Puberty is already a stressful period in a person’s life. You’ve got awkwardly timed voice cracking, acne breakouts, hair in strange places, and a sea of raging hormones to deal with. It’s not the brightest moment for many of us, but we’ve all been through the experience and—for better or for worse—came out the other side of this pivotal life stage mostly unscathed. That is unless your coming-of-age era coincides with internal struggles around coming out, which opens up a whole new set of emotional challenges.
While today’s generation is more accepting of the fluidity of how a person’s sexuality and gender identity can be defined, that doesn’t mean coming to terms with feeling “different” than your peers is any less stressful. Fear and anxiety can run rampant in one’s mind as revealing feelings that aren’t viewed as “normal” by some can lead to rejection, ridicule, shame, or even physical assault.
For those reasons, coming out isn’t an overnight process but more of an ongoing internal exploration of one’s sexual identity and eventually becoming comfortable with the person they’ve always been but were unable to express. It’s an experience most straight people don’t have to consider—a luxury that can be taken for granted.
In honor of National Coming Out Day, and in an effort to shed light on the bright and dark sides of being true to yourself about being attracted to the same sex, LEVEL spoke with eight queer men of color to share their coming out journey.
The Circle of Life
“During summer camp one year, I told two friends about my attraction to the same-sex, but it didn't feel like coming out because I didn’t have the language to express that verbally. It wasn’t until junior high that I officially came out to some teachers and close friends that I trusted. No one in my family knew, but I’d go to school and be out and proud until I started getting bullied for being gay. I went back into the closet for about two years; being less flamboyant, more withdrawn, and wasn’t open about my sexuality. In fact, I ended up in a relationship with my female best friend at the time. That lasted until I could no longer deny that I had this deep unexplored desire to be with the same-sex. I had to do some soul-searching to figure out who I was in terms of my sexuality. While in college, I eventually told various family members in stages until I was completely free and open. You have to decide when and how to come out to the various circles in your life—school, family, friends, workplace, etc. It’s almost never-ending. The only difference is once you’ve accepted your sexuality, coming out feels like it’s not even a second thought or negotiation.” —Souleo, 38, Harlem, NY
“No one can make you gay; it’s just how you’re born.”
Crush on You
“I remember having a crush on a girl in my preschool class, but in kindergarten I was paired up with the cutest eighth grader for the big brother/little brother program. I used to walk around the hallway like a little baddie when he came to pick me up from my locker to show me around the school. I was only five years old, but I will never forget that feeling.
I knew I wanted to marry a guy when I met my straight high school crush. He became one of my best friends and the first person I ever actually came out to. I remember being around him and being like, ‘Yeah, I feel really safe right now.’ That was a feeling I wanted and am super-happy to have that now being married to the man of my dreams. I very confidently identified as gay for years, but now I mostly identify as queer, as I really just like hot people and I’m still exploring myself.” —Christian, 28, Chicago, IL
Born This Way
“My first sexual experience with a guy was at 16. He was the running back on our school's football team. Neither one of us were out but we were hanging out at his house and wrestling around like teenagers do. One thing led to another and we started fooling around. After that I remained closeted until 22. That’s when I moved to L.A., got a job in the entertainment industry, and was exposed to more queer people. I knew deep inside that I was gay but had never really told anyone. Everyone in my life at that time knew I was gay except my family. I didn’t tell them until I got into a really serious relationship at 30. My father is an alpha male and needed some time to process the news. The next morning he asked if [me being gay] was [his fault]. I told him no one can make you gay; it’s just how you’re born. He and my mom have been very accepting since I’ve come out to them. The best part was feeling free and no longer holding in a secret. It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders.” —Paul*, 41, Stockton, CA
“I didn’t want my dad to see me as someone lesser by telling him the truth [about my sexuality].”
Internal Holy War
“I grew up in a religious practice that was conservative on the matter of queerness, so I was a pretty terrified and deeply ashamed kid. I knew for sure that I was queer when the ‘wrong’ image popped into my head about what sexual intimacy might look like. Immediately, I prayed to God, telling him that I didn’t want to be gay. I was closeted into my 20s, until my girlfriend coaxed me into accepting the part of me that liked men. I owe a ton to her when it comes to shedding internalized homophobia and gathering the courage to come out. Most of my family did great with hearing the truth about my sexuality. Some of the more religiously conservative family members were not thrilled—and didn’t hide it—but I was most nervous to tell my dad. At the time, he saw homosexuality and masculinity as mutually exclusive, and he esteemed masculinity so much that any threat to that concept was repulsive to him. I didn’t want him to see me as someone lesser by telling him the truth. Most people were accepting and loving. Some were challenged by the idea. Eventually, most people who didn’t immediately accept me came around. It just took time.” —Eric, 36, Brooklyn, NY
The Skin That I'm In
“I can’t recall the exact age, but I always kind of knew I was gay—just like some people prefer no scallions in their miso soup. But I didn’t officially come out until I was 26. The reactions from my family were mixed; most of them were not welcoming. The stigma of being gay in the Black community then was not the same as it is today. It was hard. The worst part was the isolation from people I thought loved and cared about me. The label or box I was supposed to fit in or people expected out of me once I was now ‘gay’ needed to be a stereotype, and they needed that from me to feel comfortable with themselves. Once I learned I didn’t have to change my personality and who I was to appeal to a stereotype of what Black men are portrayed as in the gay community, I was free to do what I want. I stopped caring about all the things that had been put on me from others that were not my responsibility or weight to carry. You could call it a case of the ‘f**k-its.’” —Shawn, 39, Cedar Rapids, IA
“The truly definitive moment about understanding my sexuality was in eighth grade, when I had my first guy crush that progressed into actual conversation and a mutual, if unspoken, understanding that we liked each other. We wrote each other notes every day, rode the same bus to school, and flirted endlessly. I remember being so stressed at the conflict I felt, but also so excited being able to talk to someone in that way for the first time. Looking back on it now, it's one of my most cherished memories and something I'm happy that little me got to experience in a way that didn't end in anything traumatic or hurtful.
When it came to people knowing, my mom and my younger brother were the only people whose opinions I was interested in. After I got their support and approval, I didn't really care what anyone else had to say or how they felt. I was already paying for my own schooling, my own bills etc. so I didn't have the threat of being put out or cut off. Because of that, I didn't really ‘come out’ to anyone else in my family, I just showed up as me and everybody adjusted. I know I'm fortunate in that regard, so I'm really thankful that my experience was as uneventful as it was.” —Ryan, 35, Dallas, TX
“It was so freeing to start dating in public versus being closeted.”
It Was Written
“I had inklings that I was attracted to men early on, but I considered myself bisexual because I had crushes on women and even dated girls in high school and the beginning of college. The turning point for me was when I realized that with men, I was completely invested—emotionally, physically, romantically, sexually—and I couldn't say the same about women. Coming out is a process you kind of have to deal with forever. My first coming out was to my twin sister, whom I told about my feelings for other boys when we were 13. The time I consider to be my ‘official’ coming out was when I was 24 and told my mother. I had previously tried to have the conversation with her in person and over the phone but always ended up backing out. I figured if I put it in writing, there was no room for me to squirm away. So I told my mother via email. Soon after I sent it, she called me crying and she assured me that her tears weren't about me being gay. Instead, she let me know that she was crying because she knew how I probably was in pain over it and it was a struggle that I didn't have to go through alone. She cried for me and with me, but she also assured me that I was and would always be loved and accepted.” —Donté, 41, Dallas, TX
Out and About
“So much of being closeted is holding yourself back due to perceived expectations people have of you, and the ideas around masculinity. Once I came out, I stopped worrying about that altogether. I was in a relationship when I was closeted and that was fine because my boyfriend was also closeted. So, the dynamic was doable, but it started to weigh on me over time. The reality of not being able to discuss the person you love is not worth maintaining. That felt like a prison for me. We eventually broke up after two-and-a-half years because I was ready to live my truth, and he wasn’t. It was so freeing to start dating in public versus being closeted and dating. Living that double life is truly exhausting and it only hurts you in the long run.” —Aiden*, 43, Toronto, Canada
*Name changed at subject’s request