After I Came Out, People Called Me Brave -- But I’m Mostly Just Terrified
Before I came out to my ex husband, and long before I came out publicly, I came out privately to a couple of close friends. Back then, no one called me brave. The friends I shared my deepest anguish with understood the unavoidable tragedy in either decision I would ultimately make: stay and sink further into depression; or leave and devastate my family. They understood that no matter which path I chose, someone would feel they had lost all agency over their life. So, from those close friends I confided in, the response was only, “I am here. I support you no matter what you decide.”
It was later, when I came out to everyone else, that the word “brave” came up. I’m not offended by this. I agree it took a certain amount of bravery to upend my life. But I don’t feel brave.
It’s been almost a year since I came out publicly, and I am afraid all the time. Afraid people hate me, afraid my kids will lose friends because of who I am, afraid I may be put in a situation where I must defend my sexuality.
I hate confrontation. How do you avoid confrontation when you’re gay? It’s built into the experience. My mere existence is an affront to some people, whether they tell me about it or not. I have not come to terms with this. I am not strong.
When I used to imagine coming out, I pictured myself as having a massive weight lifted off of me. I imagined that finally releasing my secret would give me a feeling of freedom. Catharsis. Peace. But I wasn’t an unattached young adult coming out to friends and family, worried about who would and wouldn’t accept me but still with my whole life ahead of me, still with the ability to cut haters out and go and create my own family from scratch. Not that that’s easy to do. But when you’re young and haven’t voluntarily committed yourself to someone, haven’t produced children who expect you to always always always put them first no matter what, you have a little more freedom to tell people to fuck off.
Coming out is different when you’re 39 years old, with a husband, two kids, and an intricate network of family and friends who have beliefs and expectations about who you and your family are and where you fit into the community.
Though, yes, I did initially feel a weight lifted from my shoulders after coming out, I also felt — and often still feel — a suffocating fear. People keep telling me I’m brave, but I am so, so afraid. I’m viscerally, painfully terrified. I’m afraid when I go to school functions for the kids with my ex — I work myself into a panic wondering what other people think of me, if they hate me or feel sorry for me or feel sorry for my ex, for my kids. At my son’s high school orientation last week, it seemed like everywhere I turned there was a child I recognized from his elementary school, parents I’ve known for 10 years or more. Do they know? I kept asking myself. And then, Why do I care?
Because it would be uncomfortable enough wondering whether or not people know about my divorce. Wondering if they know why we got divorced is where the fear comes in. I worry they’ll approach me and bring it up in some way, or give me shame-y side-eye from across the room. Or maybe they’ll offer an awkward, supportive hug or tell me how sorry they are. I don’t know who is LGBT-friendly. I don’t know who thinks I’m an abomination. I don’t know who loves the sinner but hates the sin. I keep getting this panicked feeling like the one you get in dreams when something monstrous is coming after you and there’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run, nowhere that is safe. It’s funny because I had those dreams all the time when I was still in the closet. Dreams about being discovered for what I was, dreams of stuffing poisonous snakes back into boxes. The dreams are gone, but now I have this other real-life fear.
I had read about the phenomenon of having to come out over and over again, that a person is never really done coming out, but I didn’t understand how exhausting it was until I went through it. I’m so tired. Every single time I come out to someone, I have to absorb their feelings. It doesn’t matter if those feelings are positive or negative, whether they’re shock or sympathy or support — it’s still something I have to absorb. I don’t know how to shrug my shoulders and say “whatever.”
So, often, I don’t bother coming out. A fellow musician from the orchestra I play in announced to me that he had moved into the same neighborhood as me — the one I used to live in before I came out, before I moved. I smiled and played along. I couldn’t get into it. At work, where I’m supposed to focus on the music, I didn’t want to see his eyes widen, didn’t want to absorb his sympathy or shock, didn’t want to hear any platitudes or say “It’s okay, I’m fine,” after he told me how sorry he was.
I did the same thing at the gym when I ran into a fellow mom from the kids’ school. I was there with my new partner who I’d been dating for several months, though they were working out in a different part of the gym. As we stretched on the mats, I exchanged some pleasantries with the acquaintance, some news about the kids. As she got up to leave, my partner, who is nonbinary and oozes glorious queerness, came and sat down beside me. I greeted my partner but offered no explanation to the acquaintance. I couldn’t imagine coming out to this person I hardly knew, at the fucking gym of all places, surrounded by mirrors and sweaty people and upbeat music, and drop three pieces of information on her at once: I got divorced. Because I’m gay. And this is my new partner. It’s too much.
My biggest fear of all, though, is that I am irredeemably selfish. I chose myself over the three other people in my immediate family. All the advice I have read tells me it’s not so much that I chose myself, it’s that I chose truth. Carrying on as I had been would have hurt my loved ones even more in the end. But sometimes it’s hard to remember just how much I was hurting. Those days when I was sick with grief for a life I thought I would never have seem hazy and unreal to me now. I have to close my eyes and really go there to remember how bad it was, to remember that I was hurting myself in small ways and trying to muster up the courage to hurt myself in bigger ways. No, coming out wasn’t ever really a choice.
It feels more like life led me to a path, and I could either walk that path or keep getting sicker. I chose the path. I went from blending in with every other anonymous hetero white lady to being “that woman who left her husband because she’s gay.” I so desperately wanted to be seen for who I really am, and make no mistake, I am grateful for my life of authenticity. But I am also exhausted. I have a new appreciation for the marginalized folks who wear their identities in obvious ways, who can’t blend in. They are superheroes.
I believe I will get used to being out. I’ll grow into it. But for now, while it’s new, I mostly feel afraid and exhausted. Thank you to those of you who have called me brave. It does give me a little lift, even if, at the moment, it doesn’t feel true.
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