Now That I'm Out, What Do I Do?
ABOUT FITTING INTO THE GAY COMMUNITY
My picture was in the paper when I was twenty-six years old because I was gay1 and bold, or crazy, enough to say so in 1974. I was a Catholic newspaper reporter and columnist who had just come out to my family and employer.
I didn't know many gay people and had only been to one gay bar, but when the religion editor for The Detroit News asked if she could interview me about being gay and Catholic, I said "sure." Only a few months before, I had attempted suicide by drinking a bottle of paint thinner and I was now no longer willing to pretend I was straight.
The day after the interview with me appeared, my newspaper, The Michigan Catholic, dropped my column. I was shocked andfrightened. The day before the article appeared I was the privileged middle son of a prominent Irish Catholic General Motors family of seven. The next day I was "a homosexual."
CATHOLIC NEWSPAPER DROPS COLUMN BY HOMOSEXUAL proclaimed the eight-column headline in the daily paper. I was no longer Brian, the polite, pleasant, young man who taught religion after work to high school kids; who made people laugh with his good sense of humor; who, at age eighteen, had received the Christian Leadership Award by unanimous vote of his high school faculty. I was "the homosexual," and my name was taken off the award plaque in the high school.
My family members were mostly embarrassed, angry, silent, and hurt. Most of my heterosexual friends were also confounded and upset. At work, all but one of my colleagues signed and publicized a petition decrying my "use of the paper to call attention to" myself.
Then I received an invitation to come to Ann Arbor to speak of my experience to the gay and lesbian student group. I was thrilled but also scared because I didn't know what to expect. Nevertheless, I recall driving excitedly to the University of Michigan campus with the fantasy of being embraced by "my people" the loving, completely accepting family of my dreams.
"Perhaps I'll finally feel as if I truly belong," I thought, reminding myself that in grade school, high school, and college I'd never felt as if I fit in. I had done all the "right" thingsplayed sports, dated, led the pep club, crowned the homecoming queen in my capacity as senior class president, and edited the university yearbook. I was "in" with the in-crowd-but I always felt out of it. Moreover, I generally felt ashamed because of my lack of "normal" erotic feelings for women and terrified that my "dirty little secret" of being attracted to men would be discovered.
But those days were over, I now assured myself. No more hiding my sexual feelings as if they were dirty. No more shame for being different. And the prize for coming out of my closet andannouncing to the world that I was gay was that I would finally know the feeling of being welcomed just as I am.
Or so I thought.
There was a chill in the student union room on the hot spring day that I came to speak. To my great disappointment, I got the immediate impression that some of the gay students didn't like me.
"You're dressed too nicely," I was told privately. Everyone else was in blue jeans, the uniform of the revolution. I came as the guest speaker, dressed up in shirt, tie, blue blazer, slacks, and loafers.
"Next time I'll wear jeans," I promised myself, feeling very self-conscious about my clothes.
More nervous now, but still very excited, I stood up to cautious applause and began to tell the gathering the story of how and why my award-winning column had been dropped. My stand in battle, I hoped, would earn me a comfortable niche in this important new group.
Just as I began to speak, the door to the room flew open and, amid whistles, cheers, and some rolling of eyes, in marched a bearded man in a wedding dress and veil. He was followed in procession by three men wearing mustaches and pigtails and dressed as bridesmaids. With smiles and waves of "hello" and "sorry, we're late" to me and to the crowd, they took their seats on the floor directly in front of me.
The room was silent again save the whispered observation of one bridesmaid to another about my attire. "Get a load of her," he said.
As I swallowed hard and stumbled into my first few words, I remember thinking to myself, "Oh my God! Now that I'm out, what do I do?" The people assembled in that room were my new family, to be embraced as replacements for my heterosexual family and friends. I was frightened and depressed.
Clearly there were many wonderful people in that room withwhom I might have immediately made good friends. In fact, a colleague and dear friend of mine today assures me with laughter that in 1974 he could have been one of the bridesmaids, or at the very least would have been orchestrating the wedding procession. What I saw through my unsophisticated new gay lenses was a roomful of "them" I mistakenly assumed were all the same, whom I decided I didn't like, and who, I was sure, didn't like me. Once again, I didn't fit in.
I know there are lots of gay men, lesbian women, and bisexual people who can relate to my experience. Though we come from every imaginable background, we share the childhood sense that our sexual and romantic feelings disqualify us from membership in the heterosexual world of our family and friends. When we come out of the closet, most of us lose our status in the straight world. Nevertheless, we believe that once we make contact with the gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities, our isolation and our feelings of second-class status will end.
But for many of us, regrettably, our isolation doesn't end, and for some of us there's a sense of a new second-class status. In my life as an openly gay man, I've received hundreds of letters from strangers and had countless conversations with friends who are frustrated by their feelings of not belonging in the gay community. And many of them are at a loss for what to do.
"I think I'm missing the gay gene," one will say with exasperation. "I don't know why, but I'm just not into ...," another will admit almost apologetically. "I seem to be too ... ." "I just can't get comfortable with ... ."
Some gay people I know even confess to worrying sometimes that other gay people might confront them with the accusation, "You're not really gay!" or "You're not really a lesbian!"
The truth is, after more than twenty years of being out and very active in gay social, spiritual, and political life, I still feel as if I don't completely fit in. One difference for me today is that I no longer expect to. And it's okay that I don't fit in.
I have been too Catholic for some and too disrespectful of theChurch for others. I'm too butch for some gay people and too femme for others. I'm too radical for some and too conservative for others. I'm too out for some gay people and, believe it or not, too closeted for others. (My parents are rolling in their graves!) After many years of seeking it, I now accept that I will never get the universal "Gay Seal of Approval." Furthermore, I now understand that it doesn't exist.
"But isn't there a test to prove that you're really gay?"
No, it's actually a question to determine if you're really homosexual . It is: Are you exclusively or predominantly attracted both emotionally and sexually to people of the same gender?
After that, the debate begins. Though no one agrees on how to make further distinctions, some people insist there are a lot more questions still to be answered correctly to prove that one is not just homosexual but truly gay or lesbian.
"Surely, you have done drag!"
Don't call me Shirley, and no, I have not. What's more, I like opera but I don't adore it. When I hear someone mention Special K, I think of a cereal and not a drug. I have no pecs to speak of, and I don't like the pain I experience during, and therefore don't engage in, receptive anal sex.
"Don't go on!"
I must. I have never finished reading A Boy's Own Story. S/M scares me, and some drag queens intimidate me. I have no body part that is pierced, I don't do much camp, and I don't think that "bitchy" humor is particularly funny.
"You've gone too far!"
I'm not done. I've only been to the baths once in my life and I walked around for forty-five minutes. I've never fully understood the fascination with Judy Garland (though I love The Wizard of Oz) andare you ready?I hate the word "queer."
"He's straight!" "He's unliberated!" "He's an assimilationist!"
The truth is I'm still just as "gay" as anyone else. I'm also just as proud of being gay and I'm just as feared and hated as anyone else who is homosexual. But I now feel more comfortableexperiencing and expressing being gay my own way. I only wish that it hadn't taken me so long and I wish it hadn't caused me so much pain to learn to do so. I also regret and apologize for any pain that I caused others with my expectations of them as gay people.
During gay and lesbian pride marches, we often point our fingers at people holding anti-gay signs, or at church or government buildings, and yell in unison, "Shame, shame, shame." It feels good to make such loud public pronouncements about other people's inappropriate behavior. But it doesn't feel so good when it's done to you. Regrettably, some of us also angrily point at each other with the intention of creating shame and forcing compliance with preconceived notions of what it means to be gay.
For many years, I did feel some shame because I believed that I wasn't gay enough. I feared I might be discovered as an impostor, kicked out of the group, and left with no community to which I could turn.
Now, I feel more relaxed about my style of being gay and I've found my niche in the world. What I've finally learned is that the key to my happiness is in knowing, loving, and being myselfnot in knowing, loving, and being what others expect of me.
For instance, I'm fascinated by and generally enjoy seeing gay men in drag, and at the same time I know it's not for me, at least not today. I love good gay camp humor, but I'm lousy at it. I affirm the rights of others to enjoy all forms of consensual sexual pleasuring, but I know that some behaviors aren't right for me now and perhaps never will be.
I think some men look great with an earring, and a ring through the nipple on a well-developed chest can be a real turn-on for me, but I'm not ready to pierce anything. I listen in awe as cofounders Tom Reilly and Karen Wickre describe the critically important computer networking efforts of Digital Queers. On them, "queer" works. On me, it doesn't, for now.
My happiness results when I find out and live what works for me today. I'm also happiest when I accept that what works for me will not necessarily work for everyone who is gay, lesbian or bisexual. Not knowing this truth, when I entered my new life as an openly gay person, caused me many years of heartache.
At the end of the tumultuous day during which the people of Michigan read and heard that I was gay, a closeted homosexual I knew sat in his car across the street and repeatedly screamed "faggot" at me as I headed into the office parking lot. It scared and hurt me. It also angered me.
At the time I didn't understand why he did it. Today I feel he screamed at me because he was frightened and angry, and perhaps ashamed. I think he saw my coming out as a statement about his being closeted. ("Outing" is the same phenomenon but from the other side of the closet door.) Some people get angry when others make choices that are different from their own. He and I both did.
During my subsequent hunger strike, when I was sustained by only water in an attempt to get the Catholic Church to educate the clergy about homosexuality, I was crushed to learn that some gay Catholics were very angry at me for confronting the bishops. They wrote or called to insist that I stop embarrassing them. At the time, I was deeply hurt, disappointed, and angry that their fear of the bishops and their desire to be left alone were such high priorities for them. If anyone was going to be my ally, I thought, gay Catholics should be!
The truth is, many gay Catholics were my allies. The national office of Dignity, the organization for gay Catholics, for instance, was very supportive of my efforts. Those members who opposed me felt there should be only one gay Catholic position. I did too. I made the mistake of expecting everyone to believe and behave as I did. I wanted them to feel shame for what I perceived to be their cowardice.
Shortly thereafter, when I was Dignity's national director ofsocial action, I was invited to give a presentation at a regional gay leadership conference in Philadelphia. My workshop focused on effective ways to educate religious institutions about gay issues.
Among the members of the audience was a local group of "radical queens" whose reported purpose was to "trash" my talk. Because I was Catholic, they assumed I would defend the writings of Saint Paul. They wanted to shame me.
"What do you have to say about Saint Paul?" yelled out one of the members of the group as I began to speak.
"He wasn't writing about homosexuality as we understand it," I answered. "He was condemning behaviors associated with temple prostitution. But even if he was condemning same-sex behavior, Saint Paul wrote many things that Catholics in good conscience ignore."
I passed their test. They got up and walked out, but I was hurt and enraged. How dare they! I ate, drank, and slept gay civil rights. I had lost my job for being gay. I lived on occasional contributions and on the pittance I made from my column in the gay press and from speaking engagements. "What do you have to do to belong to this club?" I fumed.
My mistake was in wanting to be accepted by everyone who was gay and assuming that if I paid my dues, everyone would embrace me. I hungered for approval. I craved a sense of security that I truly belonged.
So too, I suspect, did the gay men who called themselves radical queens and who came to trash my workshop. They too had undoubtedly felt terribly isolated as children. They longed for a cultural revolution that would destroy everything in society that shamed and marginalized them. They saw me as a defender of the Judeo-Christian ethic and, as such, someone in the way of their revolution.
Generally, when we gay people come out of the closet, we seek a world in which we will never feel shame again. We identify this world as "the gay community." But in the process of building thisidealized, substitute family, we often confuse security with conformity . When other gay people are not being gay in a way that makes us comfortable, out of our insecurity, we sometimes attempt to shame them into our image and likeness, just as some heterosexual bullies did to us.
We may bully other gay, lesbian, or bisexual people or be bullied ourselves over politics, faith, family, relationships, appearance, and even health status.
Lesbian and gay activist authors Urvashi Vaid,2 Andrew Sullivan, 3 Bruce Bawer,4 and Michelangelo Signorile,5 among others, have each published different and sometimes contrary views on who gay people are, where we're going, and how we ought to get there. There is today and seemingly always has been an unsettling tension in the gay political movement. It often feels as if you must march to the beat of one particular drummer or your commitment to gay liberation will be questioned.
Lesbian pioneers Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen, for instance, told me that when a handful of brave gay souls marched in front of the White House during the McCarthy era, they were criticized by other activists for their attire. The women wore dresses and heels and the men wore suits and ties in their efforts to put an everyday face on homosexuals. They were accused by some of pandering to heterosexual fears.
Lobbyist and Human Rights Campaign founder Steve Endean confided before his death that his most painful memory of community work was being called an Uncle Tom by some people for working within the system on a gay rights bill in Minnesota. Steve's entire adult life was committed to creating a safer world for lesbian women and gay men. Some gay people objected to his working behind the scenes with straight politicians to do so.
The day after it was announced in 1982 that I had been chosen by the mayor of Boston to be his ombudsperson, a small group of disgruntled gay men plastered the city with posters proclaiming: BRIAN MCNAUGHT, THE MAYOR'S LIAISON TO THE GAY COMMUNITY, INVITES YOU TO A PUBLIC ORGY IN THE BOSTON COMMON ...BRING TOYS AND BOYS, SLINGS AND THINGS. COSPONSORED BY DIGNITY AND INTEGRITY. They thought the mayor shouldn't have picked someone associated in any way with the Church.
Many gay and lesbian people I know who have made significant contributions to our movement have been hurt by equally disturbing behavior from other gay people who felt angry and threatened by differences. While those differences often center around politics, they can also be more personal.
Some "lipstick lesbians," for instance, feel as if they are not trusted because they like to wear makeup and dress femme. Some lesbians sense they are not completely welcome in the women's community because they have too many close gay male friends or are active in a gay religious group. Some gay women feel ostracized because they don't identify with the labels "lesbian," "dyke," or "queer."
A slightly different set of issues causes the same feelings for gay men. Some feel inadequate because they don't have well-developed chests and washboard stomachs. Others feel they face rejection because they aren't into leather or because they won't do drag. Still others sense disapproval because they're interested in professional sports, can't coordinate colors, or don't embrace the label "faggot."
On one of my early trips to a gay bar, I came directly from work in a coat and tie.
"Check out the tie," insisted one patron to another in an exaggerated tone of disapproval as I entered the bar.
Seeking the acceptance of these seemingly far wiser gay men, I took the tie off. They bullied. I felt shame. I wanted to belong to "the gay family," so I changed. Sometimes, though, you can't change so quickly and easily.
On my first and only trip to a gay bathhouse, I was a nervous wreck because I so wanted to be acceptedno, embracedinto what I identified as the gay male erotic brotherhood. My mind was filled with exciting sexual fantasies as I approached the maindesk. "Will I meet their standards?" I worried as I entered the locker room.
Two gay men sat on benches reading the local gay newspaper in which my syndicated column appeared. One recognized me from the picture that accompanied the column. "Hey, it's him!" I heard him whisper to his friend. I was exhilarated. Feeling terribly shy, I hoped they might start a conversation with me.
"He has no body," his friend replied as I finished undressing.
I had been judged inadequate. I felt ashamed of my body and was certain that I didn't belong in the bathhouse. I didn't fit in.
For years to come, I would look at myself in the mirror and hear the words "He has no body."
"They're right," I would observe. "Look at those arms. Look at that chest. No muscles. No body."
Some bisexual women call themselves lesbians for fear of being rejected as "Lesbian Lite." Some gay men uneasily call each other "queen," "Mary," and "Miss Thing" because they think that is what is expected of them. I started going to the gym in the hope of building an acceptable body.
"But I love your body just the way it is," my life partner, Ray, would protest.
"That's not enough. They have to like it," I would say to myself with hungry thoughts of universal gay male approval.
Ray and I are both HIV-negative and are very grateful for our health. Yet, we know of some gay men who feel guilty and almost embarrassed because they are negative. For them, being HIV positive is the litmus test of gay male identity.
All of this makes me very sad. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people should not continue to feel inadequate after they leave the closet. It's not healthy for the individual, nor for our civil rights movement.
One of the early symbols of gay liberation was the butterfly. Once out of the closet, we argued, we should be able to spread our beautiful wings and fly unencumbered. To do so, though, requiresthat we let go of the attitudes and the behaviors that keep us from feeling free.
In order to fly, I'm learning to stop letting in the bullying voices of disapproval. I'm learning to let go of my romantic fantasy of, and need for, universal gay acceptance. And I'm learning to identify and accept what makes me happy so that I can truly enjoy my life as a gay man.
A few years ago, I recognized that I have a "dis-ease" with myself and with the world that is often called "codependency." That means, among other things, that I'm prone to value other people's feelings, perceptions, wants, and needs more than my own. I grew up not trusting that I was truly loved. As a result, I've often tried to control people's responses to me by second-guessing what they wanted. I believed that I could manipulate my world to ensure that I was safe, if not loved and respected.
Such controlling, manipulative efforts make honest relationships impossible. They also create resentments, because people who try to please rarely know when to stop. We don't know boundaries, either ours or others'. I suspect that quite a few gay people can identify with these feelings.
As a child, I knew intellectually that my parents loved me, but I didn't trust in my heart that they would really love me if they knew I was gay. So I began to second-guess what they wanted from me. I did the same with my teachers, my classmates, and my friends. This dependence on the impossible approval of others eventually led to my suicide attempt. I drank paint thinner and swallowed pills because I was losing control of my life and I wanted to get out before everything fell apart. My secret attraction to men was demanding to be expressed, but I believed the truth about me, if known, would make me unlovablethat I would lose approval. I didn't know how to both be myself and please other people.
I hit bottom when I had my stomach pumped. Though I didn't know about codependency and twelve-step programs of recovery, I knew that I had to make changes in my life. Ipromised myself as I sat crying on the emergency room table with a tube down my nose and throat that I would never again live my life based upon people's expectations of me.
I meant my promise but I didn't keep it. Low self-esteem is a patient, persistent traveling companion, and it waited for me to let my guard down. That didn't take long.
After I came out, I started doing the same second-guessing with the gay community as I had done with the straight community. I wanted approval and I unconsciously attempted to control gay people's responses to me. "If I do this, will you love me? What about that? Now do I pass the test?"
I tried and tried but, again, it didn't work. It seemed that no matter what I accomplished, I didn't feel secure in gay people's acceptance of me. Once more, I didn't know how to both please other people and be myself.
I hit bottom again a couple of years ago. I remember lying in bed frustrated, angry, and emotionally exhausted as I cried quietly, feeling very alone.
"Does anybody really know who I am?" I asked as I reflected on my relationships with my family and friends, on people who had heard me speak or who had read what I had written. "Does even Ray really know me?"
"How could they?" I concluded. "You don't even know you. What do you want? What do you feel?"
I realized that I was very unhappy and I decided that I didn't want to live that way any longer. My first step toward changing my life was acknowledging that I had a dysfunctional way of experiencing myself and the world. Doing so lifted an enormous burden from my heart.
Through therapy, prayer, and hard work I've succeeded in making significant changes in the way I think, feel, and behave as a gay man. As a result, I'm happier today than I have ever been. I'm also more at peace with other gay people.
Reading books such as Melody Beattie's classic Codependent No More!6 was a great help in understanding my issues. Involvingmyself in a twelve-step recovery program provided me with a source of continual encouragement. I've also benefitted greatly from Ray's support and role-modeling, and that of family members and friends.
Lots of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people today are privately exploring whether they're happy in the way they relate to themselves, to other gay people, and to the rest of the world. Many of them are benefiting from examining in more detail the impact of their formative years on their current attitudes and behaviors.
I've met only a few gay men and lesbians who say they never doubted the love of their parents. Most gay people I know say they feared the love was conditional on their being heterosexual. Such feelings undermine children's ability to trust they are lovable, particularly when they grow up in a world in which their sexual feelings are described as "sick," "sinful," and "unnatural."
It would be wonderful if, when we entered into the gay community, we automatically shed those feelings of inadequacy and trusted that we were good just the way we were, but often we don't. Old ways of seeing the world die hard, particularly when reinforced by other walking-wounded people.
For lots of gay people, this dis-ease with themselves and the world means feeling anxious, self-conscious, defensive, inadequate, angry, ashamed, and resentful. These feelings can lead to a variety of unhealthy and inappropriate behaviors, such as excessive drinking and drugging, compulsive sexual activity, risky sexual conduct, the hostile outing of others, biting sarcasm, and unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others about what it means to be truly gay.
When people begin "recovery" from old ways of thinking, they question the healthiness and usefulness of their attitudes and behaviors. They ask themselves questions such as "How do I feel?" "What do I want?" "What does it mean to me to be gay?" "What does it mean to me to be male/female?" and "How do I want to spend the rest of my life?"
For most gay people, such questioning will result in coming out to their families so that they can start building honest relationships. It may also mean coming out to their bosses or changing jobs so that they can be themselves at work. Gay people who grow in self-esteem generally leave unhappy heterosexual marriages or unhappy, unhealthy homosexual relationships. Some people will quit drinking and others will swear off drugs. Some gay people will make changes in their sexual behavior. Once in this process, gay people begin striving to be true to themselves regardless of what others think.
If, for instance, today I hear "Check out the tie," I don't immediately assume that the person is talking about my tie, that it is a criticism, or that, if it is a criticism, it has any particular merit.
When I look in the mirror at my body today, I'm often able to think, "You have a nice body. It works very well for you. It doesn't look like the bodies in the ads for gay male vacation cruises, but most of the men on those cruises don't look like the ads either. It's a fit and healthy body for a middle-aged man. You should feel proud."
As part of my new way of thinking and being, I now try to avoid people, books, films, magazines, columns, comedy acts, and conferences that are negative or harshly judgmental or that I fear will activate the insecurities of my past. Conversely, I seek out people, places, and things that help me feel good about who I am as a gay person and what I am becoming.
When I start to feel anxious with or resentful of other gay people, I try to remind myself that I can't control the behavior of other people, only my expectations of them. I ask myself, "Am I doing what I'm doing because I want to or because I feel I have to in order to get approval?" I work to accept that when people criticize, they are judging my behavior and not me.
I sure wish I had felt like this when I was invited to speak to the University of Michigan gay student group in 1974. If so, I would have first decided if I thought it would be a positive experiencefor me and a good use of my time. Knowing today how much fun it is to speak with gay and lesbian college students, I'm sure I would have said "yes."
I probably would have worn more casual clothes, though not jeans. When invited to speak, I still like to dress up a little.
The crowd of strangers wouldn't scare me so much this time because I would feel secure in my own experience of being gay. I would talk to as many people as I could, realizing they were not all the same. I now know that I would really like some of the gay people and not be as drawn to others. Some of the people would really like me too. Others wouldn't.
When I started speaking to the group, I would still feel a little nervous and I have accepted performance anxiety as an important ingredient to my success, but I would trust today that what I had to say would be of interest to them.
When the bearded bride and the mustached and pigtailed bridesmaids walked in, I wouldn't look as startled as I did in 1974, and I expect that I would roll my eyes and laugh along with them. Today, I have more affection for the members of my community who have different styles of being gay than me.
In answer to my question, "Now that I'm out, what do I do?" I now say, "Relax. Be yourself. Have some fun, and spread your wings and fly."
NOW THAT I'M OUT, WHAT DO I DO? Copyright © 1997 by Brian McNaught. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York, N.Y. 10010.