Twenty-five years ago today, half a million people descended on the U.S. Capitol for the second national March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. A few months later, inspired by that October 11th gathering, out-and-proud LGBT activists Rob Eichberg and Jean O’Leary decided the nation needed an annual day to celebrate the act of coming out, which would hopefully encourage those still hidden to venture beyond the shadows of the closet.
When I came out to my family in 1996, I had never heard of National Coming Out Day. But I also had led a pretty sheltered life, raised in the small Orthodox Jewish town of Monsey, New York, where the skirts were long, the meat was Glatt, and the gays were invisible as far as the eye could see. When I did hear references to “those people,” the adjectives were far from flattering. In fact, I consider it proof of divine providence that I was somehow able to shed the cloak of shame long enough to figure out who I really was.
Of course, being me was one thing—telling my religious parents, quite another. It’s been sixteen years, but I can still remember the way my hands shook and my heart thundered in my ears sitting at the kitchen table with my mother on a Sabbath afternoon. My father was off at synagogue, saying the evening prayers, so my mother and I were alone. We sat there, playing one board game after another, as I silently cursed my cowardice and tried to calm myself enough to speak. The kitchen clock ticked loudly, dramatically, and my mouth dried like a tumbleweed in the Sinai. We finished our umpteenth game of backgammon.
“So, what should we play now?” my mother asked.
“Um…how about truth or dare?” I stammered.
“How do we play that?”
“Well…that’s the game where I tell you the truth.”
My mother paused for a deep, fortifying sigh. “Okay. So, nu? Tell me the truth.”
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. We sat in silence for many long minutes, as my mother patiently watched me do my best impression of the Tin Man. Finally, she laid a gentle hand over mine.
“Just say it,” she said.
“I’m gay,” I said.
My father’s reaction was an even greater surprise. My father, whose devotion to the Jewish Torah and its many, many commandments was unshakable, wrapped me in a bear hug and told me he would always love me. We all cried. Then we broke out the bagels.
It wasn’t all roses after that, but on the whole, I’ve been very lucky. My parents eventually walked me down the aisle at my wedding in 2003, and gave me away to my partner, Micheale. My mother died the following year, but not before she let me know that Micheale was a keeper and she was really happy I’d found somebody to share my life with. My whole family continues to be extremely supportive of us and of our children. Again, we are very, very lucky. Still, I will likely always bear the scars of my time on the inside, the shame I wore, the many years I felt just too different, too other.
Many, many years later, as I held my own newborn baby girl in my arms, I promised her that she would never, ever have to hide herself from her parents. She would never have to wear dresses and ribbons or play with dolls. She could live in jeans and baseball hats and play sports all the livelong day. My own childhood had been awash in dolls and lace and every possible shade of pink. It’s worth noting that my mother had longed for a baby girl from her first pregnancy, but her fervent prayers were answered with one mud-loving son after another. When I finally arrived, fourth in line, I seemed to come bearing the unspoken promise to fulfill every dream she’d ever had for sugar and spice. As my wise old Bubbie used to say, der mentsh trakht un got lakht. Man plans, God laughs.
My own daughter, I vowed, would never be made to feel that way. I bought her as much gender-neutral clothing as I could find and steered clear of the “pink” aisles in the toy store. We allowed building blocks and cars and primary colors, and we banned Barbie outright. But as she grew, our girl demonstrated distinct signs that she had a yen for the femme. She loved princesses and party shoes and wore enough costume jewelry to make her head tilt. We persisted in our anti-gender-normative education, loudly lamenting the gender stereotyping so rampant in our culture. One day, when we told our daughter for the hundredth time that she did not have to wear a dress, holding up a pair of jeans as a desirable alternative, she said quietly, “But, Mommy…I like wearing dresses.”
I recognized the wary, pleading look in her eyes. I’m sure it was the same one I wore in my mother’s kitchen. Please, she seemed to be saying, see me. I’m different from you. Tell me that it’s okay.
I have no idea if our two daughters will wind up femme, butch or somewhere in between. And I certainly don’t know what their sexuality will be. But I now see that there is value to having our truth recognized at all points along the way. I see that we are all fearful of difference, whatever that may represent for each of us. We’re hardwired that way. And we all have to come out at one time or another—whether about our sexuality, our political affiliation, our religious leanings, our stand on cultural issues, our fondness for karaoke, our secret love of glitter.
I say, let’s all get into the spirit of National Coming Out Day. If you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning or other, today is your day to come out, loud and proud. For everyone else, consider making this a day to speak your own person truth. Tell a secret you’ve never told. Reveal a dream you’ve been afraid to give voice to. Sing at the top of your lungs, no matter how off key.
Perhaps just as important, let’s all try to be the person on the other side, too. Let’s embrace the difference, the otherness we normally resist, or even fear, in our child, our spouse, our friend. Let’s take someone’s hand and say, “I know, I see, and it’s okay.”
It was sixteen years ago that I revealed my long-hidden truth to my parents, but I can vividly remember how weightless I felt afterward. As I recall, the world had never looked so bright or so beautiful as it did that very next morning.