Few moments compare to coming out in an episode of MTV’s True
Life some 10 years ago. Even when I boarded
a plane in January with a parachute that I was terrified wouldn’t open,
flew up into the sky and 10,000 feet later jumped out of the open doors, it was
the second most exhilarating experience of my life.
Ten years ago, I was 19 and wanted to come out. But I was
scared. Much like being in that airplane, I didn’t want to jump. It
was only after my best friend Kat demanded that I go skydiving with her, and
only after I spent a few weeks saying “No” that I eventually gave in.
Living in a strict, Catholic, Filipino home, my parents
expected a lot from me. And being the only son of five children, my
parents wanted me to get married, have lots of kids, and support my family with
the money I would make from being a doctor. Although none of these
things would make me happy, I was raised to respect my elders and live up to
their expectations. So I was prepared to live a lie.
Then things changed. My dad had a heart attack and was
sent to the ER, where I rushed to find him lying weak on a bed. I
held his hand, and as feeble as he was he still managed a smile. A
realization hit me: I almost lost my dad without him really knowing
me. I felt like we both deserved better. That was the
moment I decided to overcome my
fear and come out.
That night, I started thinking of ways I could do it that
would let people like me learn what I’d learned. I considered
writing an article, or something along those lines, until I went on the
Internet and stumbled upon a casting call on MTV’s website. They were doing a
show called True Life: I’m Coming Out. I
never believed in signs until that night, and so I immediately wrote MTV a very
long email. I remember being so passionate about what I was writing
that I didn’t even proofread. I just kept typing and typing and then
One week later, a producer from MTV called and said they
definitely wanted me on the show. A television crew flew from New
York to California two weeks later. I was aware that I was about to do
something absolutely crazy, especially since I had to mislead my family and
friends and say the show was about “college kids growing up.” After all,
the whole point was to capture the moment when I would say “I’m gay” to my loved
ones “on camera.” And their reactions were not all happy endings.
I started with my dad. The cameras were rolling
as we went to a nearby park to play some tennis. We took a break for
lunch on a bench, and I remember being terrified. I was beating around
the bush, telling my dad that I knew he had a lot of expectations from
me. He agreed, but he also said he wanted me to be happy. I
think having that heart attack not only taught him about the value of life, but
also the value of happiness, not just for him but for his kids,
Dad asked me, “So what are you trying to tell
I felt like the world was put on pause as I faced a last
chance to turn back around on this path. Then finally I said it: “I’m
gay.” I didn’t know much about skydiving then, but looking back, that’s pretty
much what it felt like.
Dad gave me a hug and let me know that everything was going
to be OK, and like he said, he just wanted me to be happy.
The next person I came out to was not as accepting – my
mother. As soon as I tried starting the conversation while in front
of the cameras, she knew what I was getting at. So she looked at the
producer and said, “Is that done?”
Not long afterward did the crew fly back to New
York. I remember feeling so disappointed, especially since I didn’t
want MTV to put text on the screen that read, “Joel tried to come out to his
mom but was unable to.” So I took matters into my own hands. I
grabbed my home video camera, set it on the dinner table and hit “record.” At
that table my mother and I had our most honest conversation ever.
“When did you realize you were like that?” she
asked. “I mean, your kind.”
“What’s my kind?” I responded.
My mother at this point grew angry and said, “You know what
I’m talking about. You’re afraid to say it.”
“I’m not afraid to say it. I’m
gay. I’m gay. I’m gay and I’m happy to be gay.”
When the show aired in 2002, I got thousands of letters from
people who were just like me, saying that I helped change their life for the
better. I had complete strangers approach me on the street thanking
me. What got to me the most was when I would hear stories from
people who were suicidal, but after seeing the show it helped them realize that
their life was worth living.
Still, my relationship with my mother wasn’t the
best. It took her a long time to accept me for who I am. A decade
later, I’m not living the life my parents expected. Instead of marrying a
woman, I met a man named Jason and we spent an amazing 8-year relationship together.
Instead of being a doctor, I became a supervising producer on a network television show
that changes lives. I feel like I have the best job in the
I had no idea how big of an impact television had on viewers
until I did the show, so I asked MTV for a job and they gave me
one. One of my goals in life became helping tell the stories of
people who feel like they have no voice.
Whenever I’m having a rough day at work, now at NBC, I
remind myself of that 19-year-old Joel who simply wanted to tell his story, and
that gets me through the day. It’s been an amazing 10 years since I
came out of the closet and I guess my one piece of advice is this: Forget
about expectations. If you’re thinking about coming out on this National
Coming Out Day, if you believe you’re ready, then be brave and trust that your
parachute will open.