I'm ashamed that I forgot the double significance in my life of October 11. It's been a crazy week. Today was no exception. I left work at 9:15PM after working on my annual report and then hurried home to participate in the online course I'm taking and do some other homework, but on the train ride home I remembered: October 11, National Coming Out Day. There are a lot of memories that should remind me why this day is so special and so important: The sad, lonely feeling I had one Sunday when I was 12 when the young minister I adored said the word "queer" in a sermon; The day when I was sixteen and I lied to my father when he gently (for him) asked me if I struggled with "homosexual desires"; the sick-with-fear feeling I had the first night I went to a gay bar and dared to have a conversation with another man; the day a Methodist minister told me I needed to change my theology so that I could be myself; the exhileration of my first March on Washington; the knowing smile and warm hug shared with Cindy when I ran into her on a visit home (the now "all grown up" lesbian had been a childhood pal); the first time I really believed what the poet wrote in Psalm 139--I am fearfully and wonderfully made; the pride I felt while being driven off to jail along with my pastor, Greg Dell, and the United Methodist Bishop in Northern Illinois at the time and James M. Lawson, Jr., a civil rights preacher and activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. back in the day. (We were being taken off to jail for participating in a protest against anti-gay denominational policies at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.) But most importantly, I remember my brother Tom, whose birthday is October 11, National Coming Out Day.
When I am tempted to get smug and tell myself that the days of fear and self-loathing and oppression are over for gay people, I remember the day, when he was 43 and I was 36, that my brother Tom whispered these words to me on the phone: "I'm tired of hiding. You're the first person I've ever told." The sound was like air spewing out of an overinflated tire. I can't imagine the pressure that had built up over the decades that he kept that secret. I had been out to him for thirteen years and to the rest of my family for over six. But he had been married, raised two daughters, worked like a dog, and then gotten quite sick in his late thirties of kidney disease and other complications from diabetes. After that painful but freeing phone conversation, Tom came out to everyone he knew in his small southern Illinois town and elsewhere: our parents, his ex-wife, his daughters, his best friend (a straight guy), the women that he'd dated since his wife left him...everyone. He even managed, in spite of some pretty daunting health problems, to date a man or two. And then, six months later, he died suddenly of a heart attack as he was getting dressed to meet my father for a visit to the family farm. He made it out of that damned closet, if just barely. But what if things had been different for him? What was there about his life, the culture, the church--possibly even my own lingering shame--that could have kept him in that closet for so long?
It's easier for some of us, in some places, in some circumstances. But there's still an awful lot of lies and condemnation out there. Like, for example, in the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline and other rule books of major denominations, with precious few exceptions.
Please, if you are celebrating Coming Out Week or Month and I am therefore not too late, raise a glass or have a dance or kiss that precious person you've found the courage to love, and remember my brother Tom, whose birthday ended about 90 minutes ago, and whose only gay brother forgot.
I love you and miss you, Tom. Peace to you, my out and proud brother, and may you rest in the arms of God who always knew that you were wonderfually and fearfully made, even if it took you a long, long time to figure it out for yourself.
Readers, do you have coming out stories to share?