I had a very close relative who was married, had two kids, but divorced her husband and then lived with her “roommate” for 28 years. On her death bed, she confided in a priest that she had committed a grave sin, she was gay and in love with a woman. The priest assured her that love was not a sin, and with that, soon after, she passed away. Though we all knew what the relationship was between her and her roommate, she only told one person, after 60 years, that she was gay.
Most of us have our own coming out stories, and some may still be wrestling with the how and the when, and whether they have the fortitude to make that declaration. This month, two prominent men in the autumn of their lives, Ed Smart, 64, the father of kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart and Ottawa, Canada Mayor Jim Watson, 58. declared, after years of distress, that they were gay. And in recent weeks, rapper Lil Nas X, 20, vocalist of the hottest song of the summer, came out of the closet, and one European gay footballer went up to the line, and then announced that he wasn’t “strong enough” to make that declaration. Four approaches illustrating that while society is more accepting, being openly gay still causes consternation, particularly to those of us of a certain age.
For Smart and Watson, it came down to appeasement. Smart saying, he no longer wanted to mollify the Mormon Church and Jesus, and Watson not having to placate his constituency. Each man felt enormous guilt and pain throughout their life. Coming to the decision was liberating – a “huge relief” for Smart, and regretful – “not coming out sooner…a big mistake,” for Watson. Two men who have lived more than half their life, citing constant struggles and challenges, ultimately shedding surreptitiousness and now on paths of authentic awakenings. The sheer terror of being “found out” dissipated, supplanted by the cumbersome transition of being free to be themselves at this stage in their lives.
Lil Nas X, coming out just as he became one of the famous people on the planet, was also burdened with angst. For the pop star, he worried about alienating his newfound followers, particularly the country fans of his massive summer hit “Old Town Road,” since he surmised they are “not as accepting of homosexuality.” And he was anxious about his family because he was brought up to believe that being gay is “never going to be ok.” Ironically, these feelings of a 20-year-old that it’s “never going to be ok” probably sum up why Smart and Watson, and many in their generation, never felt strong enough to come out for so long.
Which leads us to the curious paradigm of the mysterious high-profile gay footballer. According to The Guardian, “A Twitter user who claimed to be an anonymous Championship footballer, intending to come out as gay, has appeared to reverse his decision after admitting he is “'not strong enough to do this.'” If he had done, or does so, he would become only the second gay footballer to come out since Justin Fashanu in 1990, so there most certainly had to be an enormous amount of trepidation and assumed lack of acceptance after 29 years of silence.
Regardless of whether you’re in the public eye or not, gaining the strength to lift the closure of concealment usually doesn’t follow a straight path, but rather forces you to traverse down a rocky trail of self-interrogation. How will my family react? Will they accept me? What will their friends think? Will my friends understand? Will people look at me differently? Will I be accepted at my workplace? Will I be fired? What will be said behind my back? Who will befriend me? Who will love me? How will I find love? How will my life change? Will I be happier? Will I be lonelier? Will I be at peace? Will I still be tormented? Will I act differently? And for those who are older, how do I possibly change my ways after years of entrenched shame? How, or do I alter my behavior now? How shall I move on after all these years of conditioning and pressing myself to live a certain way? Am I past the point of finding true love and to marry? What will become of me in the years I have left? Is it too late to say I am gay?
I think of my close relative and realize that decades of being in denial most likely weren’t undone by her single statement, and that the perceived answers to the questions she asked over all those years still carried a profusion of negative connotations and ripostes when she died. She was older, and all who were around her were too, and so she must have assumed they felt uncomfortable too. That was just how it was in their generation – summed up by someone in this generation that it was never going to be ok. She told a priest, but like the gay footballer, she was never strong enough to tell us all.
What would it have been like for her if she had lived and freed herself of that burden? Would she have married her roommate with all of us gladly in attendance? Would she have lived a life of happily ever after? We’ll never know, but for Smart and Watson and X, they are now the most recent public faces to show that you can be strong enough, at any age, to finally tell the truth, and now we’ll get the opportunity, because of their prominence, to see them live out that truth.
John Casey is public and media relations professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City. As a contributing columnist his articles have appeared in The New York Daily News, Pittsburgh Magazine, The Advocate, Ladders, and IndieWire.