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Honesty Trail

Ian Burke

12-29-2001

 

 

            So I’m out. Wow! How did I get here and what does this mean? This is my coming out story. It is a story that is just beginning, but, one that I am choosing to share now for my own benefit, and I hope the benefit of others. This is a work that is both premature and written to late. Many parts have changed in the writing and should be changed even now, as my perspectives change each day. One of the miracles of coming out of the closet is that you get to grow up all over again. This essay reflects that process. Enjoy this window to my second adolescents.

 

            Bare with me here as I feel I need to give a quick life history so that you will understand me a little bit better. I grew up a bit as an American nomad. Spending most of my discernable early childhood in Illinois, just outside of Chicago, and, my true adolescents, in Palo Alto, California. But I had the pleasure of spending some time in Southern California, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. For the most part I did not mind the moving. Only one of the moves upset me, the last one to California. Ironically, that was probably the best move of my life.

            I used the moves to blame my parents for all of the awful things in my life. The fact is, I drew some rough cards. My parents were the good cards. It just took me 29 years to figure that part out. I read somewhere once that we choose our parents before we are born. I guess some where along the way many of us forget why we chose our parents. I know I sure did. If we are lucky we remember.

            My rough cards started early. While living in Illinois, in second and third grade, I was the victim of child abuse at the hand of some neighborhood teens. In fifth grade a classmate of mine was repeatedly beaten and eventually died at the hand of his father. In college I was gang raped and had a string of abusive relationships. Many would say that these events influenced my choice of sexuality. Hardly, I am who I am because of me not because of events in my life, as the following illustrates.

            In sixth grade I began experimenting with a boy in my class, my first crush. I know, it is normal for boys that age to be curious, but when he grew out of it, I did not. A part of me still has not. Every one kept waiting for me to “hook-up” with my best friend. She was a grade be hind me. I never had an interest. Instead, to camouflage the situation, I faked interest in a couple other people that had no interest in my activities there by preventing me from having to do much with them.

In high school there were three key events in my life that, with reflection, should have brought me out of the closet a lot sooner then now. The first was my absolute infatuation with a strapping male classmate. I even modified my class schedule and workout schedule so that I could run with him and be in many of his classes for the first three years of high school. Then he dropped cross-country and track and I hardly ever saw him. The second was getting caught. That’s right I was checking out a guy from the water polo team when my friends walked up. I was being discreet my locker just happened to line up nicely with the showers. It took me weeks to live that one down and lots of ridicule. That was when I found out that many of my friends were a bit homophobic. And that set off my third event. I lived outside of San Francisco. My family would frequent the city. On one trip past the Fisherman’s Warf, Ghirardelli Square section of town, a comment was made by someone about a gay couple. I could not understand the conflict with the couple. I thought they looked cute and in love. After all you could look to any street corner and see a hetero couple making out. What was wrong with a gay couple walking down the street with their arms around each other? I will admit that one had his hand in the back pocket of the other, but he wasn't groping or anything it was just there.

The clear messages I felt I was receiving, and the natural fear that I had inside of myself led me to develop a behavioral pattern. I was already very serious about my cross-country skiing so I buried myself deeper in my training. Realize that I lived in sunny coastal California. That meant that I was spending hours a day training with the high school running teams. Additional hours a day training for skiing. Then every weekend I would drag my parents to the mountains. For the months when there was no snow in the mountains, I was off at dry land training camps or at bike or running races. The point is, I stayed so busy that I was not available to do things with my friends. This gave me the freedom to always be, ”dating” some woman without ever having to get involved or committed. I could live a lie.

Twice this led to problems but for the most part was a success. The first was with a wonderful lady that struggled with the distance that I maintained. As she began to cling tighter, I would push farther away. Eventually we both resorted to typical adolescents antics dragging us both through the mud. Eventually our relationship ended. The second relationship that became a problem was one of my longer lasting in high school. I started dating this woman late in the fall, just as my skiing was ramping up. We continued to see each other through the winter. Translation, we would talk on the pone or between classes. This worked out well. I was able to hide my true feelings. All of my friends believed that I was involved in a heterosexual relationship while all I ever had to do was have a friendship. And I was totally immersed in my skiing. So where was the problem? When the ski season ended, this wonderful woman was expecting me to spend a lot of time with her, and I had begun to accept my own deception but now people were getting hurt, including myself and most of my friends.

            You may ask, “How could I have bought into my own illusion if I am truly gay.” Good question.” The answer is also good, and one I have spent a long time trying to understand. First you need to know a few things about me.  I am a family man. I have always wanted to have children and always wanted to have the proverbial white picket fence. Until a year ago, if you had asked me my dream in life I would have told you it was to have a modest house in the country with a Jeep, a Saab, a long drive, two horses, and 1.75 children. Naturally, in the community I new growing up, a wife made that image much easier. I am a relatively spiritual person. I believe in the teachings of Jesus, Buddha, and the Dalai Lama. I don't make it to church every week, and I am no scholar. But, I take my beliefs and knowledge very seriously. I mentioned I was a family man. Well that goes backwards too. I have always admired my parents and grandparents. I have also always wanted to please them. To an extent, what child does not? I knew that I would not make it in the academic arena, which was a big one for my family. I was trying in the athletic, but that was my world, not theirs. Somewhere I had gotten it in my head that no parent would want a gay son. The last two things you need to know about me are that I wanted to succeed in business but I believed that was a straight world. And, I had an extremely low self-esteem. Let me repeat that last point because it is perhaps the most important detail so far, I had an extremely low self-esteem. So how does all of this add up? The long and short of it is that I believe I had to be straight. Or perhaps better put, I was so afraid of being gay I did not want to be gay. I was scared of loosing all of my friends, and I was scared of failing in life. So I allowed myself to slowly deny my true self. There is your answer.

            This had a huge impact on both me and my relationships with other people. As I bought into the myth, I retreated further from life with friends and family. My last year of high school my friendships became very strained to the point that I never kept in touch with any of them after graduation. I had also stopped running with most of them during the year. There were many late night arguments and one suicide attempt on my part. In hind site, it would have been easier if I had told them the truth.   

            By the time I arrived in college the facts were becoming overwhelming for me. There had been to many boys and men that I found attractive. To many emotions I could explain in no other way. So I accepted a compromise. I told myself that I was bisexual. A little over a year after I accepted that decision in my own mind, I tried to step out of the closet. The hostility I met kept me from being truly honest at that time, or from entering into a relationship with a man. But this step out did allow me to enter into a new compromise. I now entered into heterosexual relationships but was upfront about my alleged bisexuality. I also started attending homosexual rallies as an ally. This was the opening door to my exploration of my true self.

            My ultimate insult came my freshman year of college. I was still very focused on cross-country skiing. It was just after the snow season and I was doing some dry-land training when I was gang raped. This so shattered my self-esteem that it sent me into a tailspin. I was beginning to struggle with Bipolar disorder at this point in my life and this insult set me up for a chain of both physically and mentally abusive relationships with women that I could not stand. I also went through several months of a sustained deep depression with two attempts on my own life. Fortunately both were pathetically unsuccessful. Suicide was one skill I was never very good at.

            After about three and a half years of this pattern and sharing a two-bedroom apartment with a man I had a crush on while involved with one of these abusive women, I settled down. I found a safe woman that I had nothing in common with and we moved in together. After several years together we eventually were married. I did love her in a true sense of the word. It took me several more years to realize that the love I felt was that of a close sibling and best friend. That was when I knew I had made a huge mistake.

So here I am, coming out of the closet as an honest person, a gay man, and looking to rediscover the world. I am leaving my wife, who is in great pain, and am exploring my own fears, pains and heartache. I have great joys and freedoms before me as each day has little celebrations over small events or discoveries. The next question is how did I get here. What was the "Coming Out" journey like? The first thing I keep realizing each day is that this journey will be a life long journey. With luck, it will not be for future generations. But, with our society as it is today, people will always assume that every one is straight or that Gay means specific things. Sexuality will always be presumed to be 80% of a homosexual's being while only 20% of a heterosexual's. And the sexuality is about sex and not about substance and culture and deeper things about an individual. Until these and the hundreds of other small and large stereotypes are overcome Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Transgenders will be "Coming Out" every day, again, and hurting and celebrating.

My journey started with a dorm advisor in college. I was an RA in my dorm and my advisor was openly gay. After speaking with her, I decided to come out to my campus RA support group as Bi. The night after sharing with this group I came back to my room to find someone had ejaculated on my door and written the word "FAG" in marker. After cleaning my door, room, suite, hall, anything I could find and going backpacking to hide, I sought the support of the campus counseling center. There I was told how I was confused, using drugs, chemically imbalanced, suffering from PTSD from my rape, had a brain tumor, ill, and more. I only went to see them a couple of times. As you might imagine, I did not pursue the idea of coming out much after that. I did continue to go to gay rallies under the cover of the Ally label.

When I met my wife, I found myself in a safe environment for the first time. Each day my life became more honest. I was open and upfront about my bisexuality with her before we started to date. After we had been dating for several years, she had the unfortunate experience of witnessing an extreme cycle of my bipolar. After this event, she helped get me in to a psychologist and a psychiatrist. It was in this environment that I was able to begin exploring my honest sexuality. I now had a safe home environment and was treating my medical condition so I was being healthy and safe with myself. My psychologist raised concerns over my marriage, with both my then fiancé and I, but was unable to sway me. I was not at a point in my own life where I was able to yet accept my own true sexuality, I still believed I was bisexual and could be happy with and make my wife happy in marriage.

As my bipolar came under control, in some ways I matured ten years. I also lost a true lens of paranoia and distortion through which I saw the world. I grew to a point where I could more concretely look at who I was. I suddenly became keenly aware of this social and sexual tension that did not fit with how I was living my life. For me, my personal realization was an awakening. I had known my whole life, as I illustrated above, but I had shut off my gay emotions so completely, and was living this Bi / straight life that I did not know that I was really GAY. The day I realized the truth, I was driving down the road and listening to the radio when for no particular reason I simply said allowed, "I'm gay." just like that. Those exact words. When I said them, I remember my entire body getting warm and I became covered with goose bumps. I was overcome with how true the statement felt. I spent the entire afternoon thinking about the one little statement of fact. That was when I knew I had woken up. My next session, I walked into my therapist’s office and those were my fist two word. With a huge smile, "I'm Gay!" We then spent close to year talking about what this meant for my life and me. We still talk on this subject most weeks. For now I am finding that I don't know what this means for me or who I really am. I am in a state of rediscovery of my own self.

So, there is the history. That brings you pretty much up to speed. About my opening that final closet door, and where I am today, I guess that is the real story. For me my coming out has been a mixed bag. There have been rough spots and there have been some bright spots. The two big lessons that I have gained thus far are that I play a role in everything that happens to me in my coming out and that while some things may be good and others bad, I have the rest of my life before me. If I slow down I can hold some control over what happens and at what intensity it plays out. Let me illustrate this with some examples for you.

Remember I mentioned that I had made some decisions while in the closet, that led me to believe that the goals I held for myself in life would be easier to attain if married. Well I had gone and done just that. I was married and now, as I am coming out I have to go through a divorce. Fortunately there are no children involved. While in my marriage, I, in concert with my wife, removed myself from all of my friends and colleagues. I don't make this statement lightly or with exaggeration. In the seven years I was with my wife I gained 85 pounds and gave up all athletic activity. One year before coming out I bumped into one of my estranged friends. The encounter was strained, awkward, and even foreign. It was as if we did not know each other. Five years prior the two of us had been inseparable. On recall of that evening, my friend has told me that I did not look healthy and that the person she saw on the street that night, she did not want to know. My recollection is of embarrassment and shame, as I knew I had changed and I was introducing my wife to this estranged friend that I knew was aware of the truth. We had not seen each other in close to five years. We certainly did not know each other and yet she was still close to my best friend. My close friend from junior high that I mentioned earlier and my friends from high school I still had no contact with.

I attempted to build friendships with my colleagues at work. I started to go out to lunch with them. I had even gone on a hike or two. But to be honest bouncing between 250lbs and 285lbs in weight, I was not in much shape for hiking. Unfortunately, my wife did not like them and would never do anything where she might get to know them. I made a tactical error here. I trusted the bonds of young friendship over gossip. I turned to these friends for support as I came out of my closet. Knowing that my moods and manners would change I told them up front and before my wife. Consequently my boss found out and work became rough and eventually I lost my job. Naturally I lost my job for other reasons and naturally I can prove that my performance was exemplary. But I must admit that I was acting like a 12 year old and did not take control of that situation. There were many things I could have done better. Many small issues I could have chosen to have ignored.  But, being in a state of adolescence I reacted and argued and made my work environment truly unbearable for myself and those around me. In some ways I left my employer no choice but to let me go. But at the same time, I was terminated unjustly. As I mentioned in the lessons that I am learning, I played a major role in my termination from that position.

I mentioned, I am learning to control or take control of my life and the events in my life. I think the most telling indicators of this are my social life and my weight. You may remember my mentioning my being 285 lbs while married. I am down to 175 now. It has been two years with the biggest change being that I am now openly gay. But, I also eat properly and am training for competitive biking and running like I use to. Most of that weight was lost in the last six months.

My social life has done a complete 180 also. I must admit that the fist couple of months after I came out I was a complete hermit. I was unemployed and still living with my wife. My daily routine was something along the lines of get up, send out thirty to forty resumes, go for a bike ride, make dinner, crash on the couch and watch TV. Not a lot of social any thing in that. Then I read a book, "What Color is Your Parachute". This changed my approach to job applications and to life. I started to travel around New England looking for a job. I would simply walk in to a place and ask if they had an opening that fit my skill set. I began to attend seminars and classes on topics that interested me or that I felt would help me. I also only applied to jobs I was truly interested in. I had a job within two weeks and I was meeting people. The week after starting my new job I separated from my wife. Three weeks later I was going through old papers that I had in the basement of our house. I came across a letter from a friend in high school. She had sent it to me in 1991 and it is now 2001. I had never opened the letter or spoken with her as I was still holding a grudge against my friends from high school. When I read the letter I quickly realized how profound an ass I had really been all of my life. My dear friend had come out to me in that letter. How would it have changed my life if I had read it ten years ago? How had my never replying affected hers? I spent that entire night searching the Internet trying to find out what happened to my dear lost friend. I still have not found her. I have launched a redoubled effort to renew old friendships and build new ones. My friend from the awkward encounter on the street, she is once again my consummate playmate. Again we are able to confide in each other with the deepest of concerns and laugh with the greatest of joys. I feel like I have a sister or a close girl friend to go shopping with. This is where I know the strait people reading this will have a hard time understanding. But this is a special relationship. My girlfriend from junior high is once again returned to my life, comfortable with who I am and my journey.

And I am building and keeping other friendships also. All of my friends from my old job are still good friends. I was able to move past my teens and take control of the bad situation. Their friendship was more important to me then my hurt and anger that really had nothing to do with them. So we get together and have diner or browse a bookstore. It takes time and energy and love. All of which I can afford. I put a lot of energy into life now.

There are some things I cannot change. As the serenity prayer says, "God, grant me the courage to change the things I can change, the strength to accept the things that I can not and the wisdom to know the difference." These words are so true. When I first came out to my family, they were very accepting and supportive. They understood and loved me. Speaking about my parents now, they were concerned about the divorce and how that would affect my wife and me. There were a few questions around working it out but very few. With time some of this support has faded. I have found that for my brother, he is so blatantly neutral I think he doesn't see the callus caviler edge he waives. I know he just is not fazed by all of this and is overwhelmed with being a new parent. He has mentioned that there are a few things that may be difficult but mostly because they are new. I can accept that.

My parents are becoming a different story. Their support is like a sunset. Their love, like the sun is always there but their support is like the light, fading. Like a sunset I know it will return with time. At first it was just that they did not know how to support me so they were going to go see a therapist. The fact that they chose a friend of the family was a nice touch; he has been a consummate professional. But it is ever changing. Tighter and tighter is their bond becoming with my soon to be ex-wife. More and more critical are they becoming of my dress, of my posture, of my dialect, of me. I know, when I have the distance to analyze and think about all of this, that my parents do want nothing but the best for me. I can see that they are wanting for my life to be safe and easy. I understand that they are concerned about my safety, happiness and well being into the future. I feel as though they are holding to hopes that my sexuality is a childish phase that I will outgrow. If only they understood how their dreams, like my old ones, also must die and be reformed into new and healthy ones that fit with who I really am. Here again I am learning that I play an important role in shaping my reality, and both my and my parents happiness. It is going to be important that I give my parents the time and space that they need to figure out what they need to figure out for themselves and their own comfort level. At the same time, I need to keep them an active part of my life so that they know who the healthy me is as I grow and develop. Sesame Street always has a letter and word of the day. I think today’s word is, “Time”. I have learned to love and appreciate my parents in a way I never did before. I now see them more as equals with their own struggles as appose to the all-knowing lamas that they use to be. I respect them more now. I think a lot of it is coming from learning to love my own self.

So each day is new. Every day is filled with adventure. Some days are very easy. Others are extremely hard. I told my parents right after telling my wife. That was one of my more difficult visits I have ever had to my folks house. As I mentioned, they were very supportive. My mom took care of telling the rest of my family, a detail I had not planned on. As I move forward I have taken an approach of being honest. I do not tell people unless there is a reason to tell people. Every face, and every day is different. I had already lost one job to the discrimination issue, sort of. I did not want to loose another. A couple of people at my new work place have asked me point blank and I have been honest about my answer. The results have been both heart warming and welcoming. But I still choose to tread lightly and quietly. I have a new serenity prayer for myself now, “God, grant me the courage to face each day, the strength to see each night and your guidance to see the way through.” With prayers may we all find a way out of the closet again each day.