When I was a young medical student in the early 1980s, the gay world was a complete unknown to me. Growing up, I had no gay friends that I knew of. There were no Will & Grace or Mitchell and Cameron on TV. In Michigan, where I went to school, sex between two men was, shockingly, illegal.
In medical school in Detroit planting the seeds for my future, having just finished my undergrad at the University of Michigan, I was as closeted as could be. Keeping my sexuality a secret to virtually everyone through high school and college was paramount. I could never come out.
I had learned how to hide myself in books and to suppress my sexuality for years while studying to gain admission to medical school. I was excellent at avoiding my sexual identity issues. Nothing, I had decided, would interfere with my goal to become a physician and a respected member of the community. If I had to bury the potential of complete personal happiness, so be it — ny professional life was too important.
That was what fear of public reprisal did to so many gay men, particularly professionals, my age.
In the ’80s and ’90s it was not only “not cool” to be gay, it was politically high-risk for career aspirations. Being an aspiring doctor, I imagined people’s irrational fears would run to protecting themselves as well as their children, from a gay man. How could I ever be a trusted doctor in the community if I had sex with men? Being gay was still worse than a dirty word. Even before we knew what AIDS was — in the very early ’80s it was just called the “gay cancer” — gay men lived in fear of public reaction.
Yet as I approached my mid-20s in Detroit, I realized more and more that I couldn’t keep hiding myself from everyone, or life and happiness would pass me by.
Fortunately, the secret gay world was alive and flourishing.
The first gay bar I ever visited was called Backstreet, in a strip mall in Detroit. It was located in an area known for crime, so the parking lot was well-lit and bustling with security guards — guards I did not want to see me walking in or out of said bar. I would walk quickly, head down, from my parked Volkswagen Rabbit to the bar entrance on a Saturday night.
As soon as I entered Backstreet I could feel and hear the exuberant and welcoming spirit. Men of all types, shapes, sizes and ages were dancing the night away and celebrating their gay lives. It felt so comfortable, so real, and so… “normal.” Finally. My nights dancing, drinking, and talking with new friends made me feel like it was OK to feel the things that I had always shamed in myself. It felt OK to be me.
I always looked forward to my Saturday nights at the dance bar. It was there that I met my very first boyfriend and learned that I could be gay and still be accepted by a community. That foundation helped me take the next step, coming out to my sister, and being introduced to my boyfriend’s parents as a “gay man.” As seemingly all of us have experienced, this seemed impossible just a couple years earlier.
Throughout the ’90s I worked hard to balance being “out and proud” in my personal life, while keeping it walled off from my professional life. It took time, a little therapy, and some gradual societal change, before I could start blending my personal and professional lives together.
My chosen specialty of reproductive medicine has provided many wonderful opportunities, including the ability to help all kinds of people to have children and to build families of their own. My passion for babies and my growing comfort with being a “gay doctor” motivated me early on to work with same-sex couples, even before many other fertility doctors would consider helping LGBT people have children.
But I never would have gotten where I am today — happily married and serving the LGBT community — if it wasn’t for the men in that gay bar in Detroit in the early ’80s who, before I was ready to come out to the world, helped me come out of my shell.
The very existence of a National Coming Out Day makes me smile every October. That our community has arrived at this very different place in 2016 makes all of our struggles so many years ago worth it.
GUY RINGLER is a board-certified physician in both obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive endocrinology and infertility. He is a partner with California Fertility Partners.