Jeffrey Sharlach and Andrew Tobias on the Courage to Come Out

First-time novelist Jeffrey Sharlach speaks with DNC treasurer and acclaimed author Andrew Tobias on coming out in the 1970s as nice Jewish boys and what opportunities young people have now when it comes to connecting with LGBT family. 



Sharlach: How do you think our experiences were different from those of LGBT people today?
Tobias: For many kids coming out today, it’s still awfully tough, obviously. Sometimes tragically so. But when 24% of prime-time network TV shows have gay characters? And the president of the United States has said Modern Family is his family’s favorite show? And Glee is a smash? And Ellen is beloved? And even Brigham Young University has a gay-straight alliance? And most younger people favor marriage equality? And so many American cities have joyous and for the most part noncontroversial pride parades? And have I even mentioned the Internet? I like to think the level of fear and isolation and depression and hopelessness, if you could measure it objectively — while still overwhelming in all too many cases — is just a small fraction of what it was. Is that your view?
Sharlach: I think a lot depends on where they happen to live and their own family environment. Probably many of them struggle with it even more than I did, even today. But I think the big thing is the visibility now of gay people. When I was a teenager, the only thing you ever heard about homosexuals was when they were arrested for molesting children, fired from their jobs, or otherwise disgraced. We never had any role models of successful gay men or women. That’s why when I read your book in 1977 it was such a revelation for me: Here was a nice Jewish boy who came out and he was actually happy about it.  
Tobias: Happy? I was ecstatic. In fact, while I wouldn’t wish on anyone my 12 years in the closet — from age 10 or 11, when I knew I had this horrible defect, to age 23, when I discovered that millions of wonderful people were just like me and that there was a whole amazing, wonderful world out there and that there was nothing wrong with me — it sure did make me appreciate my “freedom,” once I found it, all the more. 
Sharlach: I also think a big difference today is that young gay people are much less isolated than we were, and it’s a lot easier for friendships to continue when they’re not interrupted by the drama of coming out, since many of them are never “in.” I was ostensibly straight through high school, college, and law school, so with all of my friends then, I talked about women, went on dates, and did my best to be perceived as heterosexual, although I’m not sure how many of them I actually convinced. When I came out at 24, and maybe this was because it was such an abrupt shift for me, happening over a period of weeks, I lost touch with most of those friends and, for the first years anyway, spent nearly all of my time with fast-expanding group of gay friends, going to gay bars, and sharing our experiences together.  
Tobias: So your straight friends cut you off once they found out you were gay?  
Sharlach: No, actually it was the other way around. I was just so excited to be myself for the first time and acting on all those suppressed feelings that I just wanted to be immersed in it any free hours when I wasn’t working. Also, I was embarrassed and ashamed: not for being gay, but for having lied all those years and pretended to be someone I wasn’t. So it was easier to just cut those people out than try to explain.
Tobias: I basically loved telling my straight friends. Mostly for all the wrong ego reasons, perhaps — it sure focuses the attention on you, that’s for sure — but still. And many of them remain close, though there’s no question that, the minute I came out, I began to spend much less time with them. The only people I didn’t love telling and kept hesitating to tell and finally told only long, long after I had told everyone else — and waited much too long to tell — were, naturally, my parents. You?
Sharlach: My parents struggled with it, but again, you have to remember, what they knew about homosexuals was what they were taught in school and saw in the media: We were criminals, doomed to miserable lives. They came around very quickly, and it wasn't long before they became active in Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and started to march in the annual New York Gay Pride Parade. 
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