In late 1991 or early 1992, I took training to be part of the speakers’ bureau for the Lesbian-Gay Male Program Office, now called the Spectrum Center, at the University of Michigan.
It was a rigorous weekend of sharing and self-reflection conducted by Billie Edwards and Jim Toy. The final project for the half dozen or so of us in attendance was to draft, refine, and practice our Coming Out Story, a narrative of how we came to see ourselves as gay or lesbian (bi and trans experiences were not yet fully on the radar). The stories we crafted would serve as the bases for visiting classes. In the early 1990s, in many instances, we remained novelties for straight people.
As we composed and polished our stories in the workshop, Jim made a point that in sharing our experiences, we were responsible to his bosses at the University of Michigan, who ultimately were the people of the taxpayers of the state. I suppose this caution was meant to mitigate being too radical with our stories, not that I had strong radical tendencies at the time.
A shared performance by the trainees served as a sort of audition for the speakers’ bureau.
Not long afterward, I set my Coming Out Story to paper:
Before I was 16, I presumed I was heterosexual. I was taught to presume I was heterosexual, like most everybody is in this society. I felt a lot of pressure, from my brothers and classmates, to conform to this standard of masculinity. People teased me because I wasn’t interested in sports, because I didn’t value bravado and prowess, didn’t care for the whole macho attitude.
Due in part to social pressures, just before I turned 16 I lost my virginity with a young woman my age. I functioned OK, but it didn’t do anything for me. It ended up confusing me. Even then, I wasn’t ready, or willing, to put a label on my feelings. I guess I was in a state of denial. I knew from so many social cues that being gay was the worst thing someone could be. I didn’t want to let go of the idea that I was a good, normal person, and in my mind this meant being straight. I even had a subscription to Playboy, kind of daring for a 16-year-old.
A couple months before I turned 17, I had a rather explicit dream about this older guy in my high school who I didn’t even know. I dream really upset me. It forced me to stop denying that I desired another male. At first I told myself that maybe I was bisexual, except that I didn’t really desire a female. Finally, I admitted to myself that I was gay. It was a relief to stop burying it, but I felt so incredibly alone.
Cautiously I reached out to some friends and told them what I was going through. I didn’t know what else to do. I wanted acceptance, I wanted to find someone who understood. Most people I confided in were supportive, but a few of them betrayed my trust. Around this time, during a period of anguish and isolation, when I felt totally helpless and ashamed, I tried to kill myself.
It was in the hospital emergency room, after I was given some magic syrup to make me regurgitate the pills I took, that I told my mother and stepfather. They said it didn’t matter to them, they still loved me. They didn’t understand as much as they claimed to. I found this out later when my mom told my father I was gay, out of spite, to hurt him.
I grew up in Flint, where the gay and lesbian community is virtually invisible, and not easy to tap into. The first time I got up the nerve to enter one of the two gay bars I was kicked out for being underage. When I finally turned 18, a straight female friend took me to a bar called the Copa. I spent the whole night on the couches in front, I was so afraid.
When I was 19, after much pursuit, I had my first sexual experiences with men. They were mishaps actually. The men quickly turned cold, which bothered me a great deal. It also helped me realize that I wanted something beyond the mere physical.
In 1987, when I was 23, I took part with a group of friends in the National March on Washington. Marching along with half a million others was a major turning point in my life. Never again can I feel like I’m the only one.
Since then, I have taken part in numerous activities, including the first Gay and Lesbian Awareness Day at UM-Flint, where I helped organize a student group. I am out to my friends and family, and I am out at work. I have to be honest with the people I care about. For the most part they all deal with me as a human being. My sexual orientation is not an issue.
Being gay is not all of who I am, but it is an important part. I no longer feel the need to hide it, to pretend to be something I am not. Loving men is natural for me. It is another variation in the spectrum of human experience. In living my life I hope that I might help others learn to be more tolerant and appreciative of variations, of the differences in each of us.
As I recall, I ended up being on maybe two or three coming out panels. The one I remember most was for a sociology class at UM-Dearborn, where I joined an Ann Arbor woman named Brooke Stair, who still sticks out in my mind as being so cool.
Coming out is a continuous process, highly personal and often incremental, a series of steps and daily decisions. The Coming Out Story I came up with at age 27 was distilled for a specific audience, one presumed to be unfamiliar with gay people.
It reflects who I was then.
A careful, targeted form of queer remembering, it was created for a pedagogical purpose, to create a “teaching moment,” albeit somewhat artificial and a bit self-serving.
I wonder at all the other Coming Out Stories from that time, and their stock structure, their narrative arc of progress, coming out as coming into being. What has become of those stories? What has become of their tellers?