I arrive at an Indian restaurant in Greenwich Village on a Thursday night, and sit down with an old friend I grew up with. It has been years since we’ve caught up.
In that time, he has come out and gotten married.
Over vegetable samosas and naan bread, he shares with me that his family has been accepting and supportive. “But I can’t come out to my grandparents,” he says. “That would kill them.”
“They’re so old. They’re from a different generation. They wouldn’t understand.”
He wears a silver wedding band on the ring finger of his left hand. Somehow, he is still able to pass his partner off as “a really good friend” to his grandparents.
But I get where he’s coming from. For many years, I feared that coming out to my grandmother would kill her.
This was one of the many homophobic, fear-based fallacies I was told after coming out.
“Grandma will die if you tell her,” my mother would say. “She can’t handle it. You don’t have to do this to her.”
These messages played like recordings in my head, and I internalized them.
Why do I have to be so selfish? She’s 88. She doesn’t have the capacity to deal with this.
In recent years, she started suffering from dementia issues. She is still sharp and remembers all the important stuff. But she often forgets a conversation from one minute to the next.
This only added to the fears and anxieties I had about sharing this part of myself with her. She might not even remember, so what’s the use in telling her?
I had made up my mind. I will never tell Grandma I’m gay.
On a Sunday in the middle of April 2013, five years after coming out to my parents at eighteen, I am sitting on a bench in Prospect Park with her.
It’s chilly. But the sun is shining. We sit close and hold hands. My mother is busy driving around looking for parking.
After the standard “How’s work?” and “Advertising, right?” came the question I always dreaded.
“So honey... you got a girlfriend?
Over the years, I had a few typical responses to this one.
“No Grandma, no girlfriends.” “Not yet, I’m just having fun.” “I’m focusing on work right now.”
Without fail, she would fish.
“You go out though, right? You go to dances?” I always loved how “dances” was still how she referred to being social.
“Yeah, Grandma, I go to dances.” I never added that the dances I went to were at gay bars with done-up drag queens onstage matching their lip movements to Madonna’s “Into the Groove.”
“So honey... you got a girlfriend?” Something about her voice sounded different this time.
Come on Grandma, you know I don’t have a girlfriend, I thought.
“Nope,” I said.
And then came a new question.
“Why honey… you don’t like girls?”
My mind raced from, “What if she dies right now?” to, “There is no way in hell she is going to pass away from knowing this truth.”
I took in a deep breath of fresh, Prospect Park air. On my exhale, I said, “Not like that. But I have a boyfriend!”
We looked at each other and neither of us said anything. She did not appear uncomfortable. Our eyes were locked and filled with tears. Then she reached over, grabbed my shoulder, and pulled me in close for a hug.
“Is he Jewish? What’s his name? What’s he up to today?” I answered her questions and we chatted for a while, connecting in a way we never had.
“Hey guys!” my mother called out as she made her way toward us waving. The topic turned to the weather. The color of trees in spring. The bright-eyed beagle that jumped up on my grandmother’s lap in search of affection.
Soon my mom got up with my grandmother and went to look for the bathroom. I remained on the bench and called a close friend in Florida.
Hearing his voice gave me the permission I needed to let go of tears I had been holding back.
“I just came out to my grandma!” I blurted out as soon as he answered. “And it went very well.”
He said he was proud of me and happy that I found the courage to tell her.
I ended the call right before my mom and grandmother returned.
“Want some ice cream, Grandma?” I bought two cones. We sat in the sun and enjoyed cold licks of vanilla and chocolate.
Later, we stood by the water, arms around each other, and fed bread to ducks.
Over the next hour, my mom fielded several phone calls from matchmakers for my younger sister. Each time she answered and walked away, my grandmother and I spoke more.
The next day, I am responding to an email from my older sister. She had sent me a link to a moving article about a father’s reaction to his son’s coming out.
I write to her about how cathartic is was for me to connect with Grandma in this way. And how relieved I was to see that she remained very much alive, even after I told her.
“WOW. I am ELATED that you chose to tell Grandma and how it turned out,” my sister immediately responds. “Just goes to show, always follow the truth and your soul.”
I’m smiling, reading.
“‘Is he Jewish?’ That’s so awesome. I always hated how Ma gave you that impression about Grandma, I knew Grandma could ‘take’ it. And you will forever remember that moment, and when she is no longer with us you will take solace in it. That she knew you.”
I take a deep breath. My sister totally gets it.
“WOW. My brave brother Shloim. Love you.”
“And BY THE WAY... you realize you’re going to have to come out to her again and again... and again, right?”
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