The match was lit. After a marriage, three children and 24 years of denial, I was finally ready to come out of the closet as a gay man. All that was left to ignite the fire that would blow up my life as I knew it was to drop said match.
But, where to begin?
I needed a strategy. It wasn't the kind of news that I could share via a Facebook post: "Hey! Big news! I'm getting a divorce because I'm fabulously gay!" No. My family's and my own privacy and reputation were at play. This had to be done delicately, thoughtfully and respectfully.
It's not the kind of news to share via a Facebook post: "Hey! Big news! I'm getting a divorce because I'm fabulously gay!"
A clear place to start was with the kids. The twins were one-and-a-half, and it's likely they would never remember a straight version of their dad. So, the focus went to Ethan, my eleven-year-old son. The strategy that I came up with was to tell him about the divorce first and save the whole "Dad's gay" part for later. Mainly, to give him time to process part one before he had to deal with part two. I didn't want to overwhelm him.
I was fortunate that my wife, Tracey, was incredibly supportive during this process. She was there beside me every step of the way. I will forever be indebted to her for allowing us to share this news as a unified front, despite the fact that I had so much to gain and she had so much to lose.
When we told Ethan that we were divorcing, it's no surprise that he cried and was incredibly sad. He wanted to know why. Beyond the twin toddlers, there was no fighting or discord in the house. This all seemed abrupt and incongruous in his pre-teen mind. I can't tell you the number of times he asked "Why are you getting a divorce?" and the canned response was "For an adult reason." He wasn't buying it.
Finally, after two weeks, I consulted with Ethan's child therapist. When should we tell him this bit of information. Is he developmentally ready for it? Will it overwhelm him? In retrospect, her advice was obvious: "Tell him! He's clearly trying to understand why his entire life is being upended. It's time."
I knew once the words "I'm gay" landed on Ethan's ears, I could never take them back. For the second time in as many weeks, I was going to change my son's life forever. I was terrified. Tracey and I sat Ethan down on the bed. I sat across from him. Trying to be the stoic father, I placed my hand on his shoulder, looked him in the eyes, and said, "I know you've been curious why your mother and I are getting a divorce. I want to share with you the reason why. Ethan, I'm gay."
He burst into tears, uttered a guttural cry I hadn't heard before. I hope I never hear it again. This went on for about 30 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. I felt the lowest and most regretful I've ever felt in my entire life. What kind of father breaks his child's heart? I had spent eleven years fiercely protecting Ethan from any kind of harm, and now I was the one hurting him.
"What kind of father breaks his child's heart? I had spent eleven years fiercely protecting Ethan from any kind of harm, and now I was the one hurting him."
Somehow, we muddled our way through the tears. After Ethan cried it out, the strangest thing happened. It seemed he had come to peace with the situation. He didn't feel much of a need to talk about it anymore, and he certainly didn't cry about it again. Tracey and I, along with his therapist, did our best to make sure he wasn't repressing or hiding something. We never discovered that he was. Perhaps he just needed to push to the other side of his new reality, and once he landed, he was fine with his future.
If there was any part of the coming out process I could do over, it would have been telling Ethan that his parents were divorcing because dad is gay all in one sitting. I've come to realize if there is an inevitable truth ahead, it makes more sense to connect the dots and have one tough conversation instead of two.
Matt's three children, photo courtesy of Sarah Smith Studio
The hardest part was done. Now, I had to tell everyone else. On one hand, I was paralyzed at the thought of having to navigate my way through coming out. At the same time, the excitement, the elation, of the possibility of living a new, authentic life after years of repression helped to propel me forward. After much thought and consideration, I decided to break the people in my life into the following groups:
My closest friends and family were tier one. They would get an in-person meeting or a phone call, and I would share all the news with them as soon as possible. I started setting up lunches and phone calls right away.
Tier two were old friends or distant family that I did want to share the information with, but, they didn't necessarily need to know right away. When I shared the news, I'd probably share all of it. Most of these folks were notified via an email, but there were a select few that I decided to call.
"Coming out is an exhaustive process and you need to focus your energy on those that you care about most."
People in my daily life that needed to know that Tracey I were separating, but they didn't necessarily need to know the gay news just yet, were tier three. Unless, of course, I decided to share it. These were co-workers and neighbors that needed to know for practical reasons, but it wasn't critical that they knew I was also coming out. It had nothing to do with shame -- coming out is an exhaustive process and you need to focus your energy on those that you care about most.
Finally, tier four were folks I choose not to say anything at all to--distant relatives, old classmates I hadn't talked to in years, for example. They would eventually find out, somehow. Time and the rumor mill would take care of this group.
As you navigate through the coming out process, be prepared for the unexpected. There were people that I considered close in my life that, for one reason or another, consciously or unconsciously, distanced themselves from me. I don't absolve myself from being a contributor. Perhaps I distanced myself from them. If I did, it was never intentional. In any case, I refuse to give it much time. I've worked too damned hard to get to a place where I don't hide, or have to change who I am, to keep people close to me.
Conversely, there were those that greeted me with love, acceptance and even congratulated me for my bravery (never, in a million years, did I expect this). I rekindled some old friendships during the coming out process. Becoming my authentic self allowed me to open up in ways that I had never been able to before, and it brought certain people closer to me. Imagine that -- people liked me, loved me, for being me. It's one of the great gifts coming out has afforded me.
Coming out can be an explosive process. But, I can assure you that the fire dies down with time. If my truth (or secret) was a 10,000 pound weight, each person I told that I was gay lifted at least a hundred pounds. People will eventually reframe their identity of you. You may make mistakes along the way--there is no rulebook for this. Just be thoughtful and considerate of those around you, and the rest will sort itself out. The pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow is worth it, trust.