Writing my way out of the closet

GAY MESSIAH Graham Chapman in Monty Python's The Life of Brian.
GAY MESSIAH Graham Chapman in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

A Writer finally comes out.

THE late great Monty Python comedian Graham Chapman was the inspiration for my coming out.

In the year that homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK, he famously hosted a party for all his friends, introduced them to his male partner, then got on with his life.

The news didn’t reach our small town until long after my homophobic brother and his poofter-hating mates had come to revere Chapman and his cohorts as the best thing on their TV screens, but it was a great affirmation for me to discover that the Python’s camp humour had its roots in a living, breathing homosexual.

“Stony silence stretched out in many cases to more than a week.”

I wanted to find a similar way to tell everyone myself and thought seriously about hosting a coming out party at my very first house in the town of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. But it became apparent very quickly that there was no way I’d get everyone I knew and loved in the same place at the same time – they had far too many ‘issues’.

A few very close friends, and my sister Jen, already knew. I’d told them in person after going through much angst.

I have always been much better at expressing myself in writing than any other form of communication anyway, so I embarked on writing to everyone in my life. Not just a few people, but everyone – I drew no line in the sand for my sake, or theirs.

The first step was to find a beautiful book of postcards, and I was attracted to a lovely set by Asian master print-makers. I took my time and wrote that I had come to terms with my sexuality, sharing the good news that this had given me a much-needed dose of personal happiness.

When the writing task was complete, I determined that I’d walk to the local post office, buy enough stamps for well over 100 postcards, and simply post my future out to the world.

It proved to be one of the longest walks in my life.

Katoomba is a very small community, and as luck would have it I met many people I knew along the way, some of them what I’ll call ‘Difficult Cases’ – people for whom my postcard news was going to come as something of a challenge.

I endured their meaningless chit-chat, and just internalised my resolve to keep going to the post box, through which I was convinced freedom from the closet was only days away.

The first phone call came from my cousin, whose instant, unquestioning support spoke volumes of acceptance. Great start.

Two family friends turned up. Over cups of tea this support lessened a little when the inevitable “I already knew” crept into the conversation.

If they already knew, why hadn’t they had enough courage to be inclusive when they’d asked, quite regularly, did I “have a girlfriend?” by adding just three words to that question, “or a boyfriend?”

REACHING OUT Coming to terms with sexuality is an internal journey.
REACHING OUT Coming to terms with sexuality is a journey out of oneself.

Stony silence stretched out in many cases to more than a week, followed by stilted phone conversations in which people forced themselves to utter what they thought they should say.

Some Difficult Cases needed a little encouragement, so I went to see them. One crossed the street when he saw me. One broached the subject with a weird question: “Why do all lesbians hate men?” as though I’d know the answer even if such an ignorant assertion were remotely true. One looked startled when I passed her at the supermarket, her face not altering as I smiled, made eye contact, said “hello,” and kept going, since obviously she had a problem.

One assumed my postcard was a suicide letter. Another misread the words “I am gay,” thinking I’d written “I am angry”. What can you do?

“I am gay too,” was an interesting response, from the married father of two. That was out of the blue!

But it wasn’t all bad or weird: “Got your lovely postcard,” said dear Sal, mentor, friend, superwoman and strong out lesbian who’d long inspired me.

And the phone call from my grandmother, who said that she would help me find a cure, because: “They can fix all kinds of things these days, you know”.

“But I’m not sick grandma, I don’t need a cure,” I replied.

“Oh thank goodness,” she said, quick as a flash, her total belief in the way I felt about myself eclipsed generations of people in her wake.

At her 90th birthday a few months later, she raised her arms in delight when I arrived, enfolded me in a hug as the shouted: “You are so special!” so loudly that it echoed off the ranks of Difficult Cases in the family, standing in maudlin, silent rows. Priceless, unconditional acceptance.

With all the consummate skill of a country woman Grandma had hand-made clothes for my dolls when I was a toddler. She never questioned my behavior, or shamed me, she just joined in the fun and made a safe place for a young gay boy to play.

The overwhelming majority of my postcard’s recipients I never heard from again – close family friends, people I grew up with, people who were welcome in our home and accepted by our family in the face of their own ‘scandals’, people who had cried on my shoulder when I shared the intimate details about our mother, their friend, as she died. People who should have known a lot better by the accepting example that she set.

Some Difficult Cases hung in there for a while, but fell away in the wake of me manifesting my first gay relationship. For many people it’s okay if you’re gay and single (and lonely!) but bringing a partner into their home creates a challenge of “What do we tell the neighbours?” proportions, poor things.

For someone who was sent-off from his community with a mass of support, I certainly came home to a resounding rejection.

But growing up in that community had taught me to help others, so it was with a great sense of validation that I later heard about another coming out.

“I’ve done a Mike,” one young gay family friend said to his loved ones as he got real a few years after I did, at a much earlier stage in his life.

That was all I needed to hear that I’d done exactly the right thing, the Difficult Cases be damned.

To anyone who is closeted, my best advice is to love whoever you want. If anyone has the guts to ask you what your sexual orientation is, reward their courage by telling them your truth. Forget coming-out – it’s just society’s outmoded and unnecessarily pressure-filled way of working out who is ‘normal’ and who is (to quote The Life of Brian) a “very naughty boy”.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

5 thoughts on “Writing my way out of the closet”

  1. My favourite line in the piece … ‘ If anyone has the guts to ask you what your sexual orientation is, reward their courage by telling them your truth’.

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