My Coming Out Story

I was summoned.

When I walked into the room, I could feel the tension as the prepared statement was read by the two people who were there waiting for me.

"You're finishing your first semester of your freshman year of music school.  When you complete your degree in four years, you're either going to be a minister of music or a music teacher.

If you are gay, you'll be neither.

If you decide to be gay, I'm going to tell everyone in our family.  You'll be disowned by all of us.  I am not paying for your college education as I promised you I'd do if you choose to be gay.  I'm going to send you to twice weekly reparative therapy sessions for six months at Duke University so we can fix this.  Right now, we are going to call the known homosexual you've been dating, and we are going to tell him you won't see him anymore."

10 minutes later:

Me:  (With my father on the other line in the other room listening):

"Jeffrey...I am calling to tell you that I can no longer see you."

Jeffrey:

"What?!?  Where is this coming from?  What has changed all of the sudden?"

Before I could get any other words out, my father yells into the phone:

"You faggot...keep your hands off my son."

...And then my father hung up the phone.

Those were the words I heard from my father on December of 1982 when he realized I was gay as I was coming of age at the start of the AIDS crisis when young gay men just like me were dying of the "gay flu".

Merry Christmas!  :-)

I was completely devastated.  In this moment in time, my world had completely fallen apart.

I felt abandoned and alone.

Jeffrey was my first love.  I had never shared this sort of special connection with anyone in my life.  In my young naive mind, I really thought I'd met the person I'd spend the rest of my life with.

Just like that, my father's love for me appeared to have vanished.

So, after the "intervention" to stop me from being gay, I did what any self-respecting young college gay male did in 1982 on a Friday night...I went out and played Ms. Pac Man with my best girlfriend, Tracy, from high school...just like I did every Friday night during my freshman year of college.

I was quiet that night while we were at the arcade as I began processing what had just happened.

My parents were divorced, and I wondered how my Mom would react when she learned the news.  How would my sister and brother receive the information when Dad told them?  Would they still love me and accept me?   Was college over for me?

Tracy knew something was up that night.  She asked me..."Are you ok?"

I couldn't tell her. 

I couldn't even process it myself.

In those first few nights after the confrontation, my father would drag me out of the bed and into his office.  Slurring his words from the alcohol he was drinking to cope with the realization that he had a gay son, he held my hands across the desk, and he said, "He loves you Dale."

"What are you talking about Daddy?"

"He loves you Dale.  I saw what he wrote in those letters."

He'd gone through my stuff.

Sobbing, he would say, "My sons a homosexual."....over and over as he lowered his head and sobbed.

In my young and hopeful 18-year-old mind, I thought I could share my story with this man who had raised me...who provided for me...this man, who at age 18, lost his leg in a hunting accident 6 days after he'd married his high school sweetheart...

I thought I could help him understand...not realizing then as I do now, that our coming out usually becomes more about the person who is coping with this new information about their child than it is about the child himself.

In their minds, they think....What will the church people say?  We can't tell my side of the family...and on and on.

We...who've just spilled our hearts and who need the most support of the people we believe love us the most give rope to the people who've shown us that they don't deserve it.

...but, ever the optimist, I thought I'd give it a go...

.................

"Dad...I've known about this since I was five."

I remember watching Elvis Presley movies with my sister.  When I told her that I thought he was cute, my sister, who was 11 years old at the time, said, "You're not supposed to think that Elvis Presley is cute.  You're a boy."

So, I shut that down.

But I knew that I thought boys were cuter than girls.

I also learned in that innocent moment that it was something I needed to keep from my family.

I'm sure that after the volume of alcohol he had consumed on those first few nights as he tried to cope with this challenging new reality, he has no recollection of those conversations.

My world had crashed down around this 18-year-old version of myself who'd been raised Southern Baptist during the 1960's and 1970's.

Many teens who experience this sort of rejection from their parents take their own lives.

I'm not sure why I didn't commit suicide.

By the grace of God, it didn't occur to me.

I am so grateful that somewhere within me, the strength arose to handle this and to go on with life. 

I am so sorry for the children who die senselessly because they aren't able to cope with the fact that the love of their friends and family they thought was unconditional actually isn't.

When you're born black in America, most often, you grow up with parents who share the same experience.  Your parents teach you about the subtle ways you'll experience racism and how to cope with it so you decrease your chances of getting shot and killed by the police or losing a job opportunity for which you are equally qualified.  When someone calls you a racist name when you are 8 years old for the first time, and it cuts you to the core of your soul, you can come home and tell your parents.  Your parents can comfort you and advise you on how to handle the situation.  Because you share a commonality with these two humans who have given you birth and raised you, it is possible for you to receive critical support and guidance during those very difficult times.

Growing up gay, most of us don't get that.

Instead, you hear homophobic slurs and jokes told by your relatives at Christmas with all the people you love the most laughing at the "humor."

As a young LGBTQ person, you don't get the support you need because, most often, no one in the family is like you.

And if they are, they aren't "out".

So, you just have to figure it out.

The psychiatrist my father sent me to, for me, was an angel.  With gay conversion therapy in vogue during that time period among many religious groups, and with homosexuality still not completely removed from the list of mental disorders by the American Psychiatry Association and the World Health Organization, the 6 months of therapy could have been a completely different scenario for me than it was.

My psychiatrist started each of our twice weekly sessions with this question:

"Do you want to be straight?"

It was like some sort of obligatory question he'd been taught in a Saturday morning three-hour  continuing education course.

My answer each time was:

"Who wouldn't want to be straight?  It would be so much easier than what I'm going through and what I've gone through alone in middle school and high school at the hands of my peers and the teachers who sat on the sidelines and let it happen.

...But I'm not straight."

After hearing my answer each week, he would then listen to me as I tried to cope with the loss of my first love, Jeffery, who was simply not equipped to deal with this kind of volatile family drama.  He, too, was closeted with his family.  Our relationship ended.

I was heart broken for the first time in my life.

My psychiatrist helped me cope as I faced the end of the six months together when Dad insisted on a "report card" to close out the therapy.

I would ask the therapist..."What am I going to tell my Dad in that final session when he walks in the door to hear that I'm 'straight'?"

The doctor would say, "We are going to tell him that we are not going to make any promises."

At home, my father had stopped looking me in the eye.

He was continuing to work through his own mourning process.

On Sunday mornings as he was getting ready for church, he would ask me how things were going with the doctor.   I would answer..."Everything is going well."

...And then he would exit the room, get in the car and drive to the church to spend time with the people he felt most comfortable.

Fast forward to 1998...Our relationship had been distant for 16 years.  I was competing at the World Aerobic Championships in Orlando, Florida.  I was retiring from competition after this event.

My father had expressed an interest in coming.

I was surprised and happy to hear it.  My spouse was going to be there too.

I wanted them both there, but how was I going to navigate it?  "Ok...I'll have lunch with Joe.  I'll have dinner with Dad.  Joe can sit over there.  Dad can sit over here."

As I was about to go on stage for the final competition of my career,  I thought to myself..."This is not what I should be focused on right now."

After training for hours and hours?  After paying for choreographers and coaches with my $18,000 a year teacher salary?

No.

I'm not doing it anymore.

No more separate vacations.  No more holidays where I've got to do what is "comfortable" for people.

After the event, as a 34-year-old man who didn't need anything but love from anyone in my life, I sat down with my Dad, and I said, "Dad.  I'm gay.  I've always been gay.  I'm not going on anymore family trips without my spouse.  I'm not doing holidays without him either."

A long pause...and then my Dad says...

"Is it my fault?"

"Daddy...NO.  Is that what you've been carrying all these years?  No.  Absolutely not.  Since I was five years old, I've known I was gay.  It has nothing to do with you.  If it did, your two other children would probably be gay."

With that moment, he sighed with relief.  His entire face changed.

And, from that moment on, we proceeded with developing a beautiful, mutually respectful relationship that is one of the deepest of my life over the 21 years since that conversation.

It hasn't always been wine and roses, but it has been worth every ounce of energy the two of us have put into it.

I can't wait to fly to North Carolina so see him this weekend.

Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves.

I just completed my 27th year of teaching middle school chorus in the public school setting.

This is the profession my father told me I could never be a part of if I were gay.

I've had an incredible career touching the lives of the over 300 students who walk through my public school classroom door each school year.

...And some of my students are LGBTQ...some of them know that if they come out to their families, they will face what I faced and worse...some of whom face bullying each and everyday and are afraid and embarrassed to tell an adult.

If, by standing before them, as an out gay man, I can give them hope to live and fight and flourish another day...if I can provide them a safe space where they know that an adult in the room will not tolerate any sort of bullying... then my life has more meaning than I ever could have anticipated.

I feel sad for the parents who reject their gay children and whose children take their own lives.  The grief those parents live in for the rest of their lives after their children are gone is beyond anything anyone who hasn't lived it can possibly imagine.

Just last week, I had dinner with a 63-year-old colleague whose brother was diagnosed with HIV and who passed away before the drugs that have helped extend lives existed. 

I hurt for her and for all of the sisters and brothers of gays who were unable and unwilling to comfort their siblings who contracted HIV in the 1980's and 90's.  They can't get their siblings back, and now they sit in their grief.

My heart aches for the parents of adult gay children who've chosen never to truly know their children because it's easier just not to talk about it.

I feel mournful for the adult LGBTQ human beings who will never get to have a fully three-dimensional, mutually respectful relationship with their parents...the parents who love their children deeply but who aren't sure how or when to ask the question because they are respecting their child's decision to remain in the closet.

Nothing worth anything is ever easy.

I'm so thankful the world is changing...and I'm thankful that the psychiatrist didn't try to fix what wasn't broken because I am living a life I could never have imagined as a young, closeted gay boy from north Durham.

Here is a photo I took last week at the New York Public Library as they prepared to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the unofficial beginning of the LGBTQ civil rights movement:






Here is a photo of my husband and me when we got married on June 26, 2015 after nearly 25 years together on the day the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Marriage Equality.  We ran to the court house!


The Ms. Pac Man machine that my spouse bought for me on my 40th birthday as a surprise because Ms. Pac Man probably saved my life on that dark, sad, scary night.  Thank you Ms.!  :-)





And here is a picture of my Dad and me from earlier this year.  I'm so grateful that the two of us did the work and that love won.







20 comments

  1. This is heartbreaking, beautiful & inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing!! ❤💛💚💙💜🎵

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  2. You are an inspiration to so many young people! Thank you for sharing your story!

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  3. I want to say something, but I'm at a loss for words. I'm the daio of a Southern Baptist Minister and I have a gay brother. My parents sent him to counseling after I accidentally outed him by reading his diary and asking my mom what it meant (in my defense, I was 11-mom should have known better than to read his diary). I am overcome with sympathy for all I am sure he went through after reading this. God bless you and your husband!

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    1. Yes. Forgive yourself. You were 11. :-) And now...love him...be there for him...

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  4. Oops. I am the DAUGHTER of a Southern Baptist Minister....

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  6. Dale, what a touching story, tears were rolling down my face as I read even though I knew the ending... I, too am glad love won. ����

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  7. Dale - Thank you for sharing your story. As a teacher-librarian, I hope that I also help students find themselves in books and stories so they know they are not alone.

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  8. What a beautiful story Dale. Everything I learned about being gay in 1983 I learned from you when you were brave enough to let me use you and your partner as the basis of my research paper on the dynamics of couples for my marriage and family relationships class. What I learned was the dynamics of a gay marriage (although not legal it was a marriage to me) were the same as those of a straight marriage. After I presented my research to my class, 3 of the older women stayed behind to let the teacher know that my presentation shouldn't count because it wasn't about a "real couple". I also learned of the real dangers out there for a young man I knew in high school and his partner (My BFF). I remember praying that the two of you never got that new "gay flu". I remember being afraid someone might beat one of you up or possibly kill you. One of the greatest gifts you gave to me was the suggestion that I read And The Band Played On which documented every detail of the history of the Aids crisis in America. I read every tiny word of that 600 page book. I am amazed at the changes I've seen in my lifetime in America. We've had a black president, a female presidential candidate, and most importantly to me, gay marriage was legalized. You and Joe were the first people I knew that took the plunge. I recently saw Rocketman and thought of how difficult it must have been for you to cone out. You were a leader for young gay people in Northern High School and at UNCG. You let me see into a world I was unfamiliar with. You gave me the tools to educate myself and you helped a dear friend of mine with his difficult coming out. This straight girl from Durham has always been proud to be associated with you.

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    1. I get goosebumps reading this. But, your heart was always in the right place. I am thankful for angels like you...because that is exactly what you were for me and many others... You followed your heart. You didn't need anyone else to tell you that love should win because you knew it should win before anyone told you. It's people like you who are the real heroes...people who saw past what they were taught because they trusted love. Thank you! Love you.

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  9. Dale, I am so happy for you and your Dad, that you were able to make a relationship happen. I've followed you off and on through the years and you are amazing. I'd adopt you in a heartbeat, but I'd have to ask Marcia first.

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  10. Wow, thank you Dale. For the first half of your story I felt like I was reading my own story. We need these kind of inspirational stories to keep pushing through.Thank you brother. #spreadlove, #QueenCityUnity

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    1. My story is the story of so many. I'm grateful that mine had a happy ending...but that isn't what always happens.

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  11. Thank you, Dale, for sharing this. I live in the community where you teach, and over the years have heard nothing but wonderful stories about what a great teacher you are. As the parent of a gay son, I understand the importance of having role models for our youth. You make our world a better place. Keep up the great work!!

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  12. Thank you very much! I am grateful I am working in this community of amazing, supportive parents.

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