Lessons from Coming Out in 1976
In September 1975 I was 17. It was my French mother’s lifelong dream that I spend my senior year of high school in a lycée in France, living with relatives and becoming bilingual. But she hadn’t counted on a having a gay son, and a very precocious one at that. During my junior year I’d developed a circle of gay friends (through the Drama Society, of course), and we’d been taking weekend trips into the city to visit the gay bars, so by the time my plane took off for a year in Montpellier, I had a well-developed secret life that I had no intention of discontinuing.
Within a few months in Montpellier I had found straight roommates — distant cousins — in the center of town. I asked them if they knew any gay people, and they introduced me to René, a 28-year-old social worker. I seduced him that very night, and soon afterward I moved in with him.
Then my mother announced that she was coming for a visit. In advance of her trip, a cousin in the states decided to tell my parents that I’m gay; my mother’s reaction was, “Tell me it isn’t true. Tell me it isn’t true.” When she finally wrote to me for the first time since my arrival in France, she asked for my forgiveness for the delay and proposed that I see a psychotherapist upon my return to the States. (I declined and sent her Laura Z. Hobson’s Consenting Adult to read.) My father reassured me of his unconditional love but cautioned that I was far too young to decide such things.
As my mother flew over, I sent a letter to my father and siblings. I share it here (below, with minor edits) in hopes that it will provide inspiration to those who are finding it hard to come out to their family. My personal experience was that it helped immeasurably to take a firm, confident, and unapologetic stance. When parents realize that the choice is between acceptance of their son or daughter and having no relationship at all, most of them come around fairly soon.
When you get this, Mom will be here, but that’s no reason for me not to write, as I want to respond to your letters.
Dad, yours is very difficult to respond to. At times you go off into many different directions, and I don’t really follow completely. I do wish you’d stop insisting I’m “tormented.”
Frankly — and this is to you all — I understand very well your feelings. I am very young for all I have done and am doing. When I was 13–14, I fought terribly against the feelings within me and hated myself. In the two years that followed, up until a year and a half ago, I went through the very slow and painful process of self-acceptance. I spent an incredible amount of time thinking — about myself, about others, about my relationships with them, and about theirs with each other. I am blessed with a mind that asks “why?” all the time and thirsts for knowledge. I saw the gamut of what society has to offer and received an ample education. Is it so hard to believe that I matured to an extent that I concluded certain things about myself?
Let me stress that I do not say or think, “I am a homosexual.” Above all I am a human being. I have found, so far in life, that my capacity for love and satisfying sexual contact is greater toward my own sex than toward the opposite sex. I do not rule out heterosexual relationships in the future. In November, for example, I met Tamara, a very pretty and captivating 18-year-old. I liked the idea of sex with her, but what developed naturally was a friendship. With René what developed naturally was love, and I doubt I will be seriously involved with anyone else, male or female, for quite some time.
I hope I’ve cleared up some misconceptions.
It rather astounds me that I was as self-affirming as I was at a time when the Stonewall riots were not yet seven years in the past and homosexuality was still unimaginably taboo, at least for my parents’ generation. But I see now that this was a letter by a boy who had been brought up to question received ideas, to cherish kindness, and to refrain from judging anyone without first trying to imagine being in their shoes.
Ultimately, this is what I learned and can pass along: When you hear, “I didn’t raise you to be this way,” your response can be, “But you did. You raised me to love myself, to be honest, to be strong, not to live in a closet, or to be a liar, or to cower in the dark. I am exactly the child you raised me to be.”
(By the way, I am indeed fully gay — like a Kinsey 6. But I understood that such certainty seemed very hard to grasp for my parents at the time, and wished to appear open minded. Of course, my relationship with René didn’t last. I was 17 after all).