I remember how dry my throat was when I came out to my father. The words felt stuck, rubbing against my vocal chords and I thought I might throw up before they came out. As it turned out, I was one of the lucky ones: My father cried when I told him, but only because he was upset I hadn’t come to him sooner. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t look at him with gratitude, with respect for his respecting me.
But when I talk about being gay, I can't help but think about those who were not so lucky. Take the fact that from 2007 to 2012, over 1314 LGBT people were murdered in Brazil, and a staggering 40 percent of homeless teens identify as gay. Gay people live in fear daily that when they walk down the street holding their lover's hand they will be struck down for it. When they’re not worrying for their safety, they live in fear that they’ll be fired, kicked out of their homes, or contract a disease that society used to believe was tailor-made for queer people. If you’re gay or struggling to come out, It's understandable that you might be terrified.
Where some see homosexuality as a handicap, something that constantly puts you at a disadvantage in the world, I see it as an incredible gift.
I grew up in a small farming town in upstate New York, where I remained firmly in the closet. I knew being openly gay would mean being a target — a target for homophobic comments as I kept my head down in the locker room and a target for getting my ass kicked. I was preoccupied with protecting myself, but being in the closet meant I never cultivated what I loved and enjoyed about myself. I never thought to myself, “I feel more confident with my body when I wear my hair this way,” or “the color blue makes my eyes pop,” because I was too busy falling asleep with a belly ache of fear.
Still, people seemed to know my secret. I remember a boy once pulling down my pants in the hallway on my way to Spanish and spitting the words “faggot!” in my face before sauntering off while I scrambled to cover my butt crack. Even today, when I look in the mirror, I can’t help but scrutinize the way I look, the taunts and names I was called echoing back to me in waves.
Recently, I found myself tearing up over the scene in Heathers where Martha Dunnstock (aka Dumptruck) is given a fake letter saying the most popular boy in school has a crush on her. I probably seemed insane to my friends who were there with me, but Martha’s fictional pain felt like my own.
In high school, I was deeply involved with a male friend of mine. He was a year younger than me, and although we spent every waking moment together, I barely noticed that I stopped being hungry when I thought of him. For three years, we were entwined in a deep relationship of mutual respect for each other, but I had convinced myself that our affections were just signs of a strong platonic connection. We would kiss as we made eggs, and fool around, and laugh together.
Yet I would rebuff his “I love you”s by saying I was just experimenting, that I was just trying boys out. In the end, he left our confusing situation because I was unable to give him what he needed from me: an admission of love. I didn’t realize how much it hurt not to be around him until he was gone.
It was only after I came out in college that I began to retrain my brain to discover who I was — far beyond my sexual orientation. Now I know that I like shoegaze music because it makes me feel like I’m soaking in hot bath salts, and I know that I don’t like sushi because the texture in my mouth makes me feel like I’m swallowing a squirming live animal.
By finally fully accepting who I was, I became fully aware of who I wanted to be. Being gay gave back to me such a strong self of self because I am keenly aware of why I like everything I like and why. Once I had stopped torturing myself for who I was, I started to matter to myself once again in a way I didn’t think was possible.
Knowing myself won’t bring back all the gay teens who have taken their own lives. Knowing love when I see it won’t put a roof over every gay teen that was turned out into the cold when they came out to their parents. I know this.
But being a gay man has given me a great gift. I know that lives are fragile, and it sometimes breaks my heart. It is exactly this overwhelming sense of empathy for which I am thankful every single day. I feel it all. I feel sorry for the man crying on the 2 express train into his Wall Street Journal, even when it is clear he doesn't want to be pitied. Where some see homosexuality as a handicap, something that constantly puts you at a disadvantage in the world, I see it as an incredible gift.
Above all, being gay has given me perspective: Perspective to know that even when the world around me attempts to make me feel less of a human, that it doesn't have the power to do that. And perspective enough to know that when bigots attempt to make me feel unworthy of love, my heart will always win out.