I got to give a funny speech at my college graduation, and I wanted to open with this joke: “When I first got into Princeton, my mom warned me it was a liberalizing, heathenizing institution. But I haven’t changed at all. I arrived here a conservative, Southern Baptist carnivore, and tomorrow, I’ll graduate a gay vegetarian atheist.”
My mom stared at me.
“So, you’re gay?”
I had shared with her a copy of the speech. She’d driven up from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, taken a week off from waiting tables, to see her son become the first in the family to graduate college. Now, that son was trying to come out to her—and 30,000 friends, family and loved ones—with a joke.
It maybe wasn’t my best choice.
“Can we not make this the discussion of the weekend?” she asked.
My heart sank. A plea for decorum and politeness. A request from the woman whose late-night Walmart runs for last-minute school projects helped get me into Princeton. An ask to not let my sexuality overshadow a weekend of celebration. A nudge back into the closet.
I felt embarrassed, like I had done something wrong—confessing and asking permission at the same time. This isn’t what was supposed to happen.
Pop culture had me believe one of two things happened when you came out to your parents:
1. Rejection. They reject you. They remove financial and emotional support. They kick you out of their house. They never speak to you again. They send you to conversion therapy to pray the gay away and erase a boy.
2. Celebration. They embrace you. Mom gets a rainbow tattoo on her forehead. She joins the Queer Student-Parent Alliance. If there’s not a Queer Student-Parent Alliance, she starts the Queer Student-Parent Alliance. She drives you and your boyfriend, Simon, to prom. She attends every Pride Parade in a 100-mile radius. She carries a sign that says “I Love My Gay Son.”
The next day, I gave my speech.
“When I first got into Princeton, my mom warned me it was a liberalizing, heathenizing institution.”
I paused. It’s scary speaking to 30,000 people.
“But I haven’t changed at all. I arrived here a conservative, Southern Baptist carnivore, and tomorrow, I’ll graduate a feminist, vegetarian atheist.”
I didn’t know I liked boys until college because southern Virginia didn’t have any cute boys. That, and being raised evangelical Christian discouraged me from even entertaining an exploration of my sexualité. In college, I studied religion, cheap beer and the hot dudes who played shirtless beach volleyball outside my dorm. Against a backdrop of aged buildings and underage drinking, I became and realized I was an atheist and realized I was gay. I became an atheist through reason and rational thought. I realized I was gay because I wanted to have sex with hot dudes.
After graduation, I didn’t talk about being gay with my family. I moved to Chicago and bounced around the boys of Boystown. I hydrated myself with booze and sidetracked myself with boys. I worked at an LGBTQ community center, met older gay couples and learned about the power of anti-anxiety and depression medication, fitness and cognitive behavioral therapy—thank you, Dr. Dave! When I landed in a long-term relationship, I stopped going home for the holidays. Thanksgiving came and went. Christmas came and went. Then another year. And another. I decided I’d rather be with my boyfriend than go back to a place that might not 100 percent accept me. Had I given them a fair chance? Or had I decided for them that I would accept only 100 percent support? Did “Can we not make this the discussion of the weekend?” mean “Can we not have this discussion ever?” Was that wrong of me?
I was brave enough to come out to 30,000 people. Was I brave enough to come out to two?