books and imagination. I could get “good grades” and be a “good boy”. But even though I am today thankful for all the good things that were a part of my growing up, and my family structure, I realized early on that a central fact about my being was the worst thing that anyone could be (in my insulated world) – I was attracted to other boys. I hated myself for it, and read books about it; I prayed for it to change, even as I left home for college; and my overall shame about not only that facet of my being, but an all-encompassing sense of alienation and worthlessness, kept me from stepping outside the safety of my pretend world, and my straight church boy alter ego, to even attempt to find my place in that other world. From what I saw in the porn I occasionally viewed, and then destroyed, I was not good enough to be attractive to other guys, and in any case, it was a sin worse than death. I also watched in the papers as news began to spread of a “gay plague” and the fear and condemnation that came from my world towards that group of “other people” was enough to keep me safely closeted.
When I finally, due to job requirements, left the safe but cold and lonely womb of my home, despite my Mom’s pleadings to remain, I started to cautiously but still shamefully and full of self-hatred step into the world I had only viewed from a distance. What happened at that point changed my destiny in a single night at age 26, when I was held at gunpoint, tied up, and my home ransacked and car stolen by a stranger I had brought home for what, in my twisted perception, passed for intimacy. I called the police, who ridiculed me behind my back and made no effective effort to find my car; more importantly, I called my Dad who came to bring me back home – to “safety”. There, after tearful confessions, I told my parents (separately) my horrible secret. My Dad was not overly reactive – he was not someone equipped with much in the way of caring skills – but my Mom prayed for my deliverance. And that is when the threads began to tighten around me.
For several years, I was in therapy, and eventually happily and hopefully participating in what was called “Ex gay deliverance” ministries, aka conversion therapy. I reached for the promise of being “healed” – of becoming straight, or like Pinocchio, a real boy. I attended groups where were prayed for God’s help in overcoming our “brokenness” and sin; I was prayed over for deliverance from demons; I confessed my temptations, I fasted, I read books. I even travelled to San Francisco for consideration in a yearlong residency at a home where young gay men could be taught how to become straight, through faith in God and the support of others. The only problem was … God wasn’t answering those prayers, and the support of the few believers that I turned to wasn’t enough to matter. The counseling failed to provide any consolation; and after several years, I just gave up – on living, on believing I could matter, or that there was any hope for love. Fortunately, for me, even though I made weak attempts at a typical straight life, I did not take it so far as to carry the deception into the life of another through a sham relationship and marriage. I poured myself into my work, my education, and artificial happiness. Alone. Always, alone.
When my Mom reached a point of decline that she needed to be moved from home in my 40’s, I literally returned to that original site of isolation and loneliness. Oddly, in working for literally years to clean my childhood home of my Mom’s hoarded treasures, I found in the stacks of old family photos, forgotten letters, journals and albums a message of hope. I saw that my life was a part of a chain of events, of other people – and I learned that their lives had tragedy and loss as well as the joy and happiness in the faded black and white snapshots. I learned that my family had lost members crossing the US to settle the west, that they had died in flu epidemics, and that they were separated by wars and fought many trials to stay alive. Out of that … I was born. My life was not some random occurrence; I was a part of a larger stream of life – and not only a leftover, or a mistake. For whatever reason, out of that I began to feel that my life had to have meaning beyond just taking care of others, beyond just working.
I had never abandoned my sense that my life was part of a larger whole, or a foundational belief that a Creator existed; but I had reached a place of desperation where I felt abandoned by a God who never responded to my pleas, and that must mean I did something wrong. I saw myself only as a failure who could not achieve what he was created to achieve – conformity with social expectations and gender roles, sexual roles, that were shouted all around me, along with that ongoing hatred of perversion shared by those who sat in the pews and sang the praise and worship songs, whether to an organ or a guitar with drum backups. The healing deliverance never came. There certainly was no one I could be honest with about what I felt; my prior counseling for years had produced only a sense of futility and hopelessness, and I clearly was not doing something right with all the ex-gay ministries. But as I delved into my family history, I reconnected with a member who had been scorned by my father, and effectively abandoned by the rest of the family – his gay cousin Bill.
Bill was an irresponsible man who took advantage of others while, at times, putting on airs of sophistication and living for the moment. He had come out during the 40’s as a teenager and lived as a hairdresser in Hollywood and Hawaii during a time of social change; I had only met him twice, briefly. When I visited Hawaii due to a business trip in the 80’s I was relieved that he and his partner were gone on a trip. When I went to visit him 20 years later in Palm Springs, and shortly thereafter his partner passed, I eventually became legally responsible for his care. I will never forget the Thanksgiving I asked my Dad if I could bring Bill to Corona for dinner, and he refused immediately. I visited him occasionally; he took me to a brunch one Sunday at a gay resort, and I remember feeling extremely uncomfortable and out of place. But Bill never asked me about my life; I made excuses for being single. Years later, I learned that he told his friends I would come to my senses one day, and he hoped they would help me.
Beginning in early 2006 with the loss of my stepmother, May of that year with my Mom’s passing, Bill’s death in October of that year and my Dad following in May of 2007, my world changed. Everything that had kept me in place was gone. I was in a new job; I had finished my second master’s and bought a beautiful home where I could at last display all the things I had spent time and money accumulating. I turned 50; I was utterly alone, I knew nothing about love, and I had to finally accept that unless I was ok with spending whatever time I had left isolated and uncared for, I had to find a way to accept that part of me that I had worked so hard to kill. I had to try to find a way to accept being gay, even though the teachings embedded in my brain and heart for 4 decades still shouted at me that they must be obeyed. The noose was beginning to unravel along with the lies that came from it.
It would not be true to say I had no friends in my life, but those that were did not know that part of me of which I was so ashamed – with one exception, Helen, a friend a fellow person of faith who did not condemn me. She didn’t pretend to have answers like most, but she knew enough to be sure that God did not hate me, or any of those who like me failed to meet that standard of purity and conformity. I made a friend in Alan, who taught me to ride horse back and who had himself followed a very different path, one of accepting himself early on and pursuing the life that I had denied. I started taking tentative steps and went to a gay bar for the first time in April of 2010; that summer was a time of confusion as I walked into a world very different from anything I had known. I made more friends, some of which lasted and some of which turned out to be ones that I needed to move on from. I began to come out to people I had spent my life lying to, out of desperation, because of the confusion I was experiencing as I tried to bridge my earlier perspective with the realities confronting me with each excursion beyond the prison of lies.
In time I found my way to the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, where for about six months in 2011 I spent time each week in a men’s group where others of all ages, races and backgrounds shared their process of accepting where they were, and finding that acceptance, sometimes, from others as well. I gradually shared my story with varying degrees of acceptance, some unsurprised, others shocked. I began with the people I felt I had lied to the most; the ones who I did not trust to accept me, and from whom I had hidden in shame. As I told one dear friend – I don’t have the answers; I don’t know why. But I know that God – and yes, I still believe in a creator that cares – loves me, and everyone like me, even though those who claim to be his representatives shout down any suggestion otherwise. I wanted her to know that anytime she heard someone share that lie, that she knew someone who loved her and who she loved, who had been a part of her life, who she knew to be a caring and decent man, was one of those being condemned and rejected –and that God wanted that to change.
I would be remiss if I failed to share the impact that another change has had on my life. Against any expectation on my own or from others, I find myself riding a beautiful, black, loud, shiny and at times unreliable beast I have named Prometheus – my 2001 centennial edition Indian Chief. It was brought into my life, of that I am sure. My courtship has been tentative, but I have not given up taming the beast. One of the proudest moments of my life was riding last December with the Satyrs Motorcycle club – my first group ride – the oldest continuously operating gay organization of any kind, in the world. And a few weeks ago, I rode into San Francisco – for the first time, as a man who accepts himself as he is, without shame, without lies. It has been transformative. In a way, it typifies my resolve to pursue what my heart desires against all the self-doubts and uncertainties – to take hold and not let go, regardless of what others think. The attached photo is from the Long Beach Pride parade I was able to ride in this past June.
In the past 30 months I have seen things and been on a journey to places that polite conversation would not welcome, and that’s as it should be. I don’t pretend that my experiences or desires are those common to all who walk the earth. But I have learned to not hate myself for it. And in that time, I have made many mistakes, blundered into situations for which my life of isolation did not prepare me, and frequently walked away feeling desperately out of place. And yet … for the first time in my life, I feel a sense of rightness. That instead of crushing my own heart, it breathes and beats the truth. When during the course of conversation an older gentleman proclaimed “Oh, so you are just coming out”, I responded that I feel it is more than coming out – it is, for me, comingtogether. Accepting pieces I tried to crush, to burn, to kill, to destroy – not knowing, not realizing that it was those very pieces which I needed to at last reach out and touch, and be touched, by others in the way that we all so deeply desire. At last I can say without doubt – what I feel is natural. It is normal. It is whole. And for me, for how I see the broader realities, it is blessed.
Beyond all these passages, I remain profoundly grateful. Grateful to be alive; grateful, at 54 in a world that values youth and in a life where I lost decades from living in a box, bound by fear shame and lies … to be able to stand. Able to choose. I never thought I had choices in life; it was all so very well defined. No thinking was necessary, or welcome; it was all set out for me, to follow the dotted lines. But I didn’t fit. I wasn’t created to fit. I now see we are all created ultimately to be true to ourselves and in that to honor the source of our life with that truth. And that only in accepting that truth – the whole of it, not just the pretty parts – can we fully realize, and then share, the most powerful resource our hearts can embrace –unconditional love. Not love that says “First you must” or “Only if you” … but love that comes from knowing we are ok JUST AS WE ARE.
For those of you out there reading this who want to respond with theological positions or scriptures … don’t know you I have spent my life on those questions? Don’t you realize I have cried in the darkness, alone, begging God to please change me? I have often wanted to stand in front of the bodies of believers who have been taught, thoughtlessly, to hate the different ones and ask – how much more did Jesus need to die, to bleed, for me to be forgiven and accepted? No … I am not straight. And don’t you believe that if God wanted me to become something I am not – he would or could zap me and make me conform to that? I reject those arguments. I will not participate in them. I will not waste one more moment hating myself or anyone else, or stand by while anyone shares lies and judgment, telling anyone that they are not good enough to stand up in the sunlight and be accepted and live as they choose, as they are, as they were created. We may not be able to choose who we are but we can damn well choose how we live. I stand today having to remind myself, just like any other man of character, that regardless of how others respond to me, regardless of how they view or accept or embrace or reject me – I must be true to what values and priorities that I want to define me.
This Saturday, I am so moved, so grateful, so blessed to be able to stand with nearly 50 other men and sing for an audience of 1500 teens, young adults and their parents who are hearing, freely, what I was never told – that it is ok to be gay. It’s ok to be lesbian. It’s ok to be unsure. It’s ok to not have answers – and that no one has the right to tell them to change. No one can tell them they are “wrong”. I hope that I won’t break down in tears. I hope that my smile will shine through as I stand before them, free to be myself, accept myself, and reach out with that hope for them.
I am not coming out to you today for you; I’m doing it for me and for anyone in your life that may need you to accept them as well. This isn’t about me seeking your acceptance or blessing; it’s about me at last, at last, having the strength to accept myself and step fully into the light without shame. I am so grateful to those who have stood with me in this passage; the trials are not over. So many who have led the way, so many who were braver than I, who fought and created the programs and the places and the freedoms so that I could take these steps. I want to thank them all. I especially want to thank the men who have listened, who have held me, who have encouraged me, who have accepted me. My promise is to live up to their hopes. My promise is to keep fighting. My promise, my choice, is to walk out of the shadows, and love.
I hope you will do the same. And I hope, wherever you are, whatever you believe, that if nothing else – you will go see a Gay men’s chorus. Listen. Open your heart. Let truth wipe away darkness. Let light dispel lies. Hear them sing. Hear me sing.
In love … Norm