Coming Out!

Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk

I came out 35 years ago in January, 1978, six months before Harvey Milk’s infamous rallying cry:

Gay brothers and sisters,… You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives… come out to your friends… if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop… come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene.

I was 21 years old at the time, studying violin at UVic and playing in the Victoria Symphony to help pay my way. The December before, Canadian pianist William Tritt came to perform with the orchestra as soloist. He was a bit older, but beautiful, with such soft eyes, so fun, so cynical and so smart — I fell head over heels in love with him, showering him with attention and books and gifts I couldn’t afford.

51K+qkqdlkLTo my eternal gratitude, he didn’t take advantage of me, refusing my clumsy sexual advances, but stayed on in the city for two weeks after the concerts so we could spend time together talking about the books I made him read, arguing about our favorite artists, sharing many beers and meals and the intoxicating romance of it all.

I was completely wrong for Bill. He was attracted to much darker, more dangerous encounters. I was all boyish, youthful beauty — the opposite of what turned him on. Still, the love he kindled in me was shared. I’ve never been so depressed as when he left Victoria to return home. It seemed so cruel, no sooner having found Love than it abandoned me!

But the one thing I realized in the blackness of that loss was that I had really loved Bill — sex had nothing to do with it. And I knew instinctively that if love was involved, God must be OK with it. And in that realization was the power to stand up to a world that condemned my very existence, the courage to proclaim a love that had never before dared proclaim its name.

After a week of licking my wounds I went home, broken-hearted, an exhausted, emotional mess, to the solace of my mother and younger sister Paddy. That first night home we got into a discussion about honesty and it resonated with me. I could no longer justify lying to those closest to me. The very next day I told my sister and that night my mom that I was gay.

cover copyUnfortunately I did it in the worst way imaginable — there were no “How-To” guides back then. I was still so emotional about losing Bill that I cried through much of our talk, leaving them with the mistaken impression the thing depressing me was discovering I was gay. Nonetheless, they embraced me from the beginning, every member of the family.

In fact, my depression lifted – I was relieved to be finally telling the truth. Within days of returning to school the abject sadness at losing Bill quickly turned to happiness on finding myself.

It’s impossible now to explain how hard it was then to come out publicly, how different things were before gay bars were legal, before gay books, before gay characters on TV and film, before openly gay athletes, celebrities, politicians or movie stars; when police were still raiding bathhouses, and when being gay often meant blackmail, or worse: public shame, the loss of job, status, home and family. The New York Times wouldn’t even print the word “gay” on its pages until the late 1980s.

So Harvey Milk’s call was not an easy one. He was a visionary leader and martyr to our cause. But we all knew it was necessary, that those of us who could “pass” as straight, owed it to those that couldn’t to stand up and shake people’s assumptions.

Nonetheless, after hiding in the closet since I was twelve, I came out with a vengeance. And literally from that day forward I resolved to make sure that everyone I met knew I was gay, even moreso when it was difficult. I loved being part of a social movement and pushing back the mindless constraints of social convention, the confounding of people’s narrow expectations. I told prospective employers, relatives, friends of friends. I refused to laugh at jokes about gay men and always wrote in the category of “gay” on any questionnaire asking marital status.

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Photo Credit: Gordon Price – PriceTags.com

I loved the illicit thrill of going to the first bottle clubs, pouring overpriced mixer into a bottle of booze hidden in a brown paper bag under the table, constantly watching for cops. I can still remember the first gay disco night, held at a Legion Hall in Victoria. And later Faces, aka the Record Listening Society of Vancouver, one of the best gay bars ever, that had to masquerade as a private music-appreciation club to keep it’s liquor license.

Later, when the AIDS crisis hit Vancouver, I was studying at UBC and got involved with Gays and Lesbians of UBC, first as VP and then as President. We went class to class telling other students what it was like to be gay and admitting we had no idea if we had AIDS or not, but that our lives were not defined by fear. We went to clubs on weekends handing out condoms while wearing T-shirts emblazoned with our slogan “On Me Not In Me!” to get their attention, calling on gay men to start practicing safe sex. We marched in the early Pride parades, fearful but determined.

Many of my gay friends were horrified I was so public, and resented our ‘downer’ message in the clubs that they went to just to escape. But being gay taught me to be true to my own values and to be true to who I am.  It taught me to be honest with myself and with others, and it taught me how to be a little tougher than I might otherwise have been. These are all good things.

SBBut now I have a confession to make. There’s one thing I’ve never been open about, the shame of it stigmatizing me for many years. And in the spirit of that earlier, youthful resolution I’m going to own up to what happened to me now, on the eve of my 57th Birthday and my 25th Pride.

When I was nine years old, I was sexually abused by a young man, the son of a trusted neighbor. It screwed me up when I was little, more so as I began to sense and repress my own developing sexuality. I acted out, ran away from home when I was twelve, fell in with a bad crowd, did drugs. I started smoking cigarettes at the age of 13 and spent most of grade 9 skipping out, smoking pot and playing pool.

A brief but passionate religious phase eventually saved me from heading any further down that track and I started to excel again the last few years of high school. And music, as it’s done my entire life, provided the lifeline that eventually helped me escape that environment and go on to traverse the planet, producing concerts and tours all over the globe.

But a small shadow of what happened is still with me to this day. And I’m hoping that in acknowledging what happened, in “coming out” as a survivor of sexual abuse, that I can give comfort to others who still needlessly feel shame for something they had no control over. Other survivors seeking help can get help, advice and counselling here.

As gay men, we are strong because we survive, because we are honest even when it’s difficult, because we are willing to push back boundaries to make space for those who are different, because we support each other.

I was bullied in elementary school — when you’ve been abused, kids can sense it and pounce. And I was badly gay-bashed on the streets of Vancouver. But I wouldn’t change a thing. My experience in coming out has been entirely positive, has opened up far more meaningful relationships to me, and allowed others to demonstrate time and again how enlightened and full of love they can be.

IMG_0157And eventually I found Tom, my life partner. We met soon after I moved to New York and we’ve been inseparable ever since. But it was the city of Vancouver and this fabulous country of Canada that made it possible for us to marry each other and solemnify our vows. Last month we celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary and the 27th anniversary of being together. We’ve built a life I wouldn’t trade for anything. We literally complete each other and heal each other. Love truly does conquer all.

So we are full of Pride because we are full of Love, a Love that speaks its name, a Love that inspires honesty, courage and the strength of our convictions. My wish for everyone this weekend is that they share that Love with each other. And be Proud!