“When did you come out?” I am often asked by friends – mostly who are straight. How do you even begin to answer that? Coming out isn’t a moment, it’s a process; it’s freeing and it’s painful.
Coming out isn’t always an act of self-liberation or a statement of pride. I came out to my parents during my freshman year of high school because I’d gotten in trouble and I wanted them to feel bad for me; I came out to a boy or two moments after they came out to me; I came out to some friends as a teen by accident when too many cans of Keystone Light made my lips much looser; and I came out to some friends only once at college, where the free-spirited nature made me finally feel home.
To me, the most crucial moment was when I came out to myself.
I was home alone in 6th-grade, watching TV in my parent’s bed. It was a hot summer day, and I wore my usual uniform of an oversized t-shirt and basketball shorts. My cheeks were still puffy and full like a child and baby fat still clung to my hips, but the sprouting of hair in the most peculiar of places made me aware that a bodily transition was underway.
Yet, no prepubescent child can fully comprehend the emotional, physical, and spiritual changes that accompany sexual development. No almost-adolescent can ever be prepared for the way this transformation hits like a tsunami. No matter how many sex-ed classes you sit through, no matter how many mini-deodorants you are given, no matter how many illustrations you stare at in It’s Perfectly Normal, no matter how many condoms you put on bananas, you can’t ever understand any of it, until it actually happens to you.
How can you be warned that you will spend the next decade held hostage by the surge of the onset of your sexuality; like a sailor lost at sea, you’ll be violently flipped while your exposed skin is ground into the gritty sand as you’re pulled out into the rough wake. And there’s no respite; you’ll feel equally out of control as you’re thrown back to shore, only to immediately be washed back out; your bodily reactions, your feelings, they’re all so out of your control. And there’s no one to properly tell you to grab a life vest and hold on, because by the time they’re old enough to warn you, they’ve forgotten how it feels; how rousing and terrifying it is to not understand not only what’s happening below your belt, but also in your mind; in your conscious thoughts and in your fantasies.
So I sat on the bed, ever unsuspecting, watching an infomercial; what could be more innocuous? A man and a woman were demonstrating their fitness regimen on some bullshit abs machine that YOU TOO COULD FOREVER TRANSFORM YOUR BODY WITH FOR JUST THREE PAYMENTS OF $39.99 PLUS SHIPPING AND HANDLING.
The woman wore a lime green sports bra and tight lycra cycling shorts, the man was shirtless, wearing just black workout shorts. Both of their bodies looked as though Michaelangelo had sculpted them, and as they went through the tediously dull workout, sweat glistened on their bare torsos.
Every child knows that infomercials are a sign from God to find a new channel, and I was sitting in bed eating ice cream; I didn’t give two shits about working out. But, I found myself transfixed by what was happening on the screen.
I was disturbed and perplexed by own fascination, by my involuntarily held gaze.
What am I looking at?
I paid attention to my own eyes’ desire, and realized that I was focused on one thing: the man’s exposed body.
I felt a stirring below, and realized my body was reacting to what my eyes were seeing. I felt my face was grow flushed as desire filled my veins; a desire I had never experienced before. Of course every young boy has involuntary erections, but this was my first that was inspired by sexual attraction; my first arousal, the first time blood had been called to my groin by lust.
Shit, I thought. I’m gay.
Having a sexual awakening is hard for anyone, but it is so much worse when you are fighting against yourself; when you are not just confused by your desires, but rather repulsed by them.
I don’t want to be gay, I told myself. Maybe this is just a phase.
It didn’t take me long to realize that my sexuality was not temporary; my fantasies were always male-dominated.
Of course, this shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise; I’d been called gay many times before as a child. But, those names were attached to effeminate mannerisms and qualities and an interest in objects and subjects that were boxed-off as being “for girls.”
This was different. Now, my body was physically declaring its sexuality, its homosexuality. I was without a choice. And that was terrifying.
Plus, there’d been some evidence that had been confusing; subconscious manifestations of my own denial, of my own fear. When I was five, my best friend – who was a girl – and I had a fake wedding; we’d skinny dipped in her pool, French kissed in my closet and had played countless rounds of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
In elementary school, I’d had crushes on girls, and many of them felt real. When I played The Sims with my guy friends, we’d create replicas of ourselves with wives who were just grown up versions of girls from our class.
And now, here I was, in middle school, with a scary truth that I had to guard to protect myself.
I have to keep this a secret.
Of course, it was glaringly obvious, but I still went through the protocol.
Mind your eyes in the locker room, don’t be that gay who creeps on straight boys, keep publicly having “crushes” on girls and, most importantly, never allow yourself to be subjugated; establish social dominance and power and intimidate so you’ll never be a victim.
The first two rules weren’t so hard to maintain. I had one fleeting faux-relationship in 6th-grade with a serial-dating, lonely 8th-grade girl and then decided that faking it wasn’t really my thing. So I maintained public asexuality, and rather put all of my energy into the third rule:
If people are afraid of me, they won’t probe. So I suppose I’d rather be feared than loved.
The morning when I was 22 and called my dad sobbing to tell him I was an alcoholic, I remember admitting, “I just feel so mean.”
“When you were young, you hardened yourself. You became a prick, so no one could hurt you,” he said. “But sometimes you’ve got to let yourself just be soft.”
That is something I am still working on, but growing up, that was the least of my concerns.
In middle-school culture, where “faggot” is a common phrase, used both as a homophobic slur and a synonym of “asshole,” and “that’s so gay” is a term stated to describe pretty much anything negative, I couldn’t help but internalize feelings of self-loathing. When people would direct such terms at me, or even imply them, I would use physical and social dominance to intimidate; I “put them in their place” because I believed it was a dog-eat-dog world and I didn’t want to be put into mine.
Of course, in retrospect, there are many instances in middle and high school where I now realize I went too far in what I thought was self-protection; where I became the bully to avoid being the bullied. It troubles me that when I was in the moment, and I felt threatened, it was so hard to discern between self-preservation and cruelty.
In hostile environments, I can’t help but become hostile, I convinced myself.
This trend continued through high school, where I was never particularly kind or empathetic to other gay students who were out because they reminded me too much of a part of myself that I wanted to hide. When I got to college and saw cliques of gay men form — full of people who I deemed “radical” in their ability to not only embrace but also actively assert their queerness — I quickly decided that these were people I wanted to avoid.
I don’t want to go to gay bars and be shirtless and sexual, I want a townhouse and a husband who wears loafers while pushing our double stroller and walking our dog.
I wanted to conform to the existing heteronormative lifestyle; I wanted to find my future husband who was equally keen to be sectioned off from the greater LGBTQ community so we could more easily blend into the straight world. I had spent so many years working so hard to fit in; to create my little corner of space.
But, life’s not that simple, and vilifying an identity group you belong to so you can be a token minority in the hegemonic group is never going to make you happy. It’s always going to come back to bite you; it will make you forever hate yourself.
And that lesson I learned, as I let down my walls and made gay friends. I learned it as I realized I could have gay friends who I did not sleep with — who I was not only friends with because I thought they could one day be cast in the role of “picture perfect husband.” I learned this lesson as I realized that I do in fact care about gay rights not only because fighting for LGBTQ equality was tied to the end of my own oppression, but more importantly because — apart my sexuality — I am in so many ways privileged.
And so, though I once so subconsciously daydreamed about finding my husband and running away to blend into “mainstream” America, that mentality was so beyond fucked up; it was motivated by the selfishness that stemmed from my raging self-loathing.
So, on this National Coming Out Day, as my newsfeed is filled with rainbow flags posted by those who are proud and declarative of their sexuality and those who are proud and declarative of the sexuality of their loved ones; when laws have been written that guarantee my right to marry — a right that as I grew up I was unsure I would ever have, a right that so many were denied; and as videos go viral that assure suffering LGBTQ youth that “It Gets Better,” I cannot help but hope that one day such holidays and campaigns become obsolete. I can’t help but hope that “coming out” stops being terrifying and Earth-shattering, that parents won’t be angry when their kids come out or sad that their kids come out because “it’s difficult to know that life will always be harder for them,” that trans women of color stop being assaulted and murdered and that no kids — or adults for that matter — need to hear that “It Gets Better” because we will be at a point where “It is Better,” not just on October 11, but all year round.
SEAMUS KIRST is a writer in New York City. He is currently working on a memoir about teenage substance abuse, and his work has recently been published by The Guardian, Forbes, Upworthy, and Vice's Broadly Channel. Follow him on Twitter @SeamusKirst.