Make it easier for gays to shed burden of secret life

October 11, 2006|By Jennifer Rose

This year's National Coming Out Day - today - is a bittersweet one for me. Although I have been openly gay for decades, my partner of 14 years did not come out publicly until this spring - when her obituary appeared in this newspaper. Cecile had come out to her family only four years earlier, on the day she came home from the hospital after surgery to remove a malignant tumor.

What fueled her fear of coming out?

She did not have to be afraid of losing her job. She was a tenured, full professor at the Johns Hopkins University. One of her deans was an open lesbian. When she finally had come out to her family, they had all been accepting and loving (and not at all surprised). Every friend she had been able to come out to had been absolutely fine.

And yet, each time, she expected rejection and hostility. Although her immediate personal world was accepting, the larger world our generation grew up in had given a different and often hateful message, and that was the one she, like many gay people, heard and feared and even internalized.

But why should it matter whether she - or anyone else - could come out?

Think of the energy that fear and hiding take. Here is just one small (and ironic) example of the toll being closeted took on Cecile. In 1993, we went to the March on Washington for gay and lesbian rights. As we were riding in a cab toward the march, she ducked down when she thought she saw her brother, who lived in D.C. What if she could have told the driver to stop and we could have had a visit with her brother? Think of those wasted years of hiding and fear and lack of closeness.

Nine years later, after Cecile had come out to this brother, he spoke on behalf of inclusion of gays and lesbians in his church and talked about having a lesbian sister. What if all the other closeted gay people could come out to their families? Perhaps many more institutions would welcome us.

But politics and altruism aside, my partner also missed the kind of intimacy that sharing your whole life can bring. Cecile, a biochemist, had only come out to a few of her many scientific colleagues and none of her students.

Last year, her past and present graduate students organized a "reunion," ostensibly to celebrate her 20 years as a professor, though I'm sure they could tell she was gravely ill and this would probably be the last time they might get to see her. They came from all over the country. But Cecile would not let me go to the festivities because she was not out to her students and former students.

There were very few times, I believe, when her being closeted felt more painful for me than it was for her - most of my pain came from seeing how it sapped her - but this was a heartbreaking occasion for me: not being able to celebrate her accomplishments as a teacher and mentor and meet many of the people whom I knew through her many years' reportage. And how heartbreaking, too, for these students and colleagues to think that Cecile was going through this terrible illness alone, without the love and support of a partner.

But there is a somewhat happier ending to this painful story. We were lucky to be able to legally marry in Massachusetts, where I work and was then living part-time. When we applied for our marriage license, Cecile and even I had expected hostility at the local City Hall, but instead we were told "Congratulations!" and "That's wonderful!" When we ordered a small wedding cake and the baker realized we were the brides, and was full of good wishes, Cecile was again surprised. These wonderful, casual moments gave Cecile a taste of what it could mean to be out.

What is the moral of the story? For me there are two. First, the benefits of coming out are both for the gay person - who no longer needs to live in fear and who can share fully who he or she is - and for the people in that person's life, who can then know that whole person. And second, by creating an environment, like the one in Massachusetts, where gay people are accepted and protected, we make it easier for people to come out and experience the world as it could and should be.

Cecile lost her battle with cancer but ultimately managed to begin fighting against the fear and homophobia that had prevented her from coming out earlier. I can only hope that her story and the occasion of National Coming Out Day will inspire others to take that step and that they will experience the same acceptance - both self-acceptance and acceptance by others - that she finally tasted. I hope that doing so will make it easier for others to do the same, and they can be spared the terrible pain of fear and hiding.

Jennifer Rose is a city planner specializing in downtown revitalization and a poet whose second book, "Hometown for an Hour," was published this year. Her e-mail is jennifer@allstonvillage.com.

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