25 years ago, either this week or next, I wrote a letter to my family entitled “What James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, and Gregory A. Russell Have In Common.” Sadly I don’t think I have a copy of it anymore, though I don’t think the essay itself was as good as the title I gave it.
I had moved out of the house by this point, but still lived in Los Angeles. I remember riding my old motorcycle Achilles down the 10 from West LA to South Central to deliver the letter personally to my mother. I had tears in my eyes and butterflies in my stomach. I had worked myself up into quite a state.
When I got home, I smiled nervously as I hugged Mom and my younger sister, who was also home at the time. Then I got to the purpose of my visit. I handed Mom the letter. She didn’t read it. She saw the title and put it down immediately to stand up and give me another hug. My sister hugged me, too. They both conveyed words of support and love. And yes, Mom said she had a feeling, but wanted me to speak to the issue first. Moms always know. My sister said that she learned early on not to be afraid or freakish around gay folks because she knew what a decent person I was; she has suspected as well. So before coming out, I had already helped shape a positive opinion about queer folks for her. How cool is that?
In a flash, all the anxiety, tears, and sweat that drenched by body and spirit vanished. The acceptance I received turned those feelings into what they were: illusions.
All of this flooded back for me when I read NBA player Jason Collins’ beautiful, heartfelt essay, his coming out letter not to his family, but to the world.
The first relative I came out to was my aunt Teri, a superior court judge in San Francisco. Her reaction surprised me. “I’ve known you were gay for years,” she said. From that moment on I was comfortable in my own skin. In her presence I ignored my censor button for the first time. She gave me support. The relief I felt was a sweet release.
After his earliest moments of telling a family member, he felt a release. This is how I felt after coming out to my mother and sister. At the time I said it felt like I lost 7 pounds. And from this release comes power. Later on, Mr. Collins states that he is ready for all that may come his way, including the hate, because he knows the people that mean the most to him have his back.
I know this power, because it has allowed me to do the writing and activism that I’ve done over the years. The sad truth is that far too many coming out stories do not turn out nearly as well. Though the tide is turning. It’s exciting and still very important and heartening when public figures like Mr. Collins come out. It is to his credit that he used the power of his own coming out story to help others, folks he may never meet but know exist.
So many things touched me in his essay. In one passage, he describes the envy he felt when a former college roommate of his, Congressman Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, went to a gay pride celebration. Mr. Collins felt that he could not, for it would have exposed too many questions about himself.
I was proud of him for participating but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn’t even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator.
AARRGG! I was so there! During my early days at UCLA, I would not read the campus LGBT newspaper 10%, for fear that “someone might see me and ask questions.” I flinched when my German teacher showed a film which had some homoerotic moments in it. I never dreamed of going to the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles, one of the country’s oldest. That was out of the question. All of these resources were out of reach to me because I feared, to the point of phobia, what others might say about me. The fear the closet produces is complete and absolute.
Jason Collins gives props to other allies who have voiced support for LGBT rights and visibility, in particular fellow athletes Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo. He rightly states that their clear voices help to encourage the voices of others, in particular those who live within the tight confines of the closet. The more who speak out the better. The closet only has power when we observe its decree of silence. And as we said in ACT UP, Silence = Death.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of freedom one has after being released from the closet’s confines. Mr. Collins’ eloquent essay does the process much justice. He was able to speak about many aspects of his life, some of which we share, and some which we do not share. I, for example, did not have a religious upbringing. However, Mr. Collins has been able to reconcile his identity with his faith, using his spirituality as a tool for growth and not a weapon to bludgeon himself or others. His example will help others still struggling with the closet, in particular other young black gay men still looking for that sometimes elusive key to the closet door.
25 years after my own coming out, I still found it possible to be moved to tears reading about someone else’s victory over the closet. Part of that comes from Jason Collins’ eloquence. Part also comes from the affirmation, still very important after all this time, that my experience was not freakish, that others have walked the same path, and that many of us have lived to see ourselves blossom.
© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.