I’m Out. Now What?

Coming out stories are a badge of honor in the LGBT community. Some are tragically sad, some are funny, others are rather tame. Thankfully, mine falls in the latter category.

I had just turned 23. One random day I came home from work, and my mom was waiting for me. She told me she knew that I was gay (surprise, surprise), that she loved me, and that I didn’t have to hide it anymore. And then in a very typical “mom fashion,” she proceeded to tell everyone else in the family. I never had a dramatic revelation over Thanksgiving dinner. I never had to sit my grandparents down and break the news. There were never any stern lectures and I didn’t get thrown of the house. Suddenly, the fact that I was gay was out there and that was that. I consider myself incredibly lucky. But while most of us have no hesitation sharing these coming out stories, we very rarely ever discuss the damage that comes from being in the closet.

I knew I was different at a very early age. I remember my first school crush on Lamar in elementary school. I remember not always getting along with the other boys. I remember not being interested in the things I “should” have been interested in, like sports, cars and action figures (unless you count my cousin Diana’s extensive Strawberry Shortcake collection). But unfortunately, I grew up in the Bible Belt South, where being different put a huge target on my back. In response, I learned how to hide who I was: cautious with every word, overly conscious of how I acted, not revealing anything that may have clued people in (which meant listening to a lot of Madonna in private). I didn’t let anyone get too close because I was afraid they may find out.

This emotional isolation and dishonesty carried on for almost two decades, and that doesn’t even address the outright homophobia I faced almost daily: the constant bullying and harassment at school, the eternal damnation my pastor never failed to remind me of at church, the casual homophobic remarks made by family and friends. I couldn’t even escape it on television, with talking heads in the news cycle constantly calling us perverts and degenerates, always carrying on about the dastardly “homosexual agenda,” whatever that means. It can be a barrage of constant negativity and sometimes too much for a young, growing mind to handle. I truly believed there was something wrong with me; I was damaged and going to Hell; I would be alone the rest of my life; nobody would ever love me; I’d never have the “normal” life everyone else had.

While coming out of the closet was a relief in some respects, that emotional baggage and trauma still haunted me well into my 30s. Finally, I could say out loud that I was gay, but I was still afraid to get close to people. I still believed that nobody would love me, I was damaged, and I was destined to be alone. This was learned behavior I had drilled into my psyche for years. Gaining the right to marry was a reason to celebrate temporarily, but deep down it was a bittersweet win. My entire life I had been telling myself I would never get married, and part of me still believed that.

It’s taken decades for me to get over these hurdles. And while I turned out OK, I still see so many of my brothers and sisters in the LGBT community traumatized by their time in the closet. And for some reason, we never talk about this out loud — as if coming out of the closet is the beginning and end of our journey into gay adulthood.

According to the latest research, the coming out age continues to decrease every year, so hopefully one day this won’t even be an issue. But not everyone has the luxury of coming out comfortably given their circumstances, family, location, etc. And when they do come out, they’re thrust into a community they have no idea how to navigate, along with the trauma from living a closeted life. We need to reach out to these individuals; we need to speak openly about our experiences; we need to explicitly promote our local LGBT mental health services. We need to let them know it is OK to ask for help. Simply saying “It gets better” isn’t always enough.

Nathan Grijalva is originally from Georgia and has been a happy Pittsburgh native for the past eight years. He is currently an Intelligence Developer at UPMC.