Back in the Closet

Sometimes the path out of the closet doubles back on itself

Michael Collins
Jun 28 · 10 min read

Before I tell the story of how my first boyfriend drove me back into the closet, I need to tell the story of coming out to my mother.

I came out to my mom the week before I left home to begin university. It didn’t go as I hoped it would. I chose mom instead of dad because I thought mom would be easier. Back then, girls and women seemed safer than boys and men. To teenaged me, active homophobia seemed mostly a masculine trait, even though my own father was fairly cosmopolitan and broadminded.

I’ll stop there. I don’t want to set mom up like she had the worst reaction. She's not the villain of the piece. She didn't throw me out. She didn't cut me off. She didn’t get mad. Mad, I could have handled. I was a bold, righteous, outspoken teen. I was equipped to deal with anger. Mom wasn’t mad — mom was sad. As if a precious object had dropped to the floor and was damaged — even if it could be repaired, the crack would always be there.

I couldn’t handle sad. It was like I told her I had an inoperable cancer. That’s a homophobic attitude just as much as throwing your kid out is, but it’s… subtler. How do you respond to it? If you get angry she’ll just get sadder. Her sadness hurts you to witness. You wish you hadn’t spoken up, because you love your mother and you don’t want to make her sad. You regret ever opening your mouth. By you I mean I.

I left for university a week later having had no follow-up discussion, having stuffed myself back into the closet, more or less. When I got to university I would be free to be as gay as I wanted, and I intended to be very. Very. Very. Gay.

Why do I need to tell this story before I get to Matthew? (His name was Matthew). Well. I’m trying to explain why I was the way I was, and I’m hanging the blame on Mom. It’s really unfair of me. Her reaction was bad, and it hurt me, it didn’t give me the support I needed at a critical moment. But all of it — her reaction, the fact that I needed the support in the first place — is because of our damned stupid homophobic society, right? Mom and me, we’re both just products of the hate machine that spat us out, right? Right?

I love my mother. My mother loves me. I forgive her. Twelve years later she danced joyfully at my gay wedding. It’s all fine. Everything is fine. The precious thing got repaired so well you can only really see the crack if you know where to look.

So Matthew.

I spent all of high school wanting a boyfriend and sex. Suffering a series of unrequited crushes on unattainable men. But the fear. That was real, too. Not just fear that if you got caught checking out the wrong guy he’d gaybash you — although that was a real, potent fear. But also the fear that if you got caught checking out the right guy, then you’d have to go through with it.

Isn’t that wild? Being afraid to go through with the thing you want to go through with! But it’s true. Actually attainable men? No. There was one other gay guy in my high school class. We shared a friend group, although the two of us never really clicked. I was too weird and he was, for want of a better word, too normal. I was also very, very unfortunate-looking in high school. But in addition to all of this, there was the sense that I couldn’t be attracted to him because if I was then something might happen and I wasn’t ready for that.

But I wanted to be ready for it!

So Matthew, again.

When I got to university, free from my mother’s terrible sadness, free from my high school self, I wanted to shed my skin like a snake and slither my way to a new me. Now that I was out and lived in a city (a small city, but the biggest one we had), I really femmed up. Glitter. Tight clothes. Limp wrists. Hair dye. Eyeliner, sometimes. I wanted the world to know. In part because I was signalling to whoever was around me who had the correct receptors: I’m here, I’m queer, for the love of god please someone do something about it.

Matthew picked up that signal. He was in his last year of high school in a town about 90 minutes away, but he made trips in on some weekends to see his best friend, who had also just started university. She was a friend of mine. One of those visits, only a couple of weeks into my very first semester, he and I fell into each other’s gravity. Nowadays, I know the sensation well. I’m sure most people will, too. You feel this tug between you and someone else. You draw closer. You look at each other. Closer. You're in each other's personal bubble and neither of you is drawing back. A few touches, at first passing it off as innocent. Then more touches. Closer again.

We were so close our lips were brushing each other’s as we spoke quietly. I don’t remember how long the lip brushing lasted before it became kissing, but despite everything, despite the hell Matthew would eventually unleash on my life, I still think this is probably one of the best first-ever kisses on record.

(It wasn’t his first-ever kiss. He already had an ex-boyfriend. I was his second. But it was my first-ever kiss).

Matthew wasn’t my type. I wasn't particularly attracted to him. He had a harsh laugh and enjoyed mocking people he disapproved of. “Being young, gay, and mean isn’t a personality,” as the line goes. Matthew had a bit of that. But he was smart and funny, too. Lots of people would call him cute. I shouldn’t pretend he wasn’t.

But I was so ready. Over-ready. I needed someone to fuck me, already, and I figured I would be lucky if anyone, anyone at all, would ever be willing to do it. So. It was Matthew because he was the first one who stepped up to the plate. Although attempts at sex were always awkward and we never really quite figured that out.

He became my boyfriend. It lasted for about four months. Because he lived 90 minutes away and was in his last year of high school, I only saw him on weekends, and not every weekend. Maybe one weekend a month, two if lucky. This was 2001. Smartphones weren’t a thing. Texting wasn’t even really a thing. I wouldn’t even own a cellphone until 2005. We messaged each other on ICQ and spoke on our landlines.

He broke up with me in January.

Did I love him? I don’t know. I think I did. Or I loved the idea of him. I loved the icon I had built in his shape, a representative of all the things I wanted to achieve by Having A Boyfriend. I wanted it to affirm my sexuality. I wanted it to mean I wasn’t unlovable. I wanted it to refute my mother’s sadness.

It felt like a failure that I couldn’t keep him. After we broke up, he got a new boyfriend before I did, and that felt like a failure too, like it had been a race to see who could land a new man first. Why was I thinking this way? Looking back, it’s awful. I instrumentalized him, made him a symbol, and made relationships and sexual experimentation into some kind of… clout game. It wasn’t about having fun and enjoying myself — it was about proving something, something to myself, something to my family, something to the world. Sex? A boyfriend? Things to acquire. Once acquired, they would show how attractive and successful and powerful I was to the rest of the world.

But maybe I did love him. I cried a lot, and it wasn’t just over the insult to my ego and the setback to my plans. I remember distinctly walking through the pedestrian tunnels that joined buildings on campus, thinking to myself — well, we’re still friends, maybe we’ll get back together in a few years. It was a story I told myself to comfort myself. It wasn’t a forever breakup — he’d come back to me in a few years if I was just patient and kind, if I just waited.

When he got a new boyfriend, I needed to get one too. I found a guy on the chatroom, which was the closest thing we had to apps back then. He… had some issues. Valentine's Day was a couple of days after our first date and he got me an ostentatious bouquet of roses, an over-the-top gift that made me more uncomfortable than charmed. He already showered me with the l-word three days in. I remember waking up in the middle of the night in his bed, the one time I slept at his place, and him slipping his dick into me. It’s this hazy nocturnal memory and I’m not even sure if it’s real or false. If it’s real, it was my first time successfully bottoming. If it was real, he didn’t use a condom.

After we had been dating for eight or nine days, he told me that if I ever left him he’d kill himself. I didn’t know what to do. I just turned very cold, hoping he’d break up with me. It worked. He dumped me before the end of the second week. I had escaped.

Matthew was still with his new boyfriend and they seemed very happy together.

So. It’s clear I reacted badly.

Around the time we broke up, I moved into a basement apartment with his best friend (remember, she was also a friend of mine) and a third party who was one of my friends from high school. Our apartment was a party house. Matthew would come into the city on weekends and he’d stay at our apartment — because his best friend lived there, and I lived there too, and even though we had broken up we were still friends, right?

I don’t know what I did to deserve what he did to me. I don’t think I was ever malicious to him. If I was ever cruel, it was a clueless and unintentional kind of cruelty.

He was staying with us. I was out of the house. He went into my bedroom and went on my computer. He snooped around and found folders of niche porn that I enjoyed. Should I say what sort it was? Is it pertinent to the story? It wasn’t all that weird. It was basically bodybuilders. Muscle men. Some of them photoshopped to be bigger than would otherwise be possible (some much bigger). Some of them with exaggerated genitalia (some of them very exaggerated, photoshop again). I also had an interest in fat guys and there were some pictures and drawings of that nature in there too. Freakish bodybuilders and bears with huge guts and drawings of outlandish dicks. That's all!

But he was 17, mean and judgemental, and he had a lot of social clout. He told my friends about my secret porn in a deliberate attempt to humiliate me, making it part of a narrative about how crazy I was. He showed my roommates. He let everyone know, in a cruel, mocking way, about sexual interests I didn’t yet feel confident enough to share with the world. Sexual interests I still felt a lot of shame about. Sure, I was gay. But I wasn't normal gay like Matthew and his friends. I was Weird Gay.

I only learned about this because my other friend who shared that apartment took me aside and told me what he had done. She did this because she thought it was wrong of him.

Despite this show of support from a friend who had the good moral sense not to follow the current of cruelty, I was beyond mortified. The shame was galling.

My new gay life ended there. My clothes became drab, baggier. My manner less femme. I stopped transmitting “I’m gay!” to the world. I felt chagrined. I stopped trying to fit in with the gay crowd Matthew had introduced me to — he was much more connected and influential than I was. They all had a name for me now, anyway. Psychael. Like, psycho Michael. How could I fight a battle when the first strike was nuclear? I quit. I withdrew. It seemed like the only move available to me.

It was 5 years before I’d kiss another man. It was 10 years before I started to own my particular kinks and fetishes and find others who shared them.

I fled back into the embrace of my family. My coming out was never mentioned. I basically went back into the closet. At least the people in there loved… some version of me that I could maintain without that much effort. Just… close the door on the seven months when I had been an out gay man and pretend the whole thing didn’t happen. Easy.

I don’t hate him.

We were both very young.

We were both inexperienced.

It's possible time has erased some parts of the story from my memory, some facts that make me more culpable than I remember being.

I would hate for someone who only knew me as an 18 year old to think of me now, in my mid thirties, as if I was the same person. So I don’t think of Matthew as he was when he was 17. He’s 34 now. He’s probably a much better person.

Maybe he feels sorry.

Maybe he doesn’t.

I wish I could have those years back. The long years I spent frightened to be myself.

I wish I had been strong enough to look him in the face and say “so what?” I wish I had been strong enough to own my kinks and fetishes, none of which are immoral or wrong or even all that strange.

But I was weak. I was weak and alone. And wishing doesn’t get you anywhere.

The path out of the closet is winding and long, and sometimes it doubles back on itself.

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