For me, my coming out started in the fourth grade; I was nine years old. I knew that I liked girls, but didn’t really understand what that meant. I just knew that I didn’t want a boyfriend like all my other classmates talked about.
You see, I came from a very Italian Catholic family. Homosexuality wasn’t really discussed, and if it was, it was in the context of it being a sin, wrong, or unnatural. I spent much of my adolescence trying to fit in socially, having a few boyfriends, but finding excuses for why I couldn’t really date (sports, school, time etc.). It was hard sometimes to live up to what society expected from me and all girls, and not draw attention to myself when I was outside the lines of those expectations. I was funny; I made folks laugh so I often used humor to get out of those tricky situations.
When I entered high school I went to an all-girls boarding school, and to say I was in the closet would be an understatement, I was so deep in it, I couldn’t have found the door to get out if I wanted to(let the irony of that sink in for a moment). In my first year, I befriended an upperclassman that now I realize was my first real crush; maybe even first love. I just thought we were really good friends until the day she left school after some emotional issues. I felt like my world had come crashing down, and all I wanted to do was to hold her in my arms. Though I couldn’t say the words, “I am gay” I started to understand what they meant.
I left the school soon after and entered the co-ed public school in my town in my junior year. So just as I started to recognize and name these feelings in myself, it was short-lived, as I entered a very conservative and hetero-normative culture. I found ways to blend in and hide by laughing at homophobic jokes, or just avoiding those who were suspected of being gay because I feared with every fiber of my body that someone would think I might be gay. I didn’t realize it at first, but I was starting to feel shame about what I was beginning to recognize in myself. That’s right, shame.
“Everyone believes that coming out begins when you first tell someone that you are gay, but the process of coming out actually begins long before you say those words.”
By the time I entered college, I was in a full-blown war with myself to not be gay . I went to Catholic college so it was in an environment that supported my personal oppression. I met my husband the 2 nd day on campus and we started dating. I pushed us to get an apartment together junior year and then, being the good catholic kids we were, we married the September after graduation at the ripe ages of 22. I can remember sitting on edge of my bed on our wedding day thinking whatever attraction I have to women I needed to suppress, and I visualized pushing it down as far as I could. I actually visualized it fading away. We were married for five years and in that time my coming out went through many stages, from shame, to self-loathing, to anger, to sadness, until in 1999 I finally said the words to myself.
It happened a few weeks after I had been sitting with a group of my friends in a diner after we had just been to a gay club. That’s right a gay nightclub. My friends were rousing me saying, “you are so gay! Why are you with a man?” I defended myself by saying, “you don’t fall in love with gender, you fall in love with people. And I happened to fall in love with a man. ” Maybe true, but I didn’t protest it too much!!
Shortly after I spoke the words to myself, I told a close friend of mine that I believed I might be gay. She promptly stated that she “always knew and was just waiting for [me] to realize it”. I told no one else until late 2000 several months after my husband and I finally spilt; after I entered a relationship with a woman. The next person I told was my older sister, who I think found more excitement in my being gay than I ever did. The prospect of gay pride parades and rainbow stickers just filled her with Joy. (To this day I think she has attended more gay events then I ever have). I then proceeded with the sometimes painful, mostly comedic, although often uneventful verbal coming out process. Some responses were “yup, I knew”, or “but you were married to a man” or the best one “how could you do this to me.” Mostly the responses were positive. My parents were not supportive and it took us many years to get to a place of tolerance. A good friend put it in perspective for me when I lamented one day that I wished they just would be ok with it. She said, “how long did it take you to accept it? Give them time.” And she was right. Although I do not believe they may ever truly accept it, I do know they love me very much.
This year I turned 40, and 29 years after I began my coming out, I finally feel out.
…I wonder how long its takes straight people to come out?
I don’t regret my process because it made me who I am, but I would like to make the process a little smoother for others. I have three simple steps that I would like everyone to commit to taking that hopefully will begin to ease, if not eliminate, the need for us to come out.
Step # 1: Don’t make assumptions about a child’s sexuality.
You know you have heard the statements by parents of little children, “Billy, is Mary your girlfriend?” Don’t put your hope (gay or straight) on your child. Give them space to understand what they feel and be OK with them figuring it out. Expose them to love and allow it to live outside the box of heterosexuality. Which simply means, teach them to love, don’t teach them WHO to love.
Step #2: Don’t put toys in gendered boxes
Don’t designate what a girl toy is and what a boy toy is, just let them play. Let them be curious and explore. When we tell young children what toys to play with, or only allow them to play with certain toys based in their gender, we start them on an early path to feeling shame when they step outside expectations. Play is important, and let’s be honest, kids don’t get enough of it anyway these days. Let go, and buy your son a Barbie if that’s what he wants – isn’t it more important that he creates and imagines then fits and conforms?
Step # 3: Be a Voice for the voiceless
We live in a world where we put our heads down (or in our smart phones) and walk straight without making eye contact or connecting with those around us. We hide behind the protection of internet anonymity and forget that our “likes” and our “memes” have impact. Perpetuating stereotypes about gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people hurts every LGBT person out there, maybe your son, brother, cousin, friend, sister etc. Our own community does it the most. We make ourselves caricatures; diminishing our humanity. Speak up when someone does that so that our young people see where the helpers are and know that they are not alone.
In my lifetime I may never see a time when the need to come out doesn’t exist, but hopefully we can lessen the shame, the anger, the isolation and the struggle by taking some very small, but powerful steps.
Diana Cutaia was the Director of Athletics and co-founder of the Sport based-Youth Development program at Wheelock College from 2005-2012. She has over 20 years’ experience in using sport as a tool for positive youth development and is a leading expert on topics such as physical activity, girls in sport, peaceful coaching, and positive cultures in sport. She is the owner of Coaching Peace Consulting, LLC. You can reach her at Diana@coachingpeace.com .