National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 37: Why “Coming Out” Matters So Much

Mimi Swartz’ article in this June 19’s New York Times Magazine, “Living the Good Lie: Should Therapists Help God-Fearing Gay People Stay in the Closet,” followed by an “ex-gay’s” chronicle, seem to miss completely the most fundamental point about what “coming out” means to most gay persons.

Being “in the closet” for the person who is conscious of an erotic attraction to others of his or her own sex is not really about hiding a secret or “giving up any opportunity to have fulfilling relationships as gay men or women,” as Swartz contends.

It is about something more personal and important, shall we say, to the soul. The “closet” has most essentially to do with denying integrity, the quality perhaps most important to a healthy, productive human being.

When I came out of the “closet” as a seminary student in the period just preceding the Stonewall Riots in 1969, it was a life-changing decision taken in the midst of a world of turmoil, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, civil rights marches and ferment in the ghettos that included the assassinations of monumental leaders for constructive change, Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.

It was a decision to claim my own life, to rip if free from the cruel conventions of an unjust society that demanded and threatened the most severe punishments if I did not live a lie. I had been forced to be two-faced, duplicitous, lying, deceptive and untruthful on a basic level to all those, including those I cared for the most, around me.

The social ferment for justice and equality caused me to realize that, just as Dr. King said about African-Americans, I could not be leaned on if I refused to stoop over. So, I decided to stand up.

It was the most important thing I’ve ever done, even though my relationship with the gay world has been a spotty one at best, including what I considered extensive periods of virtual exile while the irrepressible surge of radical hedonism in the 1970s set the stage for the AIDS epidemic.

But once I stood up by coming out, it compelled me immediately to devote whatever talents I had to building the gay liberation movement so that my experience could be shared by as many others as possible.

Even more importantly, it provided me with the personal strength, through a new-found integrity of my inner soul, to throw off the accumulated burdens suffered through years of emotional and physical submission to the whims of a tyrannical father.

My father died in 2002 and toward the end of his life we became close as I respected, loved and helped him despite everything. After all, he’d passed onto me certain strengths of character that not only gave me the courage to come out, but also to confront him at the risk of violence when I had to.

It was Christmas Eve 1970, and when I arrived from San Francisco by bus to our family home on the Southern California coast I had long hair and a beard. My father didn’t need to know anything more than that. He dictated that I would not be welcome at the family dinner, even though my two brothers and their wives and my grandparents would be there.

It was a long day leading up to the dinner, with my brothers and their wives debating in the living room of our grandparents’ home next door whether or not to boycott the meal in my defense, and bemoaning our shared lives of putting up with our father’s arbitrary, violent and tyrannical ways for so many years. But in the end, they all decided to cave in and show up, leaving me isolated and excluded.

I decided I could not allow that to be the final word, even though my father’s physical strength was legendary and he had a history of inflicting pain on my mom and us boys. I knew if I confronted him, he could pulverize me.

I opened the front door to my parents house to find everyone at the dinner table, all, upon seeing me, frozen with forks and knives in hand and looking at me speechlessly with stunned, wide-open eyes. I assumed a pose as one steeled for a fight, and unleashed a stream of loud, angry invectives against my father.

When I’d spent myself I was surprised that my father made no move toward me. He continued to sit and sputtered, “So, you want to ruin our dinner.”

I turned on my heels and strode out, slamming the door. As I walked away, not my father, but my brothers chased after me, threatening me for my violation of their shameful compact of subservience that they knew was wrong.

That night, which I viewed as sealing my “coming out” by claiming my integrity and my life, freed me to become whatever life had in store, never again to cow-tow to unreasonable convention or fear.

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