I was enjoying dinner recently with a new friend at an elegant Madison restaurant where our handsome waiter was even more pretentious than the wine list.
After an hour of comfortable getting-to-know-you conversation, my friend asked me, “When did you come out?” Without thinking, I gave my stock reply: “Oh, back when Elton John was Reginald Dwight in short pants.” He laughed, as hoped for, and our conversation wound its way to a companionable conclusion.
But later that night, I got to thinking about his question, and I realized that I didn’t know precisely what he meant by “come out.” Did he mean when did I admit to myself that I was gay? When did I come out to my only gay friend? To my closest straight friend? To my parents? The drones at work? Gawkers at the Pride Parade? The list seemed endless.
Space doesn’t allow me to describe my half-dozen or more important outings over the years, so I will mention only the first two.
The first – self-identification – was wrung out of me in the autumn of 1959, when Tony and I were sophomore roommates at Oberlin College. He decided that it was imperative for the sake of my mental health that I admit I was gay, and he harangued me for months to ’fess up. Finally, beaten down, I did so, although, interestingly, this never led to our “sharing intimacies” for the next 48 years! That’s probably a not uncommon strategy for protecting a valued friendship.
The second outing – the preeminent one for most gays – was admitting (confessing?) gayness to my parents. Only it didn’t happen that way. I was outed by a letter describing a dalliance I’d had with Jean, the head of a French acting company whom I’d met at Oberlin and stayed with in New York City at the tour’s end in 1962.
I had written about my NYC adventures – my first live opera; my first visit to an Automat; my unhappy introduction to a popular sexual position – to my closest, then-straight male friend Jim. He and I were both home for Christmas, and he’d brought the letter to me to explain certain intentionally obscure comments. Foolishly, he left the letter in my parents’ car, and my mother, uncharacteristically, opened and read it.
While I sat alone in our living room on Christmas Eve, lit only by tree lights and the bright fresh snow outside, my warm revery was interrupted by my mother, who slipped into the gloom, sat down, and said, portentously, “You really shouldn’t leave your letters lying around.”
My shock was palpable. I remember almost nothing of our tense, probing conversation except that at the end she said – I thought very insultingly – that she wouldn’t tell my father.
But after I returned to my new home in New York City, I soon received a letter from Papa, which began, “Your mother told me…. At first, I thought you’d done this intentionally. Then I thought maybe it was my fault.” He worked through his reasoning and finally achieved some repose, concluding with “If you want to see a psychiatrist, I’ll be happy to pay for it.”
The solution he offered for my “problem” made me both cringe and smile. Having said all that he had to say and there being yet a half page blank, my frugal father began his final paragraph with “The weather here has turned cold….”
It was then that I relaxed and laughed and knew with certainty that all would be well between us. And it was. For the remainder of their lives, my parents never mentioned the subject again, and they welcomed with open arms their son-in-law, my partner of 23 years.