*I was not able to post this on National Coming Out Day as the site was still in development. I still wanted to share one of my many coming out stories to commemorate the day!
Coming Out about one’s sexuality is a process that is complex, challenging and numerous. It is something that is emotional for all involved in the coming out process and could yield trauma all around. Emotions can trigger feelings of anger, hate, happiness, regret, shame or love.
LGBTQI folks are consistently coming out to a multitude of people in a variety of situations. Most openly out LGBTQI people take for granted that they still “Come Out” to people even though they’ve been out for some time. I’ve been out, identifying as a gay man, for almost twenty nine years and just last week I found myself in a situation where I had to come out to someone. The anxiety, nervousness and fear of being dejected hit me almost immediately. I was surprised at the feelings that took over me. I usually walk the world assuming that everyone knows that I am gay. This is a realization that I have come to take for granted.
While I may be able to share thousands of coming out stories from my life, one in particular is so memorable and defines my gay identity. It was the summer of my junior year (1994) in college at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont. I had recently turned twenty one and it meant that I was now able to go to bars and clubs, legally. Burlington, a surprisingly progressive city was home to the one AND ONLY gay bar in ALL OF VERMONT!
Pearl’s, named after the street it was located on, was established in 1983 and ten years later was still not widely known as being a gay bar. From the outside, you would think it was a cozy two story house and would wonder who lived there as you walked by. The ONLY thing that would give away the fact that it existed as a social gathering space was the blaring of music on Friday and Saturday nights. You would only find out about the true nature of the bar through word of mouth from people who had accidentally gone in. Most people would walk by without paying it any attention. The curious would ask “what is that place?” as they walked by. The adventurous would ask “oh my god, where am I, what is this place?” Those seeking acceptance because they were different, lonely and had no other way of meeting other people that were similar to them would simply exhale all of the world’s rejection as they entered the club. It was our solace, our comfort, our security, our home.
It was a hot, beautiful, Vermont summer night. I had acknowledged my sexual curiosity and preference less than a year prior. I had secretly been experiencing gay relations with a few guys whose eyes I caught. Even though you would get the sense that the area lacked GLBTQI folks, I was lucky enough to attract a few, several who were still in the closet. Friendship was not the priority during this time as most of us identified ourselves as “curious,” “bi” or even “not out.” We would ask those that came to find out about our secret to please not say anything to anyone. It was our secret pledge. As such, I did not venture out to Pearl’s with anyone, anyone that could buffer my fear and anxiety, or even share in it. Instead, I was longing for friendship, community and belonging and I decided that I had to explore and had to meet people that were also in my situation.
I must have walked around the block at least ten times, making the decision to not go in because “someone” going in, walking by or even driving by “might” see me. I was so scared, beams of sweat would drip down my body because of fear. It had nothing to do with the warmth of the New England summer night. I would see the bouncer at the door look at me each time I passed. By the third time, he started to smile and even laugh. He knew what was going on and I believe that it was his way of acknowledging the pain I was experiencing and saying “it’s going to be ok.”
When I finally decided to stop and pull out my ID to enter Pearl’s, no one but the bouncer was visible. I had talked myself into getting the courage I needed to enter, but I still could not talk myself out of the fear. My right hand shoke the whole time I held out my ID for him to examine. I knew that at this time, he would be the first person to officially know my secret, he would know my name, know who I was, and most importantly, know why I was there. He said “so, you finally decided to come in?” and “have a good time!” All I could do was look down and nod. It would take a couple of years to realize both of his statements were meant to ease the anxiety and nerves, for me to relax in order to enjoy my first time. At the time, neither of his statements registered, my concentration had nothing to do with anything he said, it was about opening that door, walking in and seeing all the eyes looking at me. To me, this meant that I had finally come out to myself, come out to the people in this bar, and come out to the world.
I did just that, I opened the door, walked in and EVERYONE looked at me. The entire room. All I could do was exhale all of the world’s rejection.
Above, a picture of the building that was once "Pearl's." Note: This may be a picture of the actual Pearl's Bar when it was open. I found this on Google but was not able to identify the photographer or the date that it was taken.