I’ve always thought that associating the image of coming out of a closet with telling people about one’s sexuality is a pretty crappy practice. Exiting a closet, like being punched in the stomach, is something clear, immediate, and palpable; one second you’re in, the next you’re out. “Coming out,” at least in my experience, is nothing like that. It’s a gradual, occasionally painful, sometimes uncontrollable, and consistently uncomfortable process. My personal, slightly convoluted story is best told divided into two (and a half) separate phases:
Phase 1 — The Tacit Coming Out, or: “How the hell does the entire school already know?”
Some time during ninth grade, I mentally put the pieces together: not interested in girls plus attracted to guys equals Yoel is gay. I started off slowly, telling only my closest of friends, gradually expanding the circle of people “in the know” while keeping the process under my careful control. Everything was going according to my Master Coming-Out Plan, until one day, I started getting peppered at school with questions along the lines of: “Is it true you’re gay?” or, “Guess what I just heard!” or, “Want to go shopping?” Spreading like wildfire through Atlantic High School’s many gossip channels was the news of my sexuality. There was no telling who breached the tacit confidentiality agreement. There was no containing it. Without my consent, I had more or less been shoved out of the closet.
Except at home.
At home, I (inadvertently) gave my parents hints of my sexuality without taking the apocalyptic leap of telling them. In retrospect, none of them were particularly subtle: designer denim; a rainbow pin on my backpack; coming home from an outing with a male “friend” with a massive hickey on my neck; campy pop music. The hickey ended up being what broke my mother’s wall of silence, with her posing the outraged question, “Yoel, are you gay?”
I wore a turtleneck and used concealer. The hickey went away. The suspicious glances stopped. I hid my relationships. Phase 1, the Cold War of coming out, continued mostly undisturbed for four years.
Phase 2 — The Dam Bursts, or: “How to get your parents to stop calling for a week.”
I arrived at Swarthmore in September, and in the bustle of orientation and beginning classes, I found it increasingly easy to ignore the promise I made to myself to tell my parents. Maybe it was all the homework, or the alignment of the stars, or some particularly unsettling food from Sharples, but one Friday afternoon a few weeks after the start of classes this semester, I slammed out an e-mail to my parents starting with the following line:
“In the effort of moving towards a more trusting relationship between us, I’m going to tell you something I ought to have told you years ago, if only I had the strength of character to do so: I’m gay.”
My head spinning, scarcely considering the consequences, I clicked “send,” turned off my computer and cell phone, and took the train to Philadelphia for the evening. By the time I returned to campus, my parents had had time to read the e-mail (as an agitated note from my sister informed me), and were, in their words “processing.” Processing, it turns out, takes exactly one week to run its course, a week during which my (ordinarily very in-contact) family in Florida was to remain incommunicado.
Phase 2.5 — Ongoing, or: “The first rule of having a gay son is, you don’t talk about having a gay son.”
As I write this, I’m nearing the end of my first visit in Florida since coming out. Not knowing what to expect, I boarded the plane to Fort Lauderdale with more than a little trepidation; would things be completely awkward? It turns out, no, they’re not. My parents, kind liberal people that they are, seem to have reached an equilibrium where they can accept my homosexuality, so long as no one mentions it. By their logic, being gay isn’t bad, per se, but if you want to keep the peace, discussing it is completely taboo.
And at least for the moment, that’s all I really could have hoped for.