These are some thoughts about coming out of the closet. Before getting to the part you’re likely thinking of, though, I want to share a story about a different, more literal closet.
When I was about 12 years old, I went to a youth conference with a group from my church—a pyrotechnic blend of concert, revival, and conservative boot camp. One of the featured speakers that year was Josh McDowell, a Christian apologist whose semi-intellectual vibe was an anomaly in a conference more known for its light shows and arena rock. McDowell started his talk by showing pictures of his family, and a paternal gentleness coursed through even the brimstone in his message.
This was a year or two after my parents divorced, and I’d been seeing my dad less and less frequently, so that paternal gentleness seemed to highlight the gaping hole that had recently appeared in my life. I’d eventually realize that McDowell’s work fit very well with the militaristic evangelicalism of that conference, but that’s for another blog. For now, at 12 years old, all I knew was that Josh McDowell appeared to be a wise and kind father figure, and I very much wanted one of those.
So I read some of his books, listened to his sermons and interviews on Christian radio, and eventually wrote him a letter. As a sometimes sad and increasingly quiet boy, letter-writing was a frequent practice of mine, a way to use my voice that felt safe and contained. I wrote to McDowell about my dad leaving and how sad I was, about his talk at the conference and everything it meant to me, about how I wanted to be a pastor someday and felt inspired by him in that calling. I included my address and phone number in case he wanted to reply, though I tried not to get my hopes up; in some ways it was enough to cast my desire for connection into the world, even if no one took the bait.
A few weeks later, after I’d imagined my letter lost in a pile of unanswered fan mail, McDowell responded. My mom listened to his message on our answering machine and brought me the phone, letting me know who it was. I ran up to my bedroom, sat on the floor in the closet, and cradled the phone in a pillow before listening. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something to the effect that he was sorry to hear my dad was gone, and he was glad his words had meant so much to me, and he wanted me to know that I was special and deserving of love. I listened to his words again and again, until the phone started beeping its low battery warning, then I deleted the message so nobody else would hear it; it was just for me.
That moment has come to mind often these last few months: little Beau, curled up on the floor of his closet, clinging to an experience of solace and comfort and connection. By that age, I was already internalizing the belief that to experience love, I needed to be as small, quiet, and self-contained as possible. I needed to conceal the parts of myself that were scary or unresolved. Closets were great for this; I could keep myself hidden and safe, and I could protect whatever bits of intimacy I was able to smuggle in.
I’m grateful for that phone call, for the empathy and encouragement it offered, despite what I would later learn about the harm caused by McDowell’s theology. And I’m grateful for that closet, for the warmth and safety I found there, despite what I would eventually—two decades later—realize to be true: I don’t want to stay there forever.
In case metaphors aren’t your thing, here’s what I’m saying: I am gay. Because I had made myself so at home in my closet, it took me a long while to realize that’s what it was, and to realize that my well-developed capacity for hiding included the ability to hide from myself. My closet was so sturdy and secure—by necessity, at first—that I was able to evade the hints and hunches that came over the years. I didn’t ask questions when I developed what I now see as crushes on male friends; I didn’t think twice about how much time I spent pondering the appeal of Elijah Wood; I started looking at gay porn in high school and never dared wonder what my desire might be revealing to me. And when I was seeing a Christian counselor in college and mentioned that I was afraid I might be gay, it made perfect sense when he said, “No, a few passing thoughts don’t make you gay. Tell me about a girl you like.” So I did, and the walls of my closet dug in a little deeper.
Even though I didn’t realize it, much of the work I’ve been doing since moving to Seattle has been toward building a path out of the closet. So when one of those fleeting thoughts returned last fall, this time—for the first time—I was able to sit with it and listen to what it had to say. And when I did, I was amazed by how quickly clarity arrived. An image that came to mind later was of a character with super speed in a comic book, and how when they run, you can see their faded silhouette tracing their path behind them, like they are moving so quickly that their bodies have a hard time keeping up. I felt like, without realizing it, I had been running really fast for a really long time, and now that I had stopped, all these past versions of myself were catching up and returning home.
So I told one friend, then a few others, then some co-workers, then a couple strangers, and then my family, each conversation chipping away at the steel-reinforced walls of my closet. After that I rested. I started getting to know myself, and I marveled at what felt like a whole new world. I got a couple Pride t-shirts—including one with gay Snooty—and visited an open and affirming church. I even made an online dating profile.
Some days I was sad and scared, other days I felt like a giddy little kid. These days, I sometimes feel it all at once: anxious and thrilled and sad and relieved. I’ve realized that big, swirly, messy feelings are new to me, because safety and containment were my guiding lights in the closet. I smuggled in small tastes of intimacy one bit at a time, but I didn’t dare throw open the doors to pursue it myself. I guess that’s what I’m doing now.
I’ve thought about what I’d want to say to little Beau, curled up in the closet with the phone: It makes me sad that you have to hide, but I’m glad you’re safe. It’s okay to stay in there for a while if you need to.
Mostly, I’d want to say this: You can come out now. Look how big the world is—welcome! And that closet? Let’s tear it down.