At 17, I first tearfully told my family I thought I might be gay. We were eating at a favorite Italian restaurant and someone made a joke about gay people, and I burst into tears. I said, as sobs racked my body: “I don’t think we should make fun of those people, because I think…I am one!” At the time I felt my life was over. I’m not sure why: I grew up in a very non-judgmental family, welcoming to all kinds of people. My parents always had an open door policy, and our home became the place where our teenage friends would hang out. Ours was the place for misfits: the teenage goths, radicals, and queers all sat in our back garden and drank, smoked, and talked.
I didn’t though. I didn’t socialize much with people my own age. I wasn’t shy – in fact I’ve always been pretty gregarious – but my teenage years were not filled with parties and indulgence. Instead, I was studious and serious. I focused on my schoolwork and on my acting: as I moved through high school acting had become a big part of my life, and soon I was taking major roles in school and local productions. I won a bunch of local awards for my performances, and recognition at my school for contributing to dramatic life. So I was around actors and weirdos all day every day – and yet I didn’t come out of the closet and accept my own sexuality until I was 27, and a grad student at Harvard.
I don’t know why it took me so long. I look back now and wonder – what the hell was I afraid of? If I’m honest, I think I was afraid that if I came out as gay, I couldn’t pursue the sort of public life I imagined for myself. I imagined that if I came out I couldn’t be a politician, or a public speaker, or live any kind of public life outside the arts. Where I got such a weird notion I’m unsure, but while growing up I knew hardly any openly gay people, and I guess I imbibed a ton of homophobic messages from the broader culture.
Whatever the reason, it took me until 27 to come out. My first kiss with another guy? 27. My first gay sex? 27. My first date with a guy? 27. It was like having a second adolescence – only this time I was living my own life far away from my parents and my school (If you could choose any time to do adolescence, your mid to late 20s is a pretty good time to do it!). I still remember the feeling of coming out. I remember the electricity throughout my body, the elation, the feeling I could do anything. My gay friends – I made a lot of gay friends very quickly – told me the feeling wouldn’t last. I’d get a couple of months out of it maybe, then my life would be a “normal” as theirs.
It lasted two years.
For two whole years I did everything most kids do in their teens. I became a regular at every gay bar in Boston. I sang cabaret in some, and donned leather in others. I went to drag shows and and marched in pride parades. I got involved with a scrappy little group of queer activists called Join the Impact MA, and spoke at rallies and protests. And I went to Provincetown. Provincetown, with its dunes and beaches, became my absolute favorite place to explore the new, gay me.
All this took a toll on my academic work. I met most of my responsibilities, but I was already overburdened, and a couple of things slipped through the cracks. I lost a job at an amazing research group I had been working with (and doing fantastic, publishable work, I might add) because I just become too swept up in everything. More significantly, I lost my academic adviser – an extremely famous psychologist who I absolutely worshiped, but who felt (I guess) that I needed a wake-up call to refocus on my work. If he had just spoken to me about it, I would have shifted my focus, I think. But he didn’t, and I lost a mentor and someone I had thought of as a colleague and a champion of my academic career.
But I gained something even more important: a new sense of myself and of who I wanted to be. Through my activism, and all the reading I was doing on LGBTQIA+ history and culture, I gained a sense of myself as a member of a minority, as someone who had suffered internalized homophobia, as someone who was – at least in some ways – outside mainstream society. This new identity led me to all sorts of new activism: I guess that now I realized I was outside what was considered “normal,” I felt a new sense of solidarity for other people also on the margins. This wasn’t an immediate process, or anything like an awakening: it was a reorientation of my sense of self in relation to wider society. I had grown up in almost all ways “on the inside” – the right schools, the right college, the right career trajectory. Now I was, at least in one important way, “on the outside,” and that realization began to reshape who I wanted to be.
I wanted to be an activist, and I wanted to fight for the liberation of all people.