This weekend I got to experience the power of vulnerability and connection firsthand while visiting with vVv staff and LordJerith in LA. There were five of us sitting around the couches in Jerry’s living room, and Rob was sharing his story. When he finished talking about his experience with the drunk driving accident and how it changed his life and led him to end up in LA working as President in vVv Gaming, Ahryse said that it was really interesting hearing his story and that she felt that she was more connected to him after listening. Of course, this is exactly what Brene Brown means when she talks about vulnerability being the birthplace of connection in her TED videos:
Being my usual oblivious, overly-analytical self, I immediately asked Ahryse “It sounds like you really care about hearing this type of thing and feeling connected, is that one of your strengths?”
I was privileged to be a part of that moment because Jerry immediately interjected and pointed out to me the obvious point that I was missing: that this was a normal human reaction to vulnerability and that to build relationships and form connections you have to be willing to open up, share your story, and be vulnerable with people.
Being roughly 10 years older than Rob I have lived through a lot more and undoubtedly have a lot more stories to share, but it’s pretty obvious to me that I need to start by explaining why it’s so difficult for me to open up and be vulnerable and share my whole self. For that we have to go back to very early in my childhood.
I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve never really struggled with or doubted my sexuality. Even when I was 7 or 8 I knew I was gay. I also knew that it was dangerous to tell anyone that you’re gay for a number of reasons. Children get kicked out of the house by their parents when they find out, people get violently attacked, you become ostracized and an outcast, etc. I also knew very early on that the only way to really keep something secret is to never tell anyone. So for the first 18 years of my life that’s exactly what I did: hid my sexuality and told no one who I really was.
A lot of people think that when someone takes offense to a racist comment or joke that they are just thin skinned and shouldn’t take something negatively that isn’t meant to be hurtful. But the real problem isn’t that those comments sting or that someone is going to run crying to their bed and cry themselves to sleep, but that they propagate the silence of people like me. Going through high school and having everyone around me saying “gay this” “faggot that” reinforced the notion that gay people were simply hated and that I needed to hide my true self from the world and stay a prisoner of my own silence.
Who knows if those gay and faggot comments I kept hearing were actually reflective of a real hatred or just a product of dumb repetition? There were openly gay kids in my school (who I didn’t associate with for fear of being found out by association), but to my knowledge they weren’t really verbally or physically attacked. Maybe I could’ve come out and not had my life collapse around me, but there was definitely no way I was going to open up and share myself in an environment where people used my sexual identity as an insult and a way to express their dislike of things.
And this is another thing that sets gay people apart as a minority. When you’re black you’re black. You can’t hide your skin. You can’t hide if you’re a female. You can’t hide your age, or if you’re physically disabled. But if you’re gay you can definitely hide it. And when you hide you find out exactly what people think about you. All those disgusting, bigoted, small minded comments and opinions that everyone has come right out into the open in a grand orgy of ignorance and hate. It happens right in front of you and your nose gets rubbed in it and you have to swallow it like a bucket of vomit and smile the whole time because who would be on your side if you spoke out?
And, on a lighter note, that’s why I find videos like this hilarious:
Back to the heavy stuff.
When I was 18 I found a reason to break my silence that was more important than keeping my sexuality a secret and risk getting kicked out, losing my plans to go to college, and being potentially alienated from my family. It sounds sappy and lame, but that reason was love. I had fallen completely and inextricably for another guy at my highschool, and I battled against that feeling from the start of grade 10 until halfway through my senior year.
It might sound really dumb to fight against something like that, but my fear of outing myself was paralyzing. The thought of what might happen to me if people knew I was gay made sure that I couldn’t approach him and tell him how I felt. Plus what were the chances that it was even worth taking the risk? That he was gay too and felt the same way about me as I did about him? So I agonized through what I can easily call the most painful part of my life, completely in silence and completely alone.
A lot of people dismiss what I felt and call it a crush. But from what I understand about crushes, they are supposed to be cute and silly and you get over them. But what I felt for him, what I FEEL for him, is so amazing and perfect and wonderful, and I know if he walked into the room right now I would still feel the same way I did the last time I saw him twelve years ago. It’s something I carry around with me every day, even though the wound has scarred over and the pain has numbed, it is a part of me and it always will be. So maybe “love” isn’t the right word for it, but I think crush is also the wrong word. Obsession, lust, etc. none of them fit. To me, love is the closest thing I can think of so I’ll leave it at that.
A lot of people I think would describe that experience as hell, but around that time I found a better metaphor due to my being really into Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I think a more apt description came about when Buffy’s crew thought she had died and gotten trapped in hell, when in actuality she had been in heaven and they pulled her back to earth.
To me, having that perfect feeling was heaven. Every time I stole a glance in his direction, every time I got to see any of his mannerisms or the way he walked, or on extremely rare occasions where I actually got to talk to him, was like a little bit of heaven in my life. And then it was over and I had to go back to earth because ultimately they were very brief, ephemeral moments. Being on earth meant that I couldn’t have that feeling anymore and all I had was my loneliness and disconnection because I didn’t feel safe opening up to people.
The relative emptiness of everyday life became increasingly painful and I contemplated suicide. Ultimately, it was the few people in my life that I knew loved me and cared about me that made me decide against it. I knew my mom and best friend at the time would suffer if I killed myself, and so I made the hardest decision of my life. Without knowing where I was going, without knowing what would happen or having any expectation that things would work out, I decided to do the only thing I could: just keep putting one foot in front of the other until I got through it.
I think consciously deciding to keep living is different from just living because you’ve never thought about any alternatives. Ordinarily I think it’s easy to take life for granted, to just keep going on every day without any thought to what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. But when you make a CONSCIOUS decision that you’re going to live, when you’ve faced death and despair and hopelessness in the face and said “not today”, every other fear becomes slightly diminished.
As our senior year approached the halfway mark, I realized that if I never found out with absolute 100% certainty that he didn’t feel the same way about me as I felt about him, I would regret it for the rest of my life in a way that would leave me incomplete and destroyed. One night, after a band concert I rushed out to my car to wait for him. He came out by himself, completely alone, he looked over and saw me in my car and waved. It was the perfect moment to tell him how I felt. I chickened out, waved back, and drove away.
Later that week I knew I had to try again. After school, I drove over to his house, rang his doorbell. His mom answered. I asked if he was home. She went upstairs to get him. Apparently he was taking a nap after school, because I heard him say “I’m tired”. Shortly after that, he appeared at the top of the stairs. Seeing me, he asked, “Need something?” In the loudest, most confident voice I could muster, which came out as barely a whisper, I told him, “I’m gay”. He said, “What?”. I repeated myself, “I’m gay”. His last response to me was, “Okay”.
I can’t describe the amount of soul crushing disappointment that those two syllables can possess. But at least I had what I came for. I had my answer. At least I knew 100% that he didn’t feel about me the way I felt about him. Armed with that information I was ready to keep living the rest of my life.
I drove home and spent the rest of the day with my best friend who I had already come out to after deciding I had to find out about the other guy. When I got home, my mom took me upstairs and told me that the guy had called and told her what happened. So I never actually got to come out to my mom. She wasn’t what I would call supportive, I think she still hopes she can “pray the gay away”, but it wasn’t the horrible cataclysmic moment I had feared for 18 years.
After that I began coming out to more people I was close to. I’ve never really been comfortable talking about it directly with people I don’t know very well (or that I do know well for that matter). I came out in college, but I think half the people I told didn’t even believe me because my mannerisms just aren’t what people envision when they hear the word “gay”. After college I just reverted back to keeping it to myself for the most part and told myself “I’m not going to broadcast it, but I’ll be honest with anyone who asks”. I thought of myself as an open book, even though an open book doesn’t require someone to come along and ask it a question for it to open itself…
After talking with Jerry this past weekend, it became clear to me that it does nobody any good for me to not “own” being gay as part of my identity. I’m entering my thirties and there are a lot of people who struggle with their sexuality and coming out in their thirties. A lot of my friends are also having children now, and I can assume fairly safely that it’s likely at least some of those children will be gay or lesbian themselves. As someone who identifies as gay, I can put myself out there as a resource for these people as well as anyone else struggling with their identity or issues they encounter in their daily lives regarding homosexuality.
I also limit my own relationships by not being openly gay. Not just romantically, but almost every single deep and meaningful experience in my life in some way relates to my sexuality. If I can’t share the gay part of me, then I can’t share those experiences as stories and potentially help people who are struggling through similar circumstances. I can’t build deep and meaningful connections with other people. And also, why the fuck would I want to be friends with someone who doesn’t like gay people? Anyone who has a problem with it, by definition, shouldn’t be my friend in the first place. So there’s no longer any legitimate reason for me to fear being open and honest about that part of myself (unless I want to go work for Chick Fil A).
And even though I feel that I’m already fairly open about my sexuality without calling it out by name, “gay” is still too negative a word for people to assume that I’m gay just because I say things that indicate such.
One last thing I want to cover. Another reason I don’t like sharing my story is because it’s really sad, and I’ve experienced all that sadness already and feel like I have a lot of joy and happiness to experience to make up for it. So I’d like to conclude on a lighter note. TLDR: Sounds gay, I’m in!