Friday, October 5, 2001

The Secrets We Keep: Why I Came Out—Twice

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #166, October 5, 2001)

I came out as a gay man at the age of 19, and had my second coming-out as a leatherman at age 37. Although certain aspects of the two experiences were the same, there were some significant differences between them.

First, some history: In homosexual culture at the dawn of the twentieth century, the words “coming out” were not automatically followed by “of the closet.” The notion of the closet did not yet exist, and “coming out” was used to connote initiation and celebration as one embraced one’s homosexual aspects and the homosexual community. Just as debutantes of the era were introduced to high society at “coming-out” balls, so too young men of a certain bent were mentored by their “aunties” before “coming out” at extravagant drag balls.

Somewhere in the middle of the last century, the notion of the closet was born as society told homosexual men and women in no uncertain terms that their sexuality was not okay and would not be tolerated. By the time of Stonewall, coming out of the closet had become more of a political statement, an act seen more as courageous and defiant than as joyous and celebratory.

Today the significant rite of passage and the claiming of one’s place in the GLBT community is more likely to happen at a March On Washington or an HRC dinner than at a drag ball—celebratory, yes, but also very political. I’m not saying this is necessarily bad, I’m just commenting on how things have changed over the course of a century.

By contrast, a modern-day leather coming-out is less political and still retains some sense of celebration and initiation, perhaps partly due to the more tribal and less political structuring of the leather/SM community. People are in a dungeon or playspace to enjoy themselves and each other, and therefore tend to check their politics at the door. Also, because of the nature of the way we play, I see much more mentoring going on in the leather/SM community than I do in the wider GLBT community.

What did my two coming-out experiences have in common? Before each of them I had to deal with the same issues. Before I came out at age 19 I had to deal with feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment, and fears of ridicule, non-acceptance, disapproval and violence. I knew society wasn’t terribly accepting of homosexuals back then, but what would my family think? If I actually did come out, what kind of a life would I have? Why would I want to identify as part of this hated minority?

In spite of my doubts, fears, and trepidations, I came out anyway because I had to. The alternative was to live a life of dishonesty with myself and others about who I was. I would be sentencing myself to a life of just existing, a joyless life of continual fear, shame, and worrying about being found out. A line from Clare Boothe Luce’s play “The Women” describes it perfectly: “the seasonless world; where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.”

Before I came out as a leatherman at age 37 I had to deal with the exact same feelings and fears. I knew that society—including parts of the GLBT community to which I comfortably felt I belonged—weren’t terribly accepting of the leather community. Why would I want to identify with this less-than-popular minority within a minority? I have heard the same worries expressed by others contemplating a leather coming-out: What will people think? What will they say? What kind of a life will I have?

Again, for me the answer was clear: I had ignored this part of myself for too long; I wanted to experience it. And I didn’t want to experience it skulking around in guilty shadows. It’s hard to enjoy something fully (and, from a practical standpoint, it’s hard to be safe) when you’re constantly looking over your shoulder because you’re afraid someone might see you.

There’s a saying that’s popular with the Twelve Step recovery community: “It’s the secrets we keep that get us in trouble.” The converse is also true: living without secrets is living free.

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

“HELLION” Joint Leather-Club Charity Fund Raiser
Sunday, Oct. 14, 6-10 PM, The Saloon
Jointly sponsored by The Atons and The Black Guard of Minneapolis, this event features food, door prizes, beer and soda specials and an appearance by porn star Clay Maverick (who will also be appearing at The Saloon on Saturday, Oct. 13). $5 donation at the door.

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