While coming out as gay man 56 years ago is associated with lots of crap that happened back then and regularly since, coming out has never been the source of the crap itself.
Coming out actually launched a world of good for me. At age 16, I got honest with my parents in ways that relatively few people do with theirs. I became an adult in the eyes of my older brother. I could focus on the family members I lost, but that would overshadow those who sought my counsel about love, their relationships, contraception, abortion, infidelity, and addiction.
When I began teaching at age 20, my students turned to me not as someone who knew how to fit in, but as someone who figured out how to be himself and evolve. I grew close to the blended families, the homeless ones, the Mormons, and the Jews. I could talk to the dads who hunted and the moms who were worried about the silence that had fallen over their teens. Some parents shook their heads when they met me, but I knew their being perplexed was not a story about me.
In recent years, I have much more clearly become the guncle of a couple middle-aged men in my family. I have become Saba to William and honorary grandfather to Levin. I have enjoyed being Jewish Santa to several neighborhood families. I’m the guy who visits children and families on weekends to witness childhoods in the making and parents facing pandemic challenges head on. I’m the guy who hangs with aged aunts at a party, shares a chocolate carrot cake recipe, and engages the tongue-tied male spouses in conversation if they’ll have it.
In recent decades I have become the co-parent to some children and young adults. They look to me for counsel on how to decide on relationships, find a job, locate an apartment, manage their finances, and create their futures. A few have directly asked, “How should I become a man?” and “How do I face my past?”
To find me through common ground, people ask me about fashion and gardening and décor. I share with them my recipes using seasonal produce and my passion for nonprofits that address racism and sexism. For some heterosexual people, I have become their elder gay, an oracle of sorts. For others, I know the value of good chocolate.
I have also found over recent years that I hold a special position in the lives of many heterosexual men. These are guys who love women, sex with women, women’s bodies, and also art, culture, intelligence, human intimacy, and a joie de vivre that can as readily show up in a jazz performance as in a walk in the park. These guys want me to know their children and grandchildren, their spouses, and their colleagues.
But why? Why this position of respect amid widespread gay oppression? It is not because I am exempt from the crap, but rather that over time I have recognized that the biggest benefits of coming out as a gay man are these:
I know that gay oppression is not a story about me, but rather about those taking up the oppressor roles. My endless fascination with the sources of their distressed feelings about me is not attractive, interesting, or useful.
I walk with millions of people across the globe who have picked up the torch of the honest expression of our identities. The women in SHEBA, my former colleagues at Diverse and Resilient, my lesbian sisters, and gay brothers, my bisexual and pansexual peers, #gayswhogarden, bears, cubs, butches, femmes, same-gender-loving, radical fairies — all of us in St. Louis, West Allis, New Berlin, Denver, St. Paul, Seattle, Phoenix, Long Island, San Francisco, Fox Point, Los Angeles, West Bend, Vancouver, New York, Chicago, Madison, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and more — are mine and I am theirs.
And this recognition and these benefits started by coming out.