The closet still exists.
So many of us in the San Francisco Bay area find it hard to believe that it does: we’ve lived with openly out colleagues, politicians and friends for so many decades. Gay marriage has become mainstream. Gay couples can adopt.
Sometimes we forget that there are places and circumstances in which gay people feel they must hide themselves. Maybe they fear families and friends would disapprove, reject them, disown them. It’s a real fear. It happens. Truth is, they don’t know how to come out as a gay person. They don’t know how to handle the fear of coming out. So they hide in the closet.
I’ve known Gregory Ciurczak for 26 years. We met in a training I took to become an emotional support volunteer for people who had HIV and AIDS and became good friends. Gregory was one of my trainers and was out and proud when I met him. We have known each other very well for a long time and even knew each others’ parents when they were alive. The memories I have of my mother and Gregory in the kitchen together always make me smile. So do those of the Christmases we spent together in Key West. I joke that he’s my gay husband (every woman should have one.) He’s a smart guy and also a pretty darn good writer.
This is the first of a two-part piece I asked him to write on coming out as a gay man. Today’s post has to do with his own realization that he is gay and his own fear of coming out.
This is a post I hope you will share with young people you know, whether you suspect they might be gay or not. At the very least it could help them be more compassionate toward friends. At best, hearing Gregory’s story might give them the courage to be who they are, proudly. So here’s Part 1, by Gregory Ciurczak.
When I attend LGBT events I like to take a moment to admire the diversity of our community. Its depth is astounding and has permeated San Francisco Bay area arts, corporations, educational institutions and government. It is difficult to imagine the progress of our community without acknowledging our past and those who have led us to where we are today. It’s also crucial to recognize how important it has been in electing openly gay candidates to local government. Here in San Jose we have openly gay city council representatives and just recently voters in neighboring Campbell elected the youngest openly gay, Asian American Mayor in the nation.
From the variety of ages, teens to seniors, and the wide-ranging ethnic diversity, I often think, how did everyone arrive at this place to celebrate their gayness? What was their individual journey all about in acknowledging and reconciling their own sexuality?
Coming out is often discussed amongst LGBT friends; it’s a significant rite of passage and in most instances, a powerful one.
Every lesbian, gay man, bisexual and transgendered person travels a unique path in the coming out process. For some it’s an easy ride, as simple and as natural as an adolescent heterosexual coming of age. While for others it can be a heart-wrenching challenge fraught with fear of rejection complicated with issues of self-worth, peer pressure, family, culture and religion.
I‘m a baby boomer, born and raised in northern New Jersey in the shadow of NYC. My family is conservative Roman Catholic, my grandparents were from Poland, I attended Polish parochial school and then enrolled in an all boy’s high school. I completed higher education studies at a Catholic university.
In grammar school I knew there was something different stirring inside and although I wasn’t sure what it was all about, by seventh grade it was crystal clear: I was attracted to men. It was confusing and intimidating. I didn’t know what to do with these feelings. Based on my religion and culture, I identified them to be immoral, unhealthy & unacceptable. So I did what most LGBT people do when these feelings manifest themselves: I stuffed them deep down inside.
High school was an excruciating painful experience. I was short, not very masculine and bullied relentlessly.
Yes, there were thoughts of suicide.
The combination of not understanding my sexuality and the abuse at school pushed me in the direction of alcohol and drugs for escape.
But somehow I survived.
University life was more liberal and freeing but it was the early 70s and there were no gay resources or gay role models. I didn’t know any gay people. The fear of outing myself loomed; I wasn’t dating women and I was paranoid. Coming out of the closet and dealing with the crush of rejection from family and friends remained overwhelming.
By junior year the self-anguish about my homosexuality began to take an emotional toll and led me to psychotherapy. It got me my first Valium prescription — tantamount to taking aspirin for brain surgery. My early ‘70s shrink did not have the tools nor the skill set to help me. However, many years later and in my mid-twenties, it was the simple profound words of a new friendship that helped me make some progress with self-acceptance. This caring and extrasensory individual perceived I was battling internally. One day while having a conversation about life challenges she said to me very casually, “Before making up your mind with anything in life, be sure to taste all fruits”.
It didn’t happen spontaneously but these simple words, taste all fruits, threw a switch and put a spotlight on the internal turmoil that was wreaking havoc on my life. Emotionally it helped me test the waters and take small steps to quietly and confidentially come out to one friend. The experience of verbalizing the words, “I am gay”, was the most freeing experience in my life. It may sound clichéd but it did take a ton of weight off my shoulders, as well as, helped reduce some of the suffering and anguish. Plus, the friend I choose to tell had no issues with this new information and remained a close confidant.
This was a small start and I remained guilt- and fear-ridden. For years I continued to endure life in the closet to family and a majority of friends. I clandestinely befriended a gay guy for a short period of time but the risk of someone seeing us together in public was too risky and the friendship ended quickly. The agony lingered about outing myself to my business community, my family and friends.
The burden was too great to bear. In my late twenties, I decided to relocate out of the area in order to begin a new life. Today it seems unbelievable but back then, for me, it was the only way if I was ever to live as an openly gay man.
During this time a college friend relocated to San Jose, Calif. He knew I was also considering a move but not why, nor did he know I was gay. He wrote to suggest I come live with him in San Jose. These were his exact words, “Consider yourself running toward something and not running away from anything”.
These words resonated with me and five months later I arrived in San Jose. When I walked into his house and we toasted my arrival, I proclaimed the following, “I am really glad to be here and I plan to live openly as a gay man”.
Without missing a beat, he responded, “That’s terrific, I am glad you are here too”.
I sacrificed so many years hiding and being afraid of myself, the time was now to accept my gayness, join my community and make up for lost time hiding.
It was easier for me to start my new gay life here in San Jose, away from family, old friends and former business associates. When I met people, I was open and honest about myself and found I had the strength and resilience to deal with whatever came my way. This newfound courage sprang from embracing my new identity; it gave me determination and confidence. The process was slow but it instilled in me the confidence and strength to also come out to everyone on the East Coast; my parents, family members and friends.
What I learned along the way is that we sometimes live our lives so tightly bound up in our own problems that we do not realize how perceptive the world is around us. When I finally outed myself to my sister her response was, “Why did it take you so long to tell me? We all suspected it and were waiting for you to tell us.”
“Mom and dad too?” I asked. “Yes,” was her response.
She also went on to say that she was sorry I needed to move three thousand miles away to deal with my gayness. This was sad for both of us; we had been very close. And when I finally came out to my parents in a telephone conversation, I received the reply everyone hopes to get, “You are our son, we love you, no matter what you are.”
I was lucky. Not every gay person gets this response and it was a shock, a blessing and more of a relief than I ever could have expected.
The years of pressure I had put on myself began to fade away.
And I continued to be blessed with an accepting family. None of my East Coast friends have had issues with my sexuality; not one has closed the door to our friendship. Throughout my 29 years in northern California, I have been open to everyone; at my office and wherever I do business or socialize. Living my life openly as a gay man has been a healthy, freeing experience. I am an active, proud participant in my community and will always stand up to defend the fact that no one should live a life being ashamed of who they are based on their sexual orientation.
Looking back, would I have done it differently if given the opportunity & not relocate?
No. I am not advocating that all LGBT people need to move away from their hometowns to come out. For me and at that time, the cost of the journey has been repaid many times over throughout the course of living here. I have been blessed with outstanding endearing friendships, I have had amazing life-altering volunteer work experiences, I continue to give to my community and it gives back to me. I also continue to have a successful, satisfying career.
I love the Bay Area and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I fully understand how lucky I have been. Many of my friends faced a difficult, uphill battle in coming out. In Part 2, I discuss that: when friends and family aren’t so accepting.
[Carol’s gay husband]
Please keep your eye out for Part 2–when coming out doesn’t go quite as well.