Coming Out Again

First I was in denial. Then I was gay.

It was a milestone, the first important identity I’d ever taken on, the first serious decision I’d made about myself. Not much of a decision, maybe—once I opened my eyes and faced the truth, I could only accept or deny it. But what matters is that I did accept it, without hesitation. It felt solid, the identity and the decision together, the first solid thing about me after a lifetime of confusion, insecurities and low self-esteem. The direction it led me in—towards Ottawa’s gay community—was equally clear and unavoidable because, really, what were my options? I had very few friends and no close ones, nobody I could turn to for the support and understanding I desperately needed.

I did find support in the gay community: people who’d been where I was and could help me on the path, listen to me and answer my questions. And I found a culture, in books and magazines and newspapers: the words of gay people, past and present, that shaped my understanding of what it meant to be gay: what I had to do, what I had to be. I learned I had to be politically active, and that meant, among other things, being openly gay. I had to be visible. I had to come out of the closet, and keep coming out.

Of course I couldn’t change overnight. In those first few months all I could manage was to come out to my immediate family, and that was out of simple self-preservation: I had to give myself the space to explore my new community without having to lie about where I went on weeknights. But after a while I got bolder, and began wearing all sorts of political buttons and T-shirts. It was the best way I could think of to be visible as a gay man. The only drawback was that, too often, I let those buttons speak for me, hiding behind their slogans. I was just starting to gain self-confidence and self-esteem, to find the strength to break through walls of denial and silence and speak for myself. So I didn’t start conversations about my gayness in those early days, and I rarely followed through even after coming out. It was too hard for me to open up, let people ask hard questions about myself or this part of myself. This was true even of my straight friends, let alone classmates or acquaintances. A few times, though, I came close to coming out in anger, to confront homophobia. I expected a lot of homophobia back then; I was always on guard, ready (even a little eager) to defend myself when I came out. Though I hardly ever needed to, I kept being defensive and expecting the worst. I suppose it was a good excuse not to open up, both attitudes reinforcing each other.

My situation in the gay/queer world was somewhat mixed. As I said, I did get support and met new people. But my walls remained largely in place, preventing me from getting close to people and opening up like I needed to. And in student activist groups (I joined my first in the fall of ’93) it was very easy not to open up at all, especially in the regular organizing meetings. One could just take one’s seat, discuss business or stay quiet, nd that was that. Social events were more promising, but I was (and still am) too introverted to be comfortable in crowds and talk to strangers. This isn’t to say I was stagnating. No, my new life was a hell of an improvement over my life in the closet. I was learning so many things about myself, learning how to take a stand and speak out, face some of my fears, getting in touch with emotions I’d kept suppressed all my life. I found joy, and hope for the future. But real, deep change was slow in coming, I was still too isolated, and all the politics and activism did very little to touch the core of my loneliness.

The first signs of change came in 1994, with the publication of my “coming-out” poem, Wearing My Names. For the first time I took the risk of exposing myself, on paper, to more than just a few people at a time. And I discovered a whole new way of being open, using my own words instead of prepackaged slogans. The next logical step in that direction was coming out on the Web, which I did about a year later with the first version of my home page. In the meantime, the buttons and T-shirts became less important as I got more involved in queer activities; whenever people asked me about what I was doing or what I’d been up to over the weekend, I could answer them and so come out that way. And, I learned to relax a bit around at least some of my straight friends. I still tended to be standoffish and distant—old habits die hard—but I could crack jokes about it and answer some of their more personal questions. Besides, a lot of times all that mattered was that they knew I was gay, and accepted it.

The next great milestone was in the spring of 1996, when I decided to expand my volunteering horizons. The place I settled into, after a brief foray into OPIRG-Ottawa, was the Peace and Environment Resource Centre, a local organization working on environmental and social justice issues. It was a remarkable experience, being in a non-queer space where I could be openly gay without fear of homophobia. One of their activities was publishing a quasi-monthly newsletter, the Peace and Environment News (which in fact is how I learned about the organization). I decided to join the PEN’s editorial committee, and contributed an article on the history of Ottawa’s queer press. In this space where my being gay did not have to be a big deal, I chose to keep making it a big deal. It never occurred to me not to. Though I know how vital it is to promote queer awareness and visibility, and though in one way that article was a milestone, in another way it was more of the same. I’d simply found a new forum to be political in.

Still, it was the start of my public writing life. After moving to Vancouver I joined not only Out on Campus but the SF P!RG Zine collective, where I kept pumping out queer articles. A few months later I finally got to indulge my confrontational side in debates on the local pro-life mailing list. It was draining, but at the same time exhilarating. I felt I’d finally come into my own as a queer activist. This was my identity, and how I wanted to live it. The buttons disappeared from my jacket and schoolbag; they were replaced for a few months (until the spring of ’97, I think) by a single plain pink triangle. Then the pin broke, and I chose not to replace it.

That summer I began the first of several personal essays, exploring various facets of my self and my past. None of them had anything to do with being queer, not directly, though that fact was always present in the background—my life in the closet, my coming out, my political involvement. Ironically, the idea of writing these essays was inspired by my first Zine article, a fierce and in-your-face political rant. But once I started I realized that there were a lot of sides to me that needed to be explored, a lot of different points of view to interpret my actions and my thoughts, and find patterns to them.

My focus was gradually shifting away from my queer identity and I slowly, quietly began questioning its importance. Were these labels I still wore useful? How did they relate to my identity, or identities? These and many other questions, some so vague they could hardly be put into words, were running through my head during the fall of ’97 and spring of ’98. There were some things I did not question, however. I was still very much involved with Out on Campus, and still busy with queer activism. It was a different kind of activism, though; my angry and confrontational phase seemed to be over, giving way to a growing passion for queer history.

But then I left Out On Campus, and no one was more surprised than me. Even three or four days before announcing my decision in May of 1998, I never dreamed I’d leave the group voluntarily. In all my years out of the closet—except for a few gaps near the beginning—I had always been part of some queer-identified group or other, and had assumed it would always be so. But those truths I’d accepted for so long didn’t seem self-evident anymore. The move probably would have happened sooner or later: deep down, I was ready. All I needed was the right trigger. Six years before, I had accepted an identity and sought out a community. Now I was questioning everything about this identity, but to do it properly I had to leave the community.

The first step was to go back to SF P!RG, my other community and a better place to ask these questions. I wrote one more article for the Zine that summer, my first article ever that wasn’t explicitly queer-themed. The questions I had, the confusion I felt, seemed far more important than affirmations of queer identity or expressions of a clarity and righteous anger I didn’t really feel anymore. Honesty was what mattered now, telling my story, peeling away the masks; and if that meant going public with my confusion and angst and loneliness, then that was just how it would be.

In my private life just as in my public writing, the emphasis on queer identity had disappeared. After dropping out of Out on Campus in May, almost all my social life revolved around two straight friends. I had no desire for politics, and especially not identity politics. What I had was openness and companionship, the space to be fully myself without having to hide or make a big deal of it, and the chance to ease my loneliness. That was more than enough. The days of my old activism were over, at least for now. I had to take care of myself before I could take care of the world again.

In a lot of ways, this break from the queer community has felt like a second coming out. My identity hasn’t changed. I still identify as “gay” or “queer” depending on the situation, and will likely continue to do so for a long time. But it’s the importance of those words, and what they mean to me, in my life, that has changed radically. The old certainties are gone, and neither queerness nor the queer community are central in my life or my writing anymore. This is leaving me free to focus on different aspects of myself, integrate different identities, as well as explore a wider spectrum of communities.

A year ago, my questions and introspection led me out of the queer community. Though I never completely lost touch, I deliberately kept my distance in order to better figure out where I stood and what I wanted. Now that my degree is finished and my time is my own, I’m ready to expand my horizons, join new groups and communities. Some of those groups will probably be queer-identified ones, and some won’t. It’s not a big issue for me anymore. I realize now that shared identity does not make a community, and that having a particular identity doesn’t mean I should limit myself to certain groups. Having access to a queer community in Ottawa (and, to a lesser degree, in Vancouver) was vital, yes. But now that I’ve found friendship and support, my voice and strength, I have to seriously ask what’s in it for me. And where do I belong, if not fully in the queer community?

These are difficult questions. I can’t say I’ve found any definite answers yet, and there’s no telling how long those answers will last. But that’s all right. I didn’t drop a set of absolute lifetime truths just to pick up another. My needs will change, as will my communities and identities. Who knows who and where I’ll be in six months or six years? Not me, and that’s as it should be. It’s the travelling that matters, not the final destination.