Today is National Coming Out Day, a day in which closeted gays and lesbians are encouraged to come out and in which lesbians and gays who are already out celebrate our visibility and self-actualization. It’s also a day to reflect on the fact that coming out is a constantly repeated activity for us gays and lesbians — we come out in all kinds of ways on a daily basis.

I was 23 when I started to came out to my friends and family. Here’s a picture of me that was taken at the same time that I was coming out:

Me at 23

Before I get to the coming out part, let’s stop and say a couple of things about this picture. First, I can’t believe I was so skinny — no wonder everyone thought I was still in high school! At the time, looking like I was 15 was really irritating; I was in my second year of graduate school when this was taken. Second, this picture makes me realize that, while I’m no longer a skinny little twink, I haven’t really lost that much hair since then (yippee!). Apparently, I’ve always had a receded hairline and “baby fine hair,” as my hairstylist calls it. This realization feels me with relief!

Back to the gay part. The guy in this picture was, as we’ve already partly established, a graduate student at Texas A&M University who was earning a Master’s Degree in English literature. He had just bought his first car, a cherry red 1993 Hyundai Excel. He was taking two seminars: one on Milton and one on non-dramatic Renaissance literature. He probably would have described himself as a devout Christian; he definitely attended church weekly.

And he was in the throes of his first serious crush on another man, another graduate student, Sam, a queer Ph.D. student in the English Department. I had had a class with Sam the previous Spring Quarter. The class was boring as hell, so I entertained myself by surreptitiously starring at Sam, who would beautifully (and somewhat dramatically) remove his glasses during class and gesture with them as he talked. But I’m pretty sure I never talked to him that term. I definitely wasn’t ready to come out then.

We had another class together during the summer, a course on Restoration and early eighteenth-century literature. I sat next to Sam in that class. I have to say that that seminar was one of the most formative five weeks of my life thus far. Not only did I get to sit by and slowly become friends with Sam, but I also came under the influence of Margaret Ezell, the professor, who remains my intellectual idol but, more importantly, has since become a colleague whose advice and mentorship I continue to enjoy. And, on top of that, I found my academic calling as an eighteenth-century scholar.

The fall that this picture was taken was the period in which I began to come out. Having met Sam, I slowly increased my circle of gay acquaintances and friends and eventually began publicly identifying myself as gay. Parenthetically, the first time I publicly said I was gay was actually a moment of not saying anything: I was at a party at Sam’s apartment and someone asked if everyone there was gay. I just nodded my head with every body else.

But a lot of things happened to make that nod possible. There were lots of seminal moments (I’m not sure if I mean the pun or not there) that led up to that moment. The 23-year-old me would have identified as a devout Christian because I had been raised in a very religious family. Until I was in high school, we had always attended churches that had splintered off of the United Pentecostal Church. Consequently, I had always been taught a very conservative form of evangelicalism, one that definitely thought that homosexuality was not just a sin but an abomination.

My parents always had a lot of Christian literature, including the works of James Dobson. I remember reading a section from his book, Love Must Be Tough, which is structured around people writing Dobson to ask his advice about difficult family situations. In this case, a woman writes in about her husband, who she has learned is a homosexual. As part of his advice, he includes the following passage:

Gay propaganda would have us see homosexuality as just another lifestyle being very similar to that of heterosexuals. They picture two young men or women holding hands and strolling serenely through the park, as though their perversion were merely another expression of human love. Unfortunately, the actual gay experience is another matter! It can be incredibly sordid and perverse in its most extreme form. (164)

He goes on to describe gay bathhouse culture:

If you were to follow a gay man into such an establishment, this is what you’d typically observe: For the next hour and a half, that individual would have oral-anal contact with ten to thirty partners, ingesting small amounts of fecal matter from each one; he would have oral-genital sex with five to ten more; he would be penetrated orally by five to ten men and would be the object of oral-genital contact by the same number. (164-165)

Dobson goes on to describe the possible effects of this transmission of fecal matter from man to man. (He clearly wants to gross out his readers.) As a closeted teenager, I had a very conflicted response to reading this. On the one hand, all the emphasis on shit in this description did indeed gross me out. On the other hand, there was a possibility of having “contact” with lots of hot, wet men sitting around large bathtubs. Plus, if we’re all bathing, washing each other in our bathtubs full of bubble bath, then couldn’t we get all the “fecal matter” off of each other? Isn’t that was a bathhouse is — one big bathtub? (I’ve still never been to a bathhouse, so I think I still kind of imagine them as one big bubble bath party.)

All kidding aside, this and other images I was exposed to through my church both inflamed by desire for men and taught be to condemn myself for those desires. (Summer camps that included showering in the same bathrooms as the sometimes extremely attractive men didn’t help!) Consequently, I did everything I could to resist my desires and, if I couldn’t stop myself from fantasizing about bubble baths with hunky men, I despaired of eternal salvation, etc.

This conflict kept me ashamed, despairing, and closeted until 1993, a good 13 years after I first knew I desired other boys, a desire I became aware of while watching a boy named Jake shower in 6th-grade P.E. – he and I were the only two boys in our class who had started going through puberty; he was an irresistible jock god!

While meeting the right people in graduate school helped me come out, they’re not what actually made me decide to come out. In June 1993, a deranged neighbor attacked our family one rainy afternoon, shooting my sister once and my mother 4 times. My dad was at work, and I had gotten home from a class about an hour before it happened. Despite my mother’s injuries, she and I wrestled the rifle away from him before he could kill anyone. I can’t even begin to explain how life changing such a violent event is. (My mother and sister were ultimately fine, by the way.)

I came away from that event knowing that my life could have ended that day. All I could think about was that my life could have ended without me every really being who I am. It could have been over without me ever having really lived. That realization is why I made sure I sat next to Sam a few weeks later when that seminar started. It’s why I wrote both of my seminar papers that fall on queer subjects, a kind of intellectual trial balloon to see if I could come out and be ok as a graduate student and future scholar.

This is all to say that National Coming Out Day means something important to me. It’s a day that reminds me how important it is to live one’s life openly and for oneself, to be willing to defy every thing you’ve ever been taught if what you’ve been taught is so clearly contrary to your own experience and being. It’s a day that reminds me that life is sweet and so terribly short — there’s no time to waste trying to be someone you’re not. I’m so happy that I came out and stopped wasting my life. I’ve found someone to love, someone whose hand I do hold, someone I love to walk in the park with, someone who loves bubble baths as much as I do! That’s what I celebrate on National Coming Out Day.