I waltzed down Grafton Street, the main shopping street in the center of Dublin, Ireland, on a sunny spring day. I held a giant bouquet of flowers close to my chest, both arms fully wrapped around it, embracing them whole-heartedly. A giant grin consumed my face, goofy joyfulness radiating. This – this was what freedom to be myself felt like. I was 25 and I had come out.
Skipping down the street, I no longer felt the chains around me that had constricted my chest, my body and my mind for so many years, leaving me breathless from their immense weight wrapped in an ever-tightening noose around me – “WHAT IF THEY FIND OUT”.
Skipping down the street, I was free, for the first time I could remember, to carry flowers in my arms, and not feel embarrassed, not feel afraid, not actually fear for my life, because flowers are gay and if I look too comfortable carrying them, “they” will know that I’m gay and I will die.
Skipping down the street I could not only carry flowers, I could be fully in the flower-carrying experience. I could thoroughly enjoy an experience without the deadly fear. Enjoy their scent, the feel of the sharp stems against my chest, the rustle of the stiff paper wrapped around them, and the looks of humor and delight that others were giving me as they saw a young man taking such joy from an armful of flowers.
Every aspect of my life before that had been dominated by the fear of being found out. Found out for the thoughts that were in my head. Thoughts that I believed – with good reason indeed, since it was actually illegal to be gay – would get me thrown in prison, beaten up, and entirely ostracized from family, friends, job and all society.
Today is National Coming Out Day. It is good to tell our stories to each other.
A few months before that Irish spring day, I was in San Francisco, the day before Thanksgiving Day in November. I had come here from my home in Dublin to present a paper on super-computing, my research work I was creating for my Ph.D. I had come here with a colleague of mine from the University. He had returned home just the day before, so I had one day and night of freedom, by myself, before my flight home the next day. Nobody knew. All I wanted to do was explore gay life in San Francisco. I was incredibly terrified to admit to myself that I was gay, but every fiber of my being needed to see what this city was about. Everybody laughed and snickered about the gay people in San Francisco, which led me to very secretly file it away as a place where I must go.
The gay neighborhood in San Francisco is called the Castro District, and there is a surface-street tram that goes there called the “F-Castro”. I was absolutely terrified to get onto this public transit system, because I felt that everyone would instantly know that I was gay, because I was on a tram that terminated in the gay neighborhood. Having now lived in San Francisco for 20 years, I know that actually yes, probably everybody did 😉 And that nobody was thinking that much about me. But at the time I didn’t know any of that.
I made it to the Castro, and I walked around all day long. Looking desperately for something to happen. I didn’t know what exactly I was hoping would, but nothing did. At the end of the day, around 6pm, I gave up and, filled with disappointment, I went to eat dinner before returning back to the hotel, and then on to the airport in the morning for the long flight back to Ireland.
As I neared the end of my dinner, a man walked past my field of view out the restaurant window. Our eyes met, and he held my gaze. I suddenly remembered that I had read in books about something gay men did called “cruising”. Oh, it struck me, he is “cruising” me! And I’m supposed to hold the gaze, rather than look away. So I did. He walked by, and then a moment later he turned around and walked back again, looking straight at me. Nervous excitement flushed through me. He walked over to a phone booth that was right there – yes, it was a long time ago, and dialed someone. Every so often he would look over at me, holding my eyes in a piercing gaze. He was handsome.
I finished up my dinner, wondering what was going to happen, whether he would stay long enough for me to exit the restaurant. He did. I paid and left, and nervously came close to him. We talked, and he said he needed to go to a store to get a magazine, so we went together. He invited me back to his house, and I went. I met his roommate. We kissed. That night we went to a bar called “The Stud”, the first gay bar I had ever been to. His roommate reached for my hand as we made our way through the close-pressed crowd. It was electrifying to feel another man hold my hand. Daring. Wonderful.
I stayed with him that night, and the next morning he walked me through the Castro, visiting with friends working out in the gym, going to get coffee and bagels from Noah’s Bagels. It was immensely normal and exceedingly alien to me – I did not know that one could live a life while gay. It was a totally foreign concept to me. Walking down the street, hugging friends, eating bagels, all while simultaneously being gay, just seemed like an impossible dream. It blew my mind.
He brought me to the airport, he was a wonderful gentle man to me. He called me “Ireland”, a nickname I am very fond of to this day. I flew home on a giant 777, which was almost entirely empty as it was Thanksgiving Day. I was alone in the whole middle section of the plane. I spent the many hours of the long plane ride sobbing almost the whole way, writing furiously in a small notebook about the experience and what it had awoken in me. The possibility of living a life where it was ok to be gay.
Up until that point I had never met another gay man, knowingly anyway.
Back in Ireland, it took a few months, but on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, I ventured to go into a gay bar in Dublin. I immediately got hit on by a man as I sat with my Ph.D. thesis, which I had brought with me so I would have something to work on so I would be able to pretend to not be paying attention to every little thing going on around me. We started dating, and within three weeks I came out to everyone – my youngest sister first, then college friends, then my mother. My mother sobbed, and that was hard.
My best friend was last, I was very scared to tell him. I loved him dearly, he was an amazing soul, but he was a man’s man, and I was terrified he would reject me. And he did at first. He told me that he needed to not see me. I waited for days in limbo, in fear of never seeing him again. But he came back, and he told me that he had realized that nothing had actually changed, he just knew more about me now. I think that is what coming out is about.
Wishing you all peace, love, joy, magic, and PLAY