I came out to my family 10 years ago this month. It was, without question, the hardest thing I have ever done. Earlier this year, one of my high school guidance counsellors asked me to write an open letter to students who are going through what I went through. Here it is. Please read and share -- if this helps even one person get through the day, it will have been well worth writing.
I don't mean to sound ancient, but if you're reading this, you're miles ahead of where I was at your age. You've had the courage to confide in someone -- a teacher, a counsellor, a friend -- and talk to them about your sexuality. I never did. Or rarely, anyway; I can count on one hand the number of people I came out to in high school. Most of them were guys I thought might be gay, and whom I had a crush on. The feelings were never mutual.
For a long time, I tortured myself about my sexual orientation. I knew before I'd left elementary school that I was attracted to other boys, but I wanted to deny it, to change it, to make the feelings go away. I used to lie awake at night, before I'd even reached my teens, unable to sleep because of the panicked realization that I might be, that I could be, that I was -- I couldn't even bring myself to say the "G-word," even to myself, even in my head. It took a long time before I could even think that little sentence, the one that I used to find so horrible and isolating, the one that goes like this: I'm gay.
I finally said it to my parents over Christmas break, grade 10. We were on holiday in California, and my grandparents were arriving the next day. It sounds incredibly silly in hindsight, but at dinner that night -- Chinese food -- my fortune cookie said something, I don't remember what, that pushed me over the edge. It was time.
We got home from the restaurant and I called everybody in -- my mom, my dad, and my younger brother. I told them that I had something to say, that I was only going to say it once, and that I didn't have any intention of discussing it afterwards. And then I just spat it out: "I'm gay."
For a few seconds, nobody said anything. Then my parents did exactly what they were supposed to do: they each gave me a hug and told me that, no matter what, I was their son, and they loved me for who I was. My brother, meanwhile, just kind of shrugged and wandered off, unsure of what the fuss was about.
I found out years later that my parents were actually freaking out, despite their calm exteriors. My brother told me they had peppered him with all sorts of questions, done all sorts of research, and even had nightmares about HIV and AIDS. It was a long time before we could talk openly as a family about their worries -- and mine -- but we got past all of that, eventually.
Today, my being gay is barely even an issue. By the time I brought a boyfriend home for a first time, I worried about what my parents would think of him as a person, not whether they would care that he was a man.
It's bizarre for me to think back about all of this stuff, all of the anxiety and quiet depression that defined me, just beneath the surface, during high school. These days, I'm out to my friends, my colleagues, and my classmates. Being gay isn't something I think about; it's just me.
If you had told me when I was still in school that this is what my life would be like, I'm not sure if I would have believed you. When I was in high school, I didn't know any gay people, and certainly no gay adults. My parents didn't have any gay friends, and so everything I knew about being gay was based on stereotypes. There were a few teachers at school who everybody knew were gay, but their sexuality was rarely discussed, except derisively. Besides, I was never out at school, so I wasn't about to reach out to any of them.
From what I've heard, things have changed at the (all-boys) high school I attended. My brother's best friend came out in grade 11. I think he may have been the first, and he graduated three years after I did. Like any all-boys school, heteronormativity -- a word I had never heard, much less used, until I got to university -- was part of what defined the place. If you were gay, bi, trans, or trying to figure yourself out, the school culture offered little room to breathe, or even just to be yourself.
What's truly ridiculous is that I didn't realize any of this at the time. It may not have been a fun place to be gay, but I actually loved my time in high school. I acted in school plays. I played trombone in the jazz band. I joined the debate team, the Reach For The Top team, and the Model United Nations team. Maybe I was being subconsciously defensive, ensuring that my peers and teachers defined me by what I did, and not who I was. That certainly wasn't a deliberate strategy, but let's face it, it helped.
I'm not suggesting that you should do what I did, and I'm certainly not offering my own experience as a template for gaining acceptance and self-respect. In high school, I never really gained either. Would my classmates have accepted me for being gay? I have no idea. The ones to whom I've come out since graduating have all been great about it, but who knows how they would have reacted at the time.
The thing that I admire most about the guys I know who were out and proud in high school is that they didn't care. They earned the respect of their peers by being who they were, and damned be the consequences. But everyone is different; I have friends who made it through high school and four years of university before coming out, or longer even. It's the most personal decision you could ever possibly make, and no one can make it for you. But once you're out, I can tell you, things always get better. Maybe not all at once, but hang in there and they will.
That's what I learned in university. I got to Harvard determined to be openly gay. It was a fresh start, and I was incredibly excited. I was going to be a gay university student! I was going to have gay classmates! I was going to have normal, healthy relationships and break-ups and everything in between. Finally, I could fall in and out of love like everybody else.
Of course, it wasn't anything close to the fantasy I had imagined in high school. It wasn't easy to come out to my new classmates. I didn't have much practice, after all. The growing-up that straight kids got to do in high school, I had to do in university. But I did it. Not all at once, and not without difficulty, but I got there eventually.
The most refreshing realization, looking back, is that my life today is better because I'm openly gay. I used to wish I could be straight, just to fit in. I don't feel that way anymore, not because I don't want to fit in, but because I can do so without changing who I am. I have straight friends and gay friends, and neither group is homogeneous -- among my closest friends are straight Liberals, gay Conservatives, and everything in between. None of this happened by design, but it only started to fall into place -- slowly, but surely -- after I opened that fortune cookie, took a deep breath, and told the people I loved the most who I really was.
At the end of the day, that's the leap of faith that matters the most. It's what I wish I had the courage to do sooner -- to trust my friends and be true to myself, no matter how scared I was. After that, it only gets easier. It only gets better. And you'll get there sooner than you think.
So good luck to you. Remember, there's a whole lot of us who have been there before, and we're with you every step of the way. If I can ever be of any help, please let me know.
Class of 2004