Scrolling through my social media feeds, reading all the posts about National Coming Out Day reminds me just how valuable it is for us to share our stories and be as open, vulnerable and authentic as possible. Warning: this article is about to get real AF, so now might be a good time to switch back to the Face-Aging app that gives Russia all your personal data.
Oh good, you stayed. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Being a father to my son Maxwell has taught me how important it is to get rid of any residual shame I've carried with me over the years for being gay. Because harboring that shame sends the message that there's something wrong, negative or embarrassing about being gay — it took me many years to realize there's not — and it's especially important that the next generation of kids know this. This is the story of how I finally came to that realization.
Growing up in the eighties (I know what you're thinking, “But he looks so young!") even before I understood what being gay meant, I was convinced it was bad and not something I'd ever want to be. That message was reiterated in countless movies, talks shows, magazines, late-night jokes, gym classes, bus stops, political debates and even delivered at home by many of our family members. The intended message was received loud and clear — gay equals bad.
Problem was, I couldn't hide my gayness even if I tried.
See, I was the artsy kid. I was the kid with a lisp, one that years of speech therapy couldn't rein in. I was the kid obsessed with Whitney Houston, Vanessa Williams and Janet Jackson (yes, I have a type). I was the kid that opted to watch Golden Girls over GI Joe. Most boys traded baseball cards, and I was busy trading in my used argyle socks for new ones at Sears (long before I learned the trick is to keep the original tags). And while the other boys were at basketball practice, I was practicing the big "Dirty Dancing" finale choreography (that I had memorized after religiously watching the film on the floor in my parents' room while my brothers were downstairs hogging the big TV, watching the Phillies game).
I think you get it. It was obviously hard for me to blend into the crowd. So inevitably I would be accused of being gay by classmates. I wouldn't say I was bullied, as I never quite felt threatened, but when kids call you the one thing the world tells you is bad, it doesn't feel good and it makes you want to not be whatever that word means, even if at the time you're not old enough to understand what it means.
And as if being perceived as gross and abnormal wasn't bad enough, when the media did tell stories about LGBTQ people, the characters were always portrayed as victims who were miserable and, oftentimes, suicidal. (Remember "Doing Time on Maple Drive" starring Jim Carrey, "The Truth About Alex" starring Scott Baio or "Making Love" starring Harry Hamlin?) Gay people were the black sheep. The ones that embarrassed their families. The ones other kids didn't want to be seen with. The ones that were dying of AIDS.
Who would want to be associated with these people, much less be one of them?
And so even before I realized I was, in fact, one of these people, I did EVERYTHING to bury it, which meant playing down all the things that made me happy and all the things that made me, well, me.
I became the master of disguise. I watched my mannerisms, overly correcting the way I walked, stood and I never ever let my wrist go limp. I had to filter the way I smiled and laughed. I would even deepen my voice whenever I was around other boys. I only listened to Whitney in private and pretended to enjoy Metallica and Pearl Jam concerts with new friends I had nothing in common with. And when these so-called "friends" would invariably say homophobic things in front of me, I felt like an undercover spy infiltrating the hetero camp.
Doing all this taught me one thing: Being ashamed of yourself is exhausting.
I didn't feel like myself anymore. I didn't know this person I had become. And did I mention I had to listen to Metallica?
Around the time of high school, I knew deep down inside I was different from the other boys. But instead of embracing those differences, I repressed them and started dating lots of girls ... you know, to buy myself more time and throw the bullies off their game. I told myself I'd figure things out in college. Not knowing anyone else like me or seeing anyone like me out in the world left me super lonely. (Back then Richard Simmons, Boy George and Elton John were the only out gay role models.) So I turned to David Sedaris books ("Barrel Fever"), Cameron Crowe movies ("Reality Bites") and '90s R&B music to get me through these tough times … oh and let's not forget "Beverly Hills 90210.” (Back then I used to say "I wish I could be Brandon Walsh," but in hindsight, I think I actually wanted Brandon Walsh. I always had a thing for sideburns).
During these times, every year when I blew out my birthday candles, I wished for the same thing — to be normal. I wished so hard to just wake up and be like the other boys. I wanted to get butterflies in my stomach around girls. I wanted to want to watch the big game and know all the stats and scores. I wanted so badly to be accepted by the guys at school.
College was a new chapter for me. A clean slate for me to create my own narrative. While attending Penn State University, I made incredible new friends, and felt closer to myself than I had in a long time, but alas, four more years passed where I was still too ashamed to acknowledge, both to myself and to the world, that I was indeed gay.
Then soon after college, at my first advertising job, I became friendly with a very impressive guy who just happened to be gay. He seemed to have it all figured out. Getting to know this special, kind, successful, compassionate man — who cared about the same important things that I cared about — gave me hope. As I became friendlier with him and his then-partner, I realized that maybe being true to myself wouldn't turn out so bad. Maybe my happy ending was possible.
But I still needed to be a safe distance away from my Philadelphia identity in order to openly explore this long-hidden truth about myself. And so in 2002 I quit my job, packed up my SUV and drove cross country to Los Angeles to "find myself." I left with a bag of clothes, a box of CDs and a dream to find happiness, whatever and wherever that may be.
A few years later I met my husband Alex and felt truly validated for the first time in my life.
Embracing my authentic self wasn't just freeing, but it gave me the opportunity to become closer with my family, because I was no longer concealing this very important part of myself. It introduced me to a community of wonderful, creative, talented, kind, funny and passionate people that I am still inspired by every day. It also lead to the happiest ending of all — even happier than a Koreatown massage — the birth of our son Maxwell.
My coming out process was transformative, allowing me to let go of so much pain and internalized shame. My mannerisms changed, not because I changed them but because I was finally relaxed and calm — I was finally myself. I felt more comfortable speaking my mind without worrying about spilling dark secrets. I also got to stop obsessively deleting my browser history, fearing someone might find out that I was checking out a Whitney Houston fan forum. God forbid.
I learned that shame loses most of its power when you see it for what it is — a feeling. And feelings, like Trump's approval rating, can change by the day. That said, a lifetime of shame does not disappear overnight. I am still chipping away at my immense wall of shame. But I am no longer crippled by it.
Now that I am a father of an almost-9-year-old boy, we've instilled in him that being gay is 100 percent normal and perfectly natural, but we're also honest with him about how some people might not accept or support the fact that he has gay dads. If we only paint a picture of unicorns and rainbows, without expressing the current realities of gay perception in Trump's America, he'll be in for a rude awakening when he inevitably comes across those who judge on the playground. He gets it. And he gets how important it is to live honestly. And he especially gets that there's no shame for who his fathers are.
Here's what I know for sure: I'm proud of being gay. I have a beautiful family. It's no longer something I wish I wasn't. I no longer view it as a negative. I view it as an extraordinary gift. The gift of patience, compassion, forgiveness, honesty, creativity, bravery, determination and fulfillment.
So basically, what I'm saying is, if you're not gay, I'd strongly recommend it.