Throughout society, individuals from all walks of life have different rites of passage that mark major milestones or changes in their lives. Rites of passage can particularly be important for children or adolescents, individuals who are still developing in many ways. School graduation ceremonies are a primary rite of passage for most children and young adults. Baptisms and proms are also examples of rites of passage. Because of their cultural significance, rites of passage can become important – and even integral – to the individual who experiences them. There is one rite of passage, however, that I believe deserves more exploration and that is the process of coming out.
I first want to preface this passage by saying that everyone’s coming out experience is unique to the individual coming out and everyone comes out in different ways. For me, personally, coming out in and of itself was particularly challenging. The questions that invaded almost every space of my brain began from as early as I could remember. Who did I trust enough to come out to? Was coming out even the right thing to do? Would the people I tell betray my secret, and what would I do if that happened? Would I lose my friends over this? These were questions I considered from a very young age, which, at least for me, was an isolating experience.
Above all else, though, the biggest question that pervaded my thoughts is the one I still think about to this day: What if I lose my family?
My coming out to my parents was a unique experience because unlike others’ – or perhaps there are more people out there who have had similar experiences that I am just simply unaware of – I had to temporarily go back inside of the closet. I remember the day as if it were yesterday. My parents were getting ready to go to a wedding or some special ceremony. That bit of detail I don’t remember quite clearly. What I do remember is that right before my parents were about to leave for the wedding, my mother came up to my room to check up on how I was doing. She had this sort of lightness to her feet that you couldn’t tell if she was coming up the stairs. She saw my then-boyfriend and I exchange a passionate kiss – one that I knew I couldn’t make an excuse for.
What came afterwards I will never forget.
“What are you doing? Get out,” my mother commanded the boy who I had shared a kiss with. Surprised and probably mortified by the sudden fact that we had been noticed, he left without question. Not knowing what else to do, she called for my father and decided at that moment that dealing with me was far more important than going to some wedding ceremony.
“What’s going on?” my father asked. He was calm. My father was always like that. He had this sort of cool, relaxed poise to him that I always respected. My mother remained silent. Was she waiting for me to speak? Or was she flabbergasted by the fact that her first born son was gay?
“What’s going on?” my father repeated. Again, silence. My mother was never quiet for this long. I knew that meant it was my turn to speak.
The thing about coming out is that once you do it, there’s almost no way of going back. I wasn’t ready to come out to my parents, but I felt I had no other option. I was cornered, trapped, and ready to admit defeat.
“I’m gay,” I told them. The words rushed out of my mouth and I immediately felt sick to my stomach. My father took one look at me and left the room. Was that it? Was that the end of the discussion? Did I somehow luck out in not having to engage in a devastating conversation with my father? Of course I hadn’t. My father, a minister, came back with the one thing he held closer to his heart than my mother – the Bible.
“Son. Leviticus 20:13 writes that ‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.’” I will never forget this specific verse. It was the sentence that he forever branded onto my soul: that I was an abomination and that I had disgraced him.
Without hesitance, he continued, “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Although his remarks pained me, I believe that it was his faith that caused him to say such words. Faith runs deep. Faith works in the most mysterious ways. And I know now that faith is the ultimate test. Unfortunately for me, for this particular test, my father chose his Father. And all I could remember thinking was, did Isaac feel this way, too, when his father Abraham chose his Father, instead of him? How befitting it was that we shared the same name.
My father recited bible verse after bible verse – verses that explicitly stated that acts of homosexuality were sinful. I hated that he did that. But rather than feel hate, all I felt was hurt. I felt that I lost two fathers that day – the one who had created the world and the one who had created me. The very next day, my father came up to my room. He prayed and prayed and prayed… and then he did something that devastated me. He cried. I mentioned earlier that my father possessed a certain stoicness to him – he was the type of man who did not even cry when his own mother had passed. Yet here was a man, a man who had been my rock for as long as I could remember, in his most vulnerable state laying in front of me. To me, his tears meant he was mourning. He was mourning whatever vision he had envisioned for me. He was mourning me, and I unfortunately internalized then that my sexuality was something to mourn over. I saw my father cry, yet I felt I was the one that was broken.
The way my mother reacted was different, yet just as devastating. My father was more reserved whereas my mother was more emotional. The one thing I still think about is the fact that my mother couldn’t initially eat after I came out. There’s a belief in the presbyterian religion that one can fast away one’s sins. My mother had “bred sin” and hunger was the price she chose to pay. When I saw my own parent refuse to eat, it did something to me. After about the sixth or seventh day following my coming out, I uttered words I really wish I hadn’t uttered back then: that this was a phase and that I was sorry for breaking up our family.
One of the greatest regrets I had to grapple with was having to go back into the closet during that time. It was all 15-year old Isaac could handle. Coming out was, for lack of a better term, traumatic. To be cognizant of the fact that I was causing so much discord and pain within my family, even though I knew deep in my heart that I wasn’t the problem, was too much to handle at that age. I feel that perhaps I applied a bandaid fix to my problems, even though I knew myself that my homosexuality wouldn’t simply go away. I used the words a lot of parents use against their kids who come out: “It’s just a phase.” It was as if I knew exactly what to say in order for all the pain to stop, even though in my heart of hearts I knew it wasn’t a phase. But the pain did stop. At least, momentarily, it did.
I wonder if my parents think back to my coming out experience and feel the same way about it. Faith runs deep. Faith works in the most mysterious ways. My faith in believing that I should be who I am and love who I want to love gives me the courage to be who I am today. My way led me to the most important person in my life: my husband. To be able to declare my love for him and know that my love is unwavering trumps any of the pain I have had to endure.
Happy National Coming Out Day!
October 11 is National Coming Out Day in the United States, celebrated each year to mark the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. For the past 32 years, LGBTQ+ Americans have celebrated sharing who they are with family, friends, and colleagues on Oct. 11.
Coming out is an experience that is so unique to each of us, but the one constant we share is that we all stand in solidarity with each other. I know I would not be where I am today without the people who have come before me, some of whom have risked their very lives to advance the rights of LGBTQ+ folk. Coming out is a lot different today than it was in 1988, when National Coming Out Day started. Still, it can remain challenging and sometimes even painful. And even when your friends and family are wholly supportive, being openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or queer can still be dangerous.
Coming out isn’t necessarily something that just happens once, and it doesn’t end after one conversation. However, know that you are valid and you are allowed to take all the time you need in the process of coming out. If you’re not ready to open up to someone — or answer questions they might have — you don’t have to! And for those of us who are still in the closet, know that you are also valid, loved, seen, and heard. Kindly remember that you get to choose who to open up to, and when. This story is no one else’s but yours to write.