On The Road To Coming Out

toxic-shame

On the road to coming out my first year in college I met Christopher. He was a friend of my best friend Nina and it was Nina that introduced us. Introduced is probably a bit of a misnomer. I had met Christopher briefly and seen him in group settings and he struck me as odd and a bit weird. I did not want to have much to do with him. But, as happens, my ego got in the way. Nina came to me one day and said, “Christopher’s a virgin. He is making me crazy talking about you all the time. He really likes you and wants to sleep with you.” Well, whose ego could turn down that kind of proposal at 18 years old?  Soon after that Christopher and I had sex for the first time.

Sometimes after the first of the year in 1977 Christopher and I became lovers. I shared a dorm room with another guy, Tom, who had his own room. Tom had to walk through my room to get to his room. But Christopher, who lived with his Aunt in town, would stay over in my room, either for a few hours, or for the night, and we would have sex. He turned me on to Barbara Streisand and brought over all his records. Christopher would lip sync or sing along perfectly with Barbra’s songs, and I remember him dancing around my room singing songs along with the record from, On A Clear Day.

It soon was clear that dear, sensitive Christopher was head over heels in love with me and I was scared to death. To confuse things even more, my therapist at the time, following much of the then current thought about homosexuality, told me my love for Christopher was really self-love and a replacement for the love I did not get from my father. I was drawn to Christopher and at times just wanted to be held by him and at other times wanted to just be his friend. I was scared and confused.

It soon became clear, that as much as I thought I knew Christopher, I did not know him at all. There were increasing parts of his life story and the events of his life that just did not make any sense. He also would get upset over nothing and disappear for hours. One night when I was waiting for him to meet me in Nina’s room, where we had planned to spend the night, he disappeared for hours, leaving me to sit there and fume. I later learned he had met a guy visiting the college for the weekend and gone off to have sex with him. I was furious, hurt and betrayed.

By Spring Break more bad news had come out. Christopher did not go to my college. He had just been posing as a student. He had been thrown out, he told us, from Boston University for accidentally blowing up a building during a science experiment. His parents had disowned him for being gay, which was why he was living in town with his aunt. He told us that in his loneliness, he had wandered on campus, met people, told them he was a student, bought textbooks to hold while walking around campus, and even gotten a student ID and meal ticket, claiming he had lost his.  His downfall, which had all of this come out publicly, was his taking the lead role of Candide in the college production of Candide.

Christopher played off of on how his loneliness had led him to hang out on campus and his fear that I would hate him, once all the facts came out, to manipulate me. Again, in my 18 year old mind, I was flattered and needed, and I did not walk away from Christopher. In fact, I began to think I loved Christopher and even asked him to live with me over the summer in an apartment we would rent.

I had met Christopher in December of 1976 and by the end of March, 1977 I was fed up and increasingly angry.  So much of what Christopher had told us about his life didn’t make sense, and good little researcher that I was, I began to make phone calls to find out what was true. What I discovered was shocking. Everything, and I mean every last little detail which Christopher had told us about his life was a lie. EVERYTHING!! His aunt turned out to be his mother. He was about 5 years older than he had said. He had never been to Boston University. Every story about his life had been made up. Every last detail was fabricated.

In early April I went out to the parking lot on the edge of campus where my car was parked, got in the back seat and just screamed and hit the back of the seat for what seemed like forever. I was so angry and this was the only way I knew how to get the anger out. Sometime during this period Christopher stopped showing up on campus and I never saw him again, almost.  Years later in New York City I did see him once when I was on the subway, but I was too scared of this crazy man to let him see me.

I began this essay with the words, ‘On the road to coming out my first year in college I met Christopher.”  After my experience with Christopher, my worst thoughts about being gay and what the gay lifestyle was really about took over. I had read in, Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex” how sad, pathetic and lonely the lives of gay men were. How their lives were filled with sex in highway rest stops and parks.  These thoughts played in my mind and were reinforced with the insanity of my experiences with Christopher. I was surer than ever that the gay world was not for me and I placed increasing hope in the promise, made by my therapist, that through therapy I could change from homosexuality.

I had been increasingly out my first year of college and most of my close friends knew I was gay. But after that first year and my experiences with Christopher I went back in the closet. I had been in therapy to change from homosexuality since I was 16 years old, and was, after Christopher, more determined than ever to change. In the words of Alan Downs in his book The Velvet Rage, I foreclosed on my sexuality. I went back in the closet, changed colleges and started all over. I did not discuss my sexuality with anyone at my new school, although I had a few friends outside of the school that knew I was gay. For the next few years I focused on college. When the need arose every few months, and by need I mean driving urgency to be with a man, I would go to the baths in New York City, relieve my need, and go back to my life at college.

I think the experience with Christopher, my first male lover, was so emotionally devastating and confusing that the only thing I could do, so as not to be overwhelmed by my pain, confusion and shame, was to pack it all away and move on.  Re-listening to the Velvet Rage has had me rethink my experiences with Christopher.  I was on the road to coming out.  What would have happened had I not met Christopher?  Would I have come out, or, given my parallel track in therapy to change from homosexuality, found some other event as a trigger to foreclose on my sexuality? I don’t really know.

I now believe that the experience with Christopher set me back years.  To use my own words, I ‘doubled down’ on my desire to be straight, and worked harder to pack my sexuality away in a little box off to the side of my life.   During the same period where I was so confused about my sexuality and myself in general, I began to work professionally in New York City.  I got a summer job after my first year at the new college, in a design firm in lower Manhattan. For the first time in my life, I began to receive tremendous recognition and praise for my performance at work. I became known as the go to guy who could find the exact widget you needed when you were designing a new merchandise display or trade show booth.

Work began to change the way I thought about myself and I began to gain self-respect for what I could accomplish. Through work I began to feel really good about who I was for the first time in my adult life. Over the years work became the mainstay of supporting my self-image. Job after job, for the most part, brought praise, success, acknowledgement and support. While my sexuality remained hidden and walled off, I had, year over year, jobs with increasing responsibility and respect.

It is only in the past year, since coming out at work, for the first time in my adult life that work and my sexuality co-exist in the same place, and it feels incredibly good.  Coming out at work has been the single most empowering thing that I have done along the journey of coming out.  It has brought the two parts of myself together into one integrated whole.

But the journey is not over.  The Velvet Rage has had me rethink my own shame and reexamine how shame still lives in me.  Certainly my experiences with Christopher had me hide my shame away.  But even today, as open and out as I am about my sexuality, each new coming out raises the question, ‘Do I want this person to know about me?”  I think the process of coming out is part of fighting the deep shame we grew up with for being different.  It is a lifelong process.  We constantly have to look for the hidden shame and how we keep it walled away from our conscious selves.

This is a journey that most straight men and women do not understand.  When I was coming out to my wife, as so many men in similar situations have experienced, my wife questioned why I ‘lied to her’. In my mind I did not lie. The shame of my homosexuality was so great that I could not allow it to see the light of day. I did not see it as lying, but rather, as keeping an ugly, sick, dirty part of myself hidden from the world.

I am grateful that today I am at a point in my life where I can begin to see these topics with greater clarity and examine what shame remains within me and work to root it out.  With each day I feel I become stronger, clearer, more proud of who I am, and the shame, little by little, diminishes.

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