On being gay
I’VE NEVER BEEN VERY FOND OF THE WHOLE “CLOSET” METAPHOR. To be in the closet. To come out of the closet. Closet, closet, closet. Ugh. While I understand its connotations of privacy and secrecy, I must say this rhetorical figure has never truly resonated with me. And for valid reasons, I’d like to think. The truth is that, despite having become increasingly popular around the globe, I don’t believe it has managed to overcome the cultural barriers that stand in the way, which results in me feeling uncomfortable using it and, more importantly, unable to identify myself with it. To come to the point, it never struck me as appropriate for my way of constructing reality and making sense of the world.
But don’t think my personal feelings on the matter have made me oblivious to this clear oversimplification of this figure of speech. I know there is more to it. In fact, by means of a very limited research, I ended up reading about the sociolinguistic origins of the expression “to come out” and its connection to the coming-out parties for debutantes –naturally, not referring here to women being “properly” introduced to upper-class society, but redefining the term to mean gay men making themselves known to the homosexual society. I also read about how this expression was later combined with the idiom “skeletons in the closet” –i.e., secrets people keep for fear of being treated differently–, which better explains how “to be in the closet” went on to mean something along the lines of “living a life of untold truths on account of not being honest about one’s sexual orientation”. Enlightening as this may have been, it doesn’t change the fact that the metaphor is reliant on a cultural context that was once unavailable to me, which rendered it void of any real meaning to my Uruguayan, Spanish-speaking younger self.
Luckily, there were other ways for me to try to make sense of the circumstances in which I found myself –other plausible and simpler readings, if you wish. As it happens, the one that used to work for me, the one that seemed more precise to me, was comparing it to acting: gay people who prefer not to be known as such need to adopt a persona and pretend to be someone they are not all the time.
And so, I played a role for many, many years. Not that of the faux philanderer who pursues many different women to prove his virility and avoid raising suspicion or the closeted and homophobic chauvinist who yells out sexual slurs and shakes his head in disgust at anything even remotely gay, but a different role. One less noticeable –and should I say predictable? I was the one too wrapped up with school work and later on actual work to even consider dating. The one who nodded in agreement to someone else’s lascivious comments on a girl’s seductive body or provocative clothes, but who never added anything substantial to the conversation. The one used to dodging the constant questions about crushes (“But you must like somebody!”), simply informing there wasn’t anything worthy of note. The one tricking himself into believing that he fancied conveniently unavailable women, thus strengthening his deeply held conviction that his romantic intentions were sincere, but the state of events forced him not to act on them. What a part to play.
But my limited acting skills could only help me so far. I could pretend all I wanted to the outside world, but on the inside I was in hell. Truth be told, I tried very hard to believe my own lies and convince myself that I wasn’t just playing a part but being who I really was. And so I would tell myself that I really didn’t have time to date and that my romantic interests, though inconvenient, were genuine. Yet same-sex attractions confused and mortified me, and I knew better than to blame it on being a sex-driven teenager with raging hormones. I couldn’t help questioning my sexuality on a daily basis, though never being brave enough to try and reach a definitive answer. I was in a state of constant emotional turmoil.
It was not until I turned nineteen that I realized a different approach was necessary. By then, time had taught me that, despite what my stubborn self wanted to believe, my refusal to acknowledge my feelings would not make the problem go away. Maybe ignorance wasn’t bliss, after all? So, finally, I put on my big boy pants and adopted a less cautious stance. And one night, in a decisive moment of distress brought about by a series of particularly rocky months, I plucked up the courage to look at myself in the bathroom mirror and say the dreaded words to myself over and over again. I’m gay. I’m gay. I’m gay.
I’m quite certain I thought letting it sink in would be enough. Perhaps I wanted to believe that repetition or simply hearing myself saying it aloud would miraculously fix my life or, at the very least, provide some sort of comfort. I was too naïve at the time to realize that the change I wanted to see had to come from somewhere else, because accepting that I was gay would not turn me into a different human being. In every way that counted, I would still be myself.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise to anyone that this little event was not the end of anything. I’d love to say that the following day I disclosed my sexuality to the world and my problems were forever solved, but then I would just be adding another lie to the pile. The truth is I did not accept myself that day. Much as I would have wanted it to be the real deal, it was nothing but a pathetic mock session. I was fooling myself: I wasn’t ready to embrace change. In fact, I did the very opposite and reprised my not-so-outstanding role for a few more years, though now painfully aware of the sham it all was.
In consequence, those walls I had built around myself were by then more confining than comforting. I even moved abroad on my own, partly as a desperate attempt to break free, but I still couldn’t bring myself to act on my feelings. I was too scared to date women and prove to myself how unattracted I was to them, or date men and prove to myself how attracted I indeed was to them –my worst fear would materialize either way. Unable to build up enough courage to take action, I chose to remain voiceless in my little bubble for seven more years. I was miserable, and I felt alone and lonely.
But then it happened: the click I had been waiting for. It was a winter night and I was on a bus, making my way home from another city. Too immersed in my reading, for a fair amount of time I paid no attention to my surroundings. However, I did eventually snap out of it and look around. It was dark and I could hardly make out anything, but I managed to see just enough. Two men in their twenties were occupying the two seats right next to me on the opposite side of the bus. The one by the window was asleep and had rested his head on the other one’s lap, who was gently stroking his hair while smiling down at him. There really wasn’t anything extraordinary about it –nothing but a male couple sharing a bus ride. And yet the intimacy they shared, their gestures of love and trust and affection, were enough to strike a chord with me. They were in their own little world and they seemed happy. I was touched and moved and jealous. I wanted to experience something like that. Suddenly I was very much aware of all the things I was missing out on, and realized how much more I really wanted. I was depriving myself of many things for fear of hurting others, when in fact the one I was hurting the most by living that way was myself. Was that really fair?
Well, I decided that it wasn’t. Not at all. And, finally, I did something about it — though, of course, nothing drastic. Mr. Baby Steps over here is not too keen on taking action, so let’s not get carried away. Change did not happen overnight. Naturally, I suppressed the wild urge to be myself for a few more months, but then the yearning became too great to bear. And so, after due and proper consideration, I finally decided to disclose my sexual orientation to a friend on a casual conversation on 30 December 2016, and it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It was nerve-racking and terrifying and exhilarating and liberating. It was everything I needed it to be: a short and honest confession met by a positive reaction and followed by a lengthy and heartening conversation on what to do next. How thoroughly satisfying: I had finally said those dreaded words out loud to another human being. I had made it real! I had never felt more alive.
Granted, I was only “out” to one person, so perhaps my progress had been somewhat limited. Yet what mattered most to me then was that I was finally not alone anymore. I had someone to talk to, someone to root for me and encourage me to keep going. And, because of that support, in the following weeks I was indeed able to gather up that much-needed courage and open myself up to more people –who, luckily enough, proved to be just as caring and understanding.
By now I’ve had “the talk” –and I mean the one about my sexual orientation and not that of the birds and the bees– with my immediate family and some of my closest friends. Of course these conversations were all awkward to begin and difficult to hold, but I toughened up and had them anyway, because there wasn’t really a choice. And while their reactions weren’t quite identical — some were over the moon for me, while others clearly still need some time to process all of this — , all conversations were, on the whole, successful.
Pleased as I am about this, I know it is not enough. This journey has taught me that I want more out of life, and while coming out to my friends and family was without doubt a step forward in that direction, I know that failing to do the same with everyone else or proceed to lie by omission will be, in the long run, detrimental to my own happiness. I cannot allow myself to play pretend for anyone else ever again. I want to come out to come back into the world as who I really am, and that’s what brings us here today.
I know my story does not mirror that of every single gay person in the world –quite frankly, how could that ever be so? We all undergo different experiences and deal with them in different ways. For instance, some people are proud of their sexuality and have never felt the need to impose barriers on themselves and wear masks to please others. And while I envy them for their bravery and commend them for their willingness to stay true to themselves at all costs, I believe that, at large, this is hardly the case for most people. Most queer people, like myself, do struggle with their sexuality and feel shame for being different. Even worse, many are blatantly discriminated against and become victims of physical, psychological and emotional abuse –true horror stories that, in comparison, make my own story seem like a fairy tale (no pun intended).
The point here is that I know my story is not universal and may not even amount to much, but I do believe it to be indicative of a larger issue. Let’s revisit my own experience: in many ways, I was very lucky. I was raised by a loving and supportive family that has always gone out of their way to make me feel safe, one that has insisted time and time again that I should always strive for happiness above everything else. I was never discriminated nor looked down on –at least as far as I know–, and I was fortunate enough to accept myself on my own terms and at my own pace. Yet, despite these clear advantages, it still took me almost TWENTYSIX YEARS to finally be honest with myself regarding my sexuality and open up about it. What does that say about the world in which we live?
I wish my sexuality hadn’t been such a big deal for me. I wish I had never felt the need to come to terms with being gay, and could have just been myself ever since my hormones kicked in. I wish I had never fantasized about being straight, or fooled myself into thinking I could will myself to be so. I wish I didn’t have this need to disclose my sexual orientation to the world to be happier with myself, or that doing so weren’t such a tangible risk. I wish none of this were true. But it is.
Whether we choose to see it or not, we live in a bigoted and intolerant society that idealizes heterosexual life, an archaic construct too simplistic and naïve for its own good. We abide by it, thus empowering discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which means those who do not follow the cultural norm are ridiculed and ostracized.
I know very well that, to the eyes of society, my heterosexual brother and I are not equals. Despite all the progress made over the last decades, we still don’t live in equal conditions. As if the mistreatments and oppressions queer people are subjected to weren’t enough, we have normalized homophobia to the point that we are now desensitized to the use of foul and offensive words laden with derogative connotations. We demean by default. We refer to homosexuals as “fags” or “faggots” or “puffs” to belittle them, or we use those same pejorative terms to shame or tease heterosexuals, for homosexuals –or any member of the LGBT community, for that matter– are considered lesser beings. Knowingly or unknowingly, we undermine the quality of their lives and discredit their claims to fundamental rights. No wonder self-acceptance is no walk in the park.
Being gay does not define nor confine me. My sexual orientation is but a fragment of who I am, not necessarily more relevant than my physical built or my taste in music or books. Yes, I am gay, just as I am a son and brother and a friend and a translator and a teacher. I am a fully-fledged human being who thinks and feels and suffers.
I am gay, but I am not sick, for homosexuality is not an illness. I am gay, but I am not a deviant nor a pervert, for homosexuality is not unnatural nor in any way similar to incest or pedophilia or zoophilia or necrophilia or any other sexual fixation. I am gay –just gay.
It is difficult to predict how people will react to this piece of news. Probably some will be taken aback, while others will not be the least surprised. Hopefully some will be accepting or at least indifferent, but I know very well others will be less understanding. Who knows, maybe you and I will cut ties today. You may very well be a relative or a friend or a coworker or a student or an acquaintance or a stranger who does not share my view. And if that is the case, you will probably start treating me differently or decide to walk away from my life altogether. And I am not going to lie here: your decision will most definitely sadden and hurt and enrage me. But I am swaying with the winds of change now, so for once in my life I will take the liberty of putting myself first. As of today, I refuse to reduce myself to something that I am not for the sake of others. I need to be able to love openly and unapologetically and live a life free from social stigma and prejudice. And in order to do that, I must first learn to love myself unconditionally. If that means losing you, if you are the price to pay, then so be it. I refuse to be ashamed of who I am.
I know perfectly well that disclosing my sexual orientation to the world will not solve my problems –if anything, it might be the beginning of them, for I will now be more vulnerable than ever before to the oppression of others. But I am ignoring my instincts and putting myself on the spotlight because I have to. It is the least I can do for those who work arduously and relentlessly to defend LGBT rights and secure a better world for everyone.
I share my story to help those who are now where I once was, full of insecurities and frustrations, so that they know they are not alone and that they do matter. I share my story to help give a voice to the voiceless, so that bigotry will not win the war. I share my story to contribute in making a more accepting society and help eradicate the “closet” metaphor, so as to eliminate the need to ever embark oneself on a journey of self-acceptance. Please, dear reader, do not be afraid to show off your true colors. Trust me, our world needs a colorful rainbow.