There was no definite time that I can now identify as the moment of realization or acceptance concerning my own sexuality. As soon as I was aware of having sexual desires, I knew that other boys were the objects of them. In fact boys were the objects of desire of some unspecified kind long before I was aware of sexual desires. I knew too that most boys were interested in girls, so feeling different was just there, like the grass or rain, a completely normal thing. This was certainly in place by the time I was 8, perhaps earlier.
At no time in my life have I been unhappy or upset because of my sexuality. I can't recall even being confused about such things. I've been distressed by plenty of other things, but not by that. So many people, reporting their life stories later or even in medias res, are terribly tormented by the thought they might not be straight, burdened by guilt, by religious strictures, by the fear of discovery or banishment from friends and family, etc. I can't explain it, but I never went through any of that.
On the other hand, up to my mid-30s, I was closeted in varying degrees, depending on the social context. It was simply to avoid unpleasant situations that would almost certainly have resulted. Some internalized homophobia probably results from such strategies, but I also think no one should be required by some abstract canon of absolute honesty to imperil their personal safety.
School was one place indirection was not unusual. Later on, it was a small step to extend the principle to the job arena.
It's a seldom-noted fact that being closeted is not necessarily a cramped or uncomfortable condition. It imposes real shackles on the mind, but they are often padded with down and really quite easy to bear without a sense of burden. So it was for me until the late 1960s, by which time I was nearing age 35.
Amid the upheavals of Civil Rights marches, Vietnam War protests, and feminism, coupled with the left-oriented politics of the worldwide youth movement, there arose a vigorous sexuality-liberation activist movement, founded on a demand by lesbians and gay men -- later joined by bisexual and transgendered people -- for full parity of rights with those of the heterosexual majority. Though there is still far to go, there has been some progress -- nothing like enough, but some.
The equality principle in employment is still compromised for LGB people in many ways, even in places (like Wisconsin or Dane County or the City of Madison) where it is de jure illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual preference. Discrimination may not affect your personal safety (usually; see below), but it can certainly affect your opportunities adversely, or in some cases your day-to-day work experiences.
In retrospect, it's surprising to realize how completely entrenched homophobia is in the minds of children as young as five or six: they have little or no idea what sex (much less sexuality) is, really, yet they know that being "queer" or "a lezzie" or "a faggot" is a very bad thing to be. They get it from their parents, of course, or, as soon as they're in day care or school, from other kids' parents indirectly. So one thing we can say with certainty: homophobia continues to be a problem because of ignorant, irresponsible parenting.
So many lives get completely screwed up by such things. It discourages me at times to realize how deeply in our society homophobia runs. At base, it's violence against children, because the ego crises and denial that for so many young people ensue from feeling different in this way distort just about everything in a person's value system.
Yet we who are not straight take our water from the same stream, and inevitably it is to a degree tainted. As a class, very few of us make a real effort to come to grips with this aspect of our lives, I think.
For the most part I remained partly closeted (in the sense of being publicly out) until I was 34, which was the time of the Stonewall riots in New York (1969) and the beginning of what was then called gay liberation in Madison, in the early 70s.
I didn't care much if people knew, and in particular I never once in my life had any sense of it being wrong or shameful to be gay, but neither did I make a big deal about it. This is not to say I wasn't self-conscious, but my insecurities were not about my sexuality. I was certainly completely at ease about myself when I was with other gay and lesbian people.
It's only within the past ten years or so that I've finally felt I was all the way out, in the form of not hesitating to make it clear that I'm gay with colleagues at work or with more casual friends and acquaintances in whatever context. If the topic turns to wives, husbands, or other opposite-sex significant others, I'm no longer shy about mentioning my same-sex significant others.
This is in part a statement about social equality. But if someone should chance to make a homophobic joke or utter a slur in my presence, I now find it quite easy to get right in their face about it, in an extremely rude way if necessary.
However I think social and political trends do influence how publicly out we can be. For instance, in the 70s, I might give a male friend a ride to class (just a plain friend, not a special one) and at hello/goodbye times, we might give each other a kiss, in front of anyone who happened to be there. Not a passionate kiss, but certainly a kiss on the lips and "See ya tomorrow, John!"
In the student union, where I spent a lot of time in those days, very public hugs and kisses were a dirt-common part of greetings between gay men. Lesbians too were quite open. This changed, beginning with the many social and political regressions of the Reagan/Bush years.
Being publicly gay in the student union is not common now. Same-sex couples do not often walk down the street holding hands; it happens, but it's not common, whereas in the 70s it was the usual thing. To a discouraging degree, many people have found it politic to go back in -- partly or altogether, which I feel is the exact opposite of what we need collectively.
Against all that, one day in the fall of 1997, I was at the office, where all of my immediate (male) co-workers were straight, and there was a very casual conversation about gay bars and gay people. I wasn't really a party to the conversation; rather, it was three or four guys talking about it among themselves, but in my presence. There didn't seem to me to be least pretense or uptightness in anything they said nor in their manner of saying it. I did think, at the time, that this indicated a certain progress, or certainly a better awareness than one could have expected a generation ago.
On the personal safety issue, two populations are especially at risk, I think. High-school-age boys in small towns, as a recent Ashland, Wisconsin case shows, are often the objects of severe harassment, with little or no protection offered by school boards or other authorities, despite our progressive laws.
And just a couple years ago, a Madison man picked up the wrong guy at the bus station late at night; they went to the back of a nearby business, presumably for a sexual purpose, but the gay man was made to kneel while the pickup murdered him, execution style, with a large-calibre handgun. The murderer, who was caught, convicted and sent away for life, stated straight-out at his trial that he had taken the bus to Madison from Minneapolis expressly "to kill fags." Then in 1998, there was the tragic, unbelievably brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Myoming, simply because he was gay. In my opinion, such barbarities -- they are in no sense rare -- justify the notion that society is as sick as ever.
I think it's very important to come out. At each stage of the process, which took me much longer than it seems to take young people these days, I felt a certain weight drop away. Ultimately it's about self-acceptance, about being centered within yourself.
A motivation I've so far not mentioned is that it markedly strengthened my ties with other LGB people, both those with whom I was personally acquainted and strangers I might see in a social situation or with whom I've interacted in cyberspace. I felt increasingly connected to others, even though I'm actually rather solitary and reclusive.
In the course of my peregrinations, I've encountered countless people who were more out than I was; each time it made me think: if invisibility is a major problem for LGB people -- and I think it undeniably is -- the obvious remedy is render oneself visible. When I was 18, one of the things the 50s generation wanted to avoid was "being spotted."
There is wonderful ambiguity in that phrase, as though one were a different species. The other end of the pendulum swing is that one comes to resent the assumption, on the part of the vast majority, that one is like them (straight). Part of visibility is saying "Oh no, how dare you assume I'm straight?" It does get people thinking, and that's a good thing. Being spotted is exactly the right thing to quash those default assumptions about us.
In the fall of 2003, I went to the reunion of my high-school class. If there were classmates who did not know 50 years ago that I was gay, it simply proves my point about invisibility and default assumptions. In a class of 283, 114 of whom attended the reunion, there had to be a few other lesbian, gay or bisexual people there in addition to me. If there were, I didn't know about it, however.
This struck me as peculiar and indeed rather annoying. For one thing, there was an extensive exchange of email among classmates in the weeks preceding the event, in which I participated no small amount. At the bottom of every one of my messages, there is a signature section that points to this web site, where after all it's hard to avoid the truth (I hope).
As far as I know, only one of my classmates -- a former girlfriend -- actually looked here, as she told me by email before of the reunion. As a result, she was the person I felt closest to during the event itself. Though not a soul was in any way unpleasant to me, I was asked repeatedly if I were married, had kids, etc. Such questions were well-intended, surely, but they underscore an ongoing social blindness to the realities of sexual minorites.
Unless and until there is total, comprehensive legal and civil equality for all -- every right, every privilege, every advantage in personal, social and political terms -- total absence of prejudice -- then the society will remain at base corrupt, a peril for all.