When I came out, I felt completely alone. Like I was the only person in the world -- a 40 year old, newly-single gay dad with twin toddlers and a teenage son -- going through the coming out process. Obviously I wasn't the first, or the last, but it certainly felt that way while I was in the thick of it.
Now that I'm on the other side of coming out, I want to share my experience. I don't pretend to have all of the answers. But, perhaps I can provide someone contemplating coming out later in life some comfort, if not courage. Some experience, if not guidance. Maybe those who have already come out will be able to relate to my story -- we are not alone in this.
When Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, officially came out as gay, he ended his letter by saying:
"When I arrive in my office each morning, I'm greeted by framed photos of Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy. I don't pretend that writing this puts me in their league. All it does is allow me to look at those pictures and know that I'm doing my part, however small, to help others. We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick."
That paragraph has stuck with me since the day I read it. This is the first in a series of essays about my journey. This is my brick.
Why I Came Out as Gay Dad at 40
I was barreling down the Iowa country highway in my old Chevette, jamming to Madonna's "Like A Prayer" album. It was 1989 and I was on the way home from my after-school shift at the local Dairy Queen. Out of nowhere, I was sideswiped with a life-changing epiphany: "Matt, you're gay."
I'm not exactly sure what triggered the realization, but there it was. I was sixteen years old. I lived in a rural, conservative and deeply religious mid-western community on a pig farm. As quickly as the thought came into my head, my inner-dialogue, knee-jerk response was even quicker, "Nope. No you're not. You can't be. You won't be."
Despite a bedroom covered in Madonna posters and a secret obsession with my mother's Mary Kay makeup and highest heels, I'd deny it all. And, that I did. It took me 24 years, a marriage and three children to actually utter the words "I'm gay."
It's easy to imagine why I wasn't ready to accept my reality at sixteen. I endured years of relentless teasing in middle and high school. My nickname was "Lamar" after the feminine character in "Revenge of the Nerds" (I still quietly shudder every. time. I hear that word). In my 7th grade class of fifty students, I was the only boy who didn't go out for football. I always got along better with girls than with boys. I felt lonely, ashamed and less-than for much of my high-school career. I spent every day trying to blend in -- to not be seen or heard.
Matt's son and twins girlsPhoto credit: Kliks Photography Iowa
What I couldn't have known at that age, is that the choice I made as a teenager would set me on a trajectory that would make it more and more difficult as each year, and major-life decision, passed, to ever become my true, authentic self.
So why, at 40 after getting married and having three kids, did I decide to finally come out? Why did I wait so long?
First, I was fortunate to have been married to my best friend. I started dating Tracey when I was nineteen. By the time I came out, I had lived more of my life with her than without. We thoroughly enjoy spending time together -- we have the same taste in and love for music, enjoy the same movies and television, our politics align perfectly and we make each other laugh. Often. It was a wonderful marriage in almost every aspect. Except, the whole gay thing.
To make the marriage work, we had to make compromises. But in the end, those compromises began to tear at the very fabric of the relationship. We went from making compromises to feeling compromised. Thankfully, we felt it simultaneously. It was time to end the marriage, but luckily we were both well-formed enough to know that even though our relationship as we knew it was ending, we needed to remain co-parents and friends forever.
There were children to consider -- Ethan was ten and the twins, Maren and Olivia, were one-and-a-half. I really had to think about what this all meant for them. This decision, how it all went down, was going to affect them for the rest of their lives. What I finally realized is that coming out, and becoming my true self, would likely be one of the best lessons I could ever teach them.
One, it showed them that Dad made a big mistake. I wasn't honest with myself or the people in my life, and I had to fix it. How I fixed it was critical. Being a responsible dad forced me to ask the question "what will my kids say about this choice?" when making any big decision. I know I'm a better person, and in a better place, for it.
I also wanted to be able to tell them that they should always be true to themselves. How could I give this advice living as a gay man in straight marriage and not feel like a fraud? I couldn't any longer.
The weight of hiding and being dishonest takes a lot of bandwidth -- more than I ever realized. Since coming out, I know I'm a better father. I'm lighter. I'm happier. I no longer have the dreadful voice in my head (think Bianca Del Rio) screaming, "You're gay and living a lie!" Most importantly, I can look my kids square in the eye and say, "Be you. Always be you." and they'll know that I damn-well mean it.
There's never a good time to come out. It's hard no matter when you do it. I waited until I was 40 and had twin toddlers and a teenager. Do I regret waiting so long? Sometimes. But, I'm also so thankful for three beautiful children that I probably wouldn't have, had I made a different choice at sixteen. How could I regret that? I don't. I accept it as my past.
If you're a gay dad in a straight relationship, my advice is simply this: come out when you're ready. Nobody but you can know when the moment arrives. Coming out isn't easy, but I can tell you from where I'm sitting, that the most painful of moments will pay off with a freedom, and a proud authenticity, that you just can't imagine today.