In this occasional series of posts I seek to exercise compassion toward myself, drilling deep into my own psyche to try to identify – and exorcise – harmful parts of my emotional makeup.
Love, I don’t like to see so much pain. So much wasted, and this moment keeps slipping away. – Peter Gabriel, In Your Eyes
They say you regret the things you don’t do, not the things you do. In my case, that’s true. I live my life mainly without regret: I’ve been lucky and privileged enough to be able to do what I love for much of my life. But sometimes pangs of regret encroach upon my heart. The reason? It took me ten years to come out of the closet.
I first told my parents I thought I was gay at 17. Bursting into tears in an Italian restaurant near our house, I spluttered out a hopeless confession, causing my family to pause their meal opened-mouthed, spaghetti slowly falling from forks hovering uncertainly between plates and mouths. After somber discussion with my parents later in the evening, however, I decided to “wait it out”. To “test the waters”. To “see what happened”. And what happened was I fell in love with a girl.
Love is a funny thing: it has been one of the strange observations of my life that you can fall in love – even romantic love – with someone of whose gender identity does not match the gender to which you are sexually attracted. For I was deeply, passionately, head-over-heels in love with this girl! I remember thinking, holding her hand on the flight back from the USA (we’d got together on a choir trip- total cliché!), “The plane could crash right now and I would die happy!”
I wonder now whether some of the delirious happiness I felt then was relief at finally convincing myself that I was “normal”.
It didn’t last. Dumped by text just weeks after returning home (I forgive you, honey ;)), I was desolate, but not too much later I found myself in another relationship with a girl – and this pattern continued through college. I had one more abortive attempt at closet-exiting at Cambridge, but never really explored the gay scene there, despite being a huge thespian surrounded by gorgeous gay boys, some of whom I still think about today. It took me a few years after graduating – and a full ten years after my first attempt – to finally accept myself as gay and come out for good (and what an explosion from the closet that was – stories for another time).
I was prepared to feel regret. I was ready to feel that I had “wasted” part of my young life. But, in truth, I almost never feel that. To say I regret coming out at 27 would be to say I regret the relationships I had with women during my 10-year struggle, and this would be flatly false. My last-ever-girlfriend (we were together for more than two years!) gave me some of the best times of my life – to say nothing of unconditional support and love when I finally told her that, yes, I’m a huge homo (she’s still my angel. Going to her wedding was one of the happiest moments of my whole existence). So I almost never experience regret.
Sometimes, when I’m in some club surrounded by younger gay guys, I wonder what it would have been like to explore that part of myself earlier. I had a ludicrously full and busy adolescence – but it was full of culture, theatre, music, and schoolwork, not clubbing, partying, sex, and romance. I’m not saying I’d have been a wild kid (but who knows?), but sometimes I think I would like to have gone out more, had something more like a stereotypical teenager’s experience. The crazy amounts of work I put in got me to where I am today, so I’m not complaining – but I’m sure I could have squeezed in a boyfriend or two (!) amidst the rehearsals and study sessions.
I regret not being out when I was a teacher. I think teachers have a special responsibility to bring their full selves to the classroom so that students can interact with people of different identities. As an out gay teacher I could have helped young people questioning their sexuality. I could have been of use to my students in a special way, and I wasn’t there for them. I regret that a lot.
Mostly, I regret not knowing myself as an out gay teen. I look at gay kids now, coming out younger and younger, and wonder what sort of person I would have been had I taken the plunge and come out fully at 17. I think I could have made an impact in my school (there were lots of struggling gay kids there, and some classmates of mine are, I fear, still struggling). I think I might have gone more fully into politics. I was pretty cute, and I fear (hope) I would have had some raucous times. I want to have known that person. I want those memories. And I’ll never have them.
I’ll never have them. That’s the cage regret builds around you – but it’s also the key. There is nothing I can do to change the past. How we perceive this fact is the hinge on which our response to regret hinges. I choose acceptance and responsibility. I accept what I cannot change, but use it to push me forward.
Regret is fuel for the future.
My task now is to make sure I squeeze every drop out of gay life, in the time I do have control over (and wow, have I done that!). My task is to ensure that teachers are better equipped to assist questioning students in their classrooms. My task is to fight for a world in which every person, no matter their sexual or gender identity, feels they can accept themselves for who they are the moment that part of them asserts itself. If I can do these things – if I can help people avoid the years of struggle I went through – I won’t have anything to regret.