“I’m coming out, I want the world to know, Got to let it show…” Diana Ross belted out these lyrics in 1980, but when I was a college student and just coming to terms with my sexuality and just realizing that I was gay, I didn’t want the world to know and I definitely did not try to let it show.
My name is Robert and I’m gay. Today I can proudly, comfortably say those words. But 25 years ago things were very different – in the world and in my tiny corner of the world. “Queer Eye,” “Rupaul’s Drag Race” were years away from debuting on television. For a short, Catholic Italian boy growing up in Queens New York, the gay mecca of Chelsea and 8th avenue in Manhattan might as well have been 3,000 miles away.
Before I expand on how and when I came out, it needs to be said that I had a very happy childhood. I loved both my Catholic high school and Jesuit college. While I remember once or twice being called “gay” in the hallways, most of, if not all my memories of my teen and young adult years are good ones. That being said, I knew that something was “different,” but I didn’t quite understand what it was and what it meant, let alone how to act on it.
In the early 90s, gay role models were few and far between. Obviously they were there. I just didn’t know how to find them or even where to look for them. There was no one I thought I could confide in, so I just pushed those feelings aside, and tucked away – anywhere but out. I joined the swim team, the Drama Club, volunteered, and went on school trips. Dated a girl, maybe two. Okay, probably just the one.
Many gay people will tell you the different ways they “dealt” with their secret. Some banged every girl they could. Some drank too much, ate too much, smoked too much. Some embraced it and came out as teenagers. I threw myself into every club and sport I could participate in. It also helped that I really enjoyed being a part of all these clubs and didn’t read my participation as a distraction or avoidance of a truth. In high school I won “most school spirit” in the Senior Superlatives. In college I was President of the Senior Class. My housemates would joke I joined all these clubs just for the t-shirts. To this day I still have dozens of event t-shirts from college buried in a closet somewhere. Better than me being the one still buried in the closet!
My “secret” was still there. I buried it and never let it see the light of day, never gave it air to breathe. In college, I definitely started becoming aware of how hot I thought my female friends’ boyfriends were, definitely had a crush on a few of them but that is as far as it went – crushes from afar… not much has changed in 20 years as I still have a few crushes not yet acted upon.
After graduation I moved to Hoboken with three friends from college, and got a job in event planning in Times Square. Now 23, I was working in Manhattan and exposed to people from different cultures, different backgrounds, different lifestyles. When you went to a suburban Jesuit college in Northeast PA, 95% of the students looked just like you. White, middle-class, from NY, NJ or PA. Everyone wore pajamas with a Scranton sweatshirt to 8am classes. Everyone went to Kegs and Eggs on Saturday mornings. It was a safe and sheltered environment. It was the perfect college for me at this time in my life. I don’t know if I would have thrived at a huge state school with 20,000 people and a vibrant gay community.
In NYC I began living my best life. I worked at a company where most of the men, if not all of them, were gay. I listened to them tell me stories of their lives, their weekends, their partners, all the time feeling inside that I was just like them. I am certain they knew it too. They were extremely patient, letting me know that it was ok to be gay but never outright asking or pressuring me.
Living in Hoboken – with three straight males – and working in an environment of all gay men was quite the culture shock. I felt like 2 different people. The secret weighed inside me more and more, getting heavier day by day.
This all came to a head one drunken night out with my cousins – twins Monica and Rachel* – a year older than me. Earlier in the evening we watched an episode of “Party of Five” where Jennifer Love Hewitt’s character went on a date with a guy who came out to her and they formed a friendship. Watching the show with them I just knew that tonight was the night. So, after a lot of liquid courage, at 2 am on the floor of their laundry room (I was there because it was cold and I had just vomited, or was about to vomit, the specific details are hazy.), I said the three words. Out Loud. To Them.
When we all got to waking up that day, all of us were hungover and silent. It was awkward, but not for the reason you might think. The two of them silently wondered if I remembered what I had dropped on them. And I, remembering, silently wondered why they were not saying anything. After breakfast sandwiches and gatorade they gently asked me if I remembered the details of the night. I told them I remembered everything and they told me they were honored that I confided in them and they were proud of me. Then they went right to the “Do you have a boyfriend” question. Lol.
Now, the secret was out. There was no going back for me. I continued to tell people. I called one of my best friends from college Phoebe*, told her I needed her 911 now. We met at a diner halfway between my house and hers. I told her, there were tears – all mine. And like the twins said hours earlier Phoebe* said she loved and supported me and only wanted me to be happy.
My coming out wasn’t one episode. It was a miniseries. I decided to tell friends one at a time over a span of a few weeks – straight males friends were told last. Again, all were extremely supportive and assured me nothing had changed, and that they had known for a long time. Everyone pretty much knew so my reveal wasn’t as big and grand as I had imagined it was going to be!
Coming out only intensified the double life I was living. Gay in Manhattan. Not gay in Hoboken. Since I was newly out and testing the waters, being gay to me meant going to a gay bar, alone, meeting someone, hooking up and then never seeing or talking to him again. Healthy, said no one ever. I know. I needed gay friends. I just wasn’t having any luck finding them. When I found a gay person I thought could be a friend, I held on tight, even if we didn’t have much in common, even if I didn’t love spending time with them, but they were all I had at the moment. For me any gay friends were better than no gay friends.
It took some time but I did eventually find my “gay group,” and my life became a whole lot more gay. Instead of a shore house in Manasquan, NJ, I took a summer share in Fire Island Pines. I moved from Hoboken to the Upper East Side. While before if it was 90% hanging out with college friends 10% hanging out with gay friends, the numbers had now switched. I was exploring this new identity in every facet of my life.
A year later – after I first came out to my cousins and after essentially coming out to everyone in my life, it was time to tell my parents. They came over often to take my roommates and I out to lunch or dinner. I had told the girls that tonight was the night. They had felt it was beyond time but supported my delay. I wasn’t comfortable lying to my parents anymore. They didn’t really know me anymore, didn’t know my friends and I couldn’t include them in my life like I always had before. On the way to dinner, my mom remarked, “I wonder why the girls aren’t coming with us tonight, they are so sweet and nice. And they drink wine with me.”
Once I dropped the bomb at dinner, things went downhill from there. My mom cried visibly and loudly at the table – so much so that our waiter came over to make sure we were all ok. Through her tears she expressed that, “We love you no matter what, but I just think that your life is going to be harder, and that breaks my heart.”
Remember this was 2000. Not 2020. After trying to calm her down, my dad felt it was best that I head home and we would talk soon. It did take some time, as things do, but once I included them in my life, introduced them to friends, boyfriends, Mom’s tears stopped. She even joined the local PFLAG chapter! A few years later tipsy at a family wedding I made sure to assuage her fears by letting her know that “being gay is the best thing EVER!”
My coming out was disjointed, long, messy but it was MINE. My heart broke for Simon in the 2018 rom-com “Love, Simon,” as he screamed to his blackmailer how he took that away from him, outing him in an email to his whole high school. Gay icon Barry Manilow recently “officially” came out on the cover of People magazine stating he has been out his whole life, everyone who knew him knew he was gay and he didn’t feel the need to officially come out to the public. Same for Anderson Cooper. Sean Hayes regrets not coming out when “Will and Grace” was on the air, the first time. The list of out celebrities continues to grow – Ellen Page, Matt Bomer, Cheyenne Jackson, Gus Kenworthy and their careers for the most part thrived instead of floundered.
Celebrity or not coming out should be on your terms and when you are ready. No one deserves to be outed or forced to come out. Coming out is still important. Coming out still matters. For me, it felt like a huge weight was lifted. I was essentially lighter. No more secrets, no more shame, no more fear. Being openly gay and proud takes balls and takes guts. Be proud of how far you’ve come and all the great things ahead for you. Congrats and welcome to the team. #rainbowpride