Someone I met at a recent social occasion discreetly asked me if I “was out?”…I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly, so I asked her to repeat the question. She did, this time loud enough for a coworker to hear, and subsequently choke on his cocktail as he tried not to laugh. Seriously? I’m a 53 year old, obviously gay man…what sad sham of a life did she think I was living? I’m out, proud, and often loud. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent a lot of time in the closet, but it usually involves organizing the clothing by color. I’ve been in a committed relationship for 22 years, and am fortunate enough to be surrounded by a community of family and friends that support and nurture, and even though I live in a state where I can be fired from my job for simply being who I am, I don’t hide.
“Coming Out” is so different today…for me, and most men of my generation, it was a journey, often painful, lonely, and sometimes dangerous. I left home, barely legal, gayer than springtime, dramatic as the dawn, and as naive as a newborn…I left home to find out who I was, at least that’s what I thought I was doing. I already knew I was gay, hell, anyone who had heard me speak, or seen me sashay through a room knew I was gay. I’m not one of those gay men who can “pass” for straight. The truth was that I wasn’t going anywhere to find myself; I was on a journey to find the strength and courage to be myself…a subtle, but important difference. Task accomplished, I returned home with a vengeance, brandishing the shocking news that I, was in fact, a “homosexual”…a homosexual who “cared not” if they disapproved (see what I mean about being “dramatic”). My bemused and loving family pretended to be shocked, while surrounding me with acceptance and support…I had prepared for everything, everything but this. Where was the banishment from home and hearth? Where were the threats of conversion therapy and institutionalization? Where was the name calling? I found myself unconditionally loved…damn it…my sense of drama was left wanting…but not for long.
Strangely, I don’t remember much of the encounter, it seems I may have blocked it out, but I remember how I felt the first time I was soundly rejected by someone, for being gay. They weren’t hateful or cruel, it wasn’t even a particularly close relationship, just somebody that I encountered on a regular basis and liked…unfortunately for me, my proud new moniker of “out gay man” didn’t fit into their life and beliefs, so they just cut me out. It was a hard life lesson, but one I quickly learned.
I’m a likable guy. Seriously, everybody likes me. I’m nice, funny, helpful, talented, caring, thoughtful, modest, self deprecating…did I mention nice? It turns out that a major part of my sense of self worth is wrapped around the idea that I’m likable. If I find out someone doesn’t like me, it can send me into a tailspin of doubt, taking away all of my power, eroding my confidence, and making me second guess my decisions. It kinda sucks. I should be clear, I’m not talking about someone not liking my singing, my politics, my art…those are things that I do and/or choices I have made, and sometimes even I don’t like them. Not liking me for being gay is a whole different ball of wax. That’s like not liking me for having blue eyes...I could wear colored contacts to fit into a brown eyed world, but I would know I was blue eyed, and living a lie. Despite what conservative pundits will tell you, being gay is not a choice, it simply is…the only choice we have is to be authentic, or pretend to be something we’re not…but that’s how you get caught soliciting undercover police officers in airport restrooms and subsequently ruin your political career…but I digress.
Now, I realize there are hundreds of thousands of people who may not like me because of who/what I am…but I don’t know them, so who cares?! The real issue comes into play when I get to know and like you…I now care about what you think, and if you think I’m damned, doomed, and unlikable, my feelings get hurt. So to protect myself from the dreaded kryptonite of un-likability, I make it clear early on who I am. For example, I’ve been known to casually work the phrase “well my husband and I…” into a first conversation, blatantly turn up the volume on my “gayness”, or in some instances just come right out and say it… I can almost instantly tell if someone has an issue. Sometimes the opportunity for prescreening presents itself, and I can head off a tragic un-friending at the pass.
Recently, while toiling away at my day job, looking at resumes for new employees, I decided to type in potential candidate’s email addresses on Facebook and see what comes up. One candidate, who by the way looked particularly good on paper, had a rather disturbing Facebook profile. His multiple posts, read and “liked” by all 7 of his friends, described how all the current problems of society, including his inability to land a new job were to be laid at the feet of (and I quote) “the big fat homos who are determined to ruin everything with their colossal homosity”. In this particular instance he may have been right, as yours truly, big fat homo that I am, decided not to hire him. In either event, through prescreening, or the subtle tells of social intercourse, I can decide whether or not to invest in liking you, safe in the knowledge that if you decide not to like me it will be because of something I’ve said or done, and not because of something I am. It’s a pretty good plan that has done a great job of protecting my fragile ego so far. It has the added bonus of requiring me to “come out” on a daily basis…ya know what they say, “practice makes perfect”. I’m so good at it I don’t even realize it’s happening anymore…which, in hindsight, is why my recent “outing” of a different nature, caught me by surprise.
If you’ve read my earlier blog posts, you know the art thing is rather new for me. I’ve been hyper creative my whole life, but it’s only been the last 3 years that I’ve been focused, training, and regularly producing paintings. It’s a hobby…but also much more. Who am I kidding; you are reading this blog attached to the website, bearing my name. A website that promotes and sells my artwork…it’s much more than a hobby. The problem that comes with that admission is that I’m not ready to proudly wear the title that comes with it. Artist…yup, I’m still in the closet on that one.
There are so many connotations that go along with that title, a large quantity of preconceived notions, and the ubiquitous judgments awaiting anyone who steps into this arena. My friend and mentor, Deanna Nash, tells the story of someone asking her “what do you do for a living?” Her response of “I’m an artist” was met with a polite nod. When the same person encountered Deanna at a latter date, in the presence of her work, the gentleman appeared to be taken aback…and at Deanna’s questioning look, he responded with: “Oh…you’re a REAL artist.”
I’d recently created a number of abstract mixed media pieces for a charity event. The response was favorable and greatly encouraging. With that little burst of steam, and my husbands urging, I entered a couple of pieces in a juried show at the local Artist’s Guild. To my shock, delight, and subsequent horror, one of my pieces was selected. My plan was too quietly take that little bit of validation and build on it…my husband’s plan involved my being a part of every aspect of the process from the artist’s reception thru the gallery talks.
The day of the opening arrived, but I was focused on a colossal wedding that the company, for which I serve as creative director, was providing décor. My husband swung by the jobsite around midday to drop off something I had left at home that morning. I didn’t think anything of it when he stopped to have a brief conversation with my boss, and was subsequently startled when she walked up and punched me. “That’s for not telling me you have a gallery opening tonight!” As I tried to explain that it was “really, nothing important”, she hit me again. “I want you out of here by 3:00; you’ll need time to get ready!”
Dennis, my husband, met me at the door with a beverage and a handful of ibuprofen. As I headed upstairs to the shower, I passed several clothing options that had been laid out for me to choose from. I couldn’t help but notice that they were all bolder variations of what he had selected for himself…we may be dressing as a couple, but if he had his way, there would be no mistaking which one of us was the artist. We rode to the show in relative silence, I talked briefly about the day’s wedding setup, but I was distracted…trying to wrap my head around the impending evening. As we entered the guild, we both saw them at the same time…ugh, nametags…he marched down to claim mine, while I did a slow meander behind. Yup, nametags, but not for everyone! No, the nametags are just for the artists whose work is being showcased, which then begs the question: If the only people wearing nametags are artists, why does it have to say “Artist” under each name…specifically, why does it have to say “Artist” under my name? Dennis kept hitting my hand away from my chest as he, and I, realized I was holding the program in a way that blocked the scarlet letter “A” for artist that I was forced to wear. We did a circuit around the room and I realized that my piece was not the best in the room, not by a long shot. Conversely, it was also not the worst. It seemed to be rousing a fair share of curiosity, as the gathered attendees tried to decipher what exactly my mixed media was. I was about to beg Dennis to leave, when a familiar, comforting voice said “yours is the only one like it here…that has to be a good thing”. I don’t know if that statement is true, but what was a good thing, was turning around to find the smiling face of one of my best friends. Over his shoulder, I saw two more walk into the gallery; it was suddenly obvious what had happened. Knowing that I was unsure, Dennis had rallied the troops. I would not have to do this alone: my “peeps” were on the premises, and my tension began to ease. As I watched different artists pose for photos next to their work, smiling at their loved ones, like a pride parade participant, I had an epiphany. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t ready to admit who I was to this crowd, it didn’t matter that in a fit of nervous energy I dumped an entire cup of ice, to loudly echo through the gallery, while standing just behind the moderator, only moments after she had called for quiet, and drew all eyes to her…it didn’t matter. My “family” was here, loving and supporting me, even if I was uncomfortable with the label.
Fast forward a couple of weeks…It’s the night of the gallery talk. I didn’t know what to expect, and was completely terrified, which is why I decide I must go. It fell on a Wednesday, which unfortunately, is the regular studio night with my mentor, and cohorts. I sent word for them to “go on without me”, and “I’ll see you next week”. It was not to be. Knowing that this was a huge hurdle for me, and that I was the first of our group to reach this particular milestone, they made other plans. When Dennis and I arrived, the first piece of good news was that it appeared nametags would not be required for the night. The second piece of good news was waiting for me in the gallery. Like a high school fieldtrip, my classmates and mentor, my “art tribe”, my community as it were, was here to love and support me. With them to ground me, I did just fine…by the time I finished speaking about my piece and process, I was almost wishing for a nametag…almost.
Hit that fast forward button again, to just yesterday. Good news abounds…as I have just found out that the jurist for the Artists' Guild has accepted two of my three portrait submissions into it’s upcoming show, and inform Dennis that in addition to that bit of news, we’ve also been accepted into our second juried art fair…ya know, where you find artists? We talked about what supplies we still need to acquire for the fairs, the drop off of the new pieces at the gallery, coordinating the pickup from the current exhibit, as well as dropping off some newly finished canvases at the photographer…all on our way to the hardware store….I’ve got an idea for a different technique, and I want to try it with some sample pots of latex paint. As the clerk boxed up the ten little cans of paint she asked “what are you gonna do with all this?” Without a thought, a response rolled off my tongue, “Oh…I’m an artist; I’m working on a large canvas and wanted to try something new”. She smiled; I thanked her and said goodbye. As I turned to leave, Dennis couldn’t hide his grin. “What?” I said, hefting my pride flag worthy box of paints, and headed towards the register knowing full well that I had just “outed” myself. It felt good. It felt right…who knows, with enough practice it might even feel easy.