Today was a monumental day for a friend of mine. A milestone day. The kind of day that you remember for the rest of your life -- where you were, how you felt, what people said. The kind of day that you spend weeks or months or years preparing for, imagining, envisioning different scenarios play out in your head. The kind of day where you wake up with butterflies and nervousness and a little fear -- maybe more than a little.
Today, he came out as gay to his family.
I was proud and happy and thrilled for him -- it went well. Love was affirmed. The subject was quickly changed. Text messages were sent to say the words that couldn't find their way out in the moment. Life went on. That's about the best you can hope for. It's more or less how it went when I told my family I was bisexual. But once it's done, once your family knows, a weight is lifted. The secret evaporates, the lie is over. Freedom. It feels great -- but it's a tough path the climb to get there.
A couple years ago, I was working at a leadership camp as a "team leader," the college-aged facilitator for a small group of high school students. It was one of our last nights together, and it was time do an activity called "Autobiographies," a version of what some call "boundary breaking," which is basically an opportunity for everyone in the team to share part of their story with their team. It's a chance for young people to be vulnerable with their peers in a safe setting, and it's been powerful and meaningful each time I've experienced it. We don't make enough time to be vulnerable with each other.
This "Autobiographies" was done at night, outside in the warm summer air, sitting on the floor in a circle.
I don’t always share that I'm bisexual when I work with students. There is a fine line between telling personal stories that provides value for young people and making things about yourself/pushing an agenda. I've watched the line be crossed and it's cringeworthy and awkward. Two factors usually determine if I share that piece of my story: a) if the group has bonded relatively closely already and I think it will set the tone for them to dig a little deeper, and b) if there is a student in the group who I think would benefit from hearing from someone who came out and made it to the other side relatively unscathed -- and happy.
At this particular camp, both of my criteria had been met. I also felt like I wouldn’t be rising to the same challenge I had given them if I wasn't honest about this part of my story. “A couple years ago," I told them, "I came out to my friends and family as bisexual. It was really hard, and there was a time when I was ashamed about how I felt -- it took me a long time to accept that there was nothing wrong with me.” I told them the two minute version of my coming out story.
After the exercise was over, it was time for everyone to head back inside to wrap up the day with all the other teams. Before we went inside, there were a few minutes to give hugs, support each other, and make sure everyone is feeling okay. After a few minutes, everyone went to walk inside -- everyone but one kid. After everyone else had walked inside, only this young man remained. He looked up at me and saw that I was about to head back inside, so he finally built up the courage to walk over to me.
“Can I ask you something?”
When I smiled and told him of course, he paused for a moment. Then he looked down at the floor.
"How did you know that you were bisexual?”
I told him. He asked a few more questions, and I answered them all. We spent a few minutes talking outside -- he already knew his truth, but sometimes it helps to just talk it out with someone who's been through it before. So we did. He told me it was the first time he had said it out loud. He told me his family was religious and conservative and he was scared. There are no easy answers for a kid in those shoes.
After a few minutes, he said "thank you," gave me a hug, and walked back inside.
No doubt, that was a monumental day for him, too.