On Coming Out

As always, the OutServe membership continues to impress me with their strength and courage. I am extremely proud of every troop who submitted their picture and bio to be published in this issue of OutServe Magazine. Coming out is never an easy process, and doing so in such a public manner makes you a prime example for other troops who are currently struggling with their own sexuality.

Now that DADT no longer looms over America’s military, many of its troops now face a new, and equally difficult challenge: the process of coming out. The stresses and uncertainty of how people will react can be paralyzing, especially if you really care about the person you are telling.

For me, coming out to my parents was one of the hardest challenges I have had to face. While the possibility of them not accepting me for who I am was terrifying, I knew I couldn’t continue to hide from them. I toyed around with the idea for a while, and can vividly recall sitting on the couch at my friend Derek’s house this past January. We had a deep and philosophical discussion about being gay and in the military, and after hearing about how he came out to his parents, my mind was made up. The next time I saw my Mom and Dad, I was going to tell them.

Coming out, I firmly believe, is part art and part science…over the next few months, I deliberated on the logistics of the matter. First off, I decided to tell them face to face. No other means of communicating the message seemed adequate or respectful enough. I knew my parents would have questions to which I owed an answer on the spot – no phone call or handwritten letter would do.

The next decision I had to make was a matter of syntax. I needed to find the right words, which turned out to be easier said than done. I was worried about there being too much build-up. If I danced around the subject too long I feared the conversation would either get sidetracked and I would whimp out, or they would assume something was seriously wrong. Is our son in trouble? Is he dropping out of the military? Is he getting deployed somewhere dangerous? I didn’t want to do that to them.

For the next two months, I practiced telling them. In the aviation community, we call this “chair-flying”, and I did a lot of it. I found myself practicing whenever I was alone. On more than one occasion, I’m sure I was that crazy person carrying on an imaginary conversation from across the traffic light.

After work one Friday, I made the six hour drive home. That night, I went out to dinner with my parents, and afterwards, met up with some of my best friends from high school. I told my buddy Mike, who is also gay and out to his parents, what I was up to. As he gave me a huge hug and told me how proud he was, I made him promise to not let me chicken out.

Even though I could barely sleep that night, the next day seemed to come all too quickly. Just as I had planned, I took them to lunch, went shopping with my dear, sweet mother, and spent the day with them. Call it “buttering them up,” but I wanted to remind my parents of how much I love them … and in the event of that worst case scenario, I could have one last, great day together with Mom and Dad.

As soon as we got back to the house, I told them I needed to talk to them about something. Before my parents could scatter about their Saturday business, I brought them into the family room and let them get comfortable. At long last, the “chair-flying” paid off and the words came out flawlessly:

“Mom, Dad, I’m tired of hiding a big part of my life and not being entirely honest with you. I’m gay.”

I knew at some point they would have something to say, so I paused there to give them a chance to speak. I think they were still too shell-shocked at this point to say anything, so I continued on.

We talked for the next two hours, I continued to tell them how being gay was no big deal and that my relationship with them was unchanged. I still loved them, still wanted to get married and adopt a kid or two, and was still the same son they did such a good job of raising.

The conversation ended with a big hug between the three of us. I decided to give them some alone time to talk without me. I left the house for a few hours, and my mother said she has never seen my father cry so hard. Initially, it was hard on them … but I must say, I’m impressed at the courage they displayed as they promised to support me – no matter what.

Unfortunately not every coming out story will have a happy ending like mine. Call me old fashioned, but I firmly believe having support back on the home front is important to doing a good job in the military. Why fight if there is nothing at home worth fighting for? I am lucky to have such great parents, and am glad I could be there for them through this whole ordeal. They mean the world to me, and I know we have grown stronger as they have taken on the role of the parents of a gay son, and airman.

Karl B. Johnson is an Air Force C-17 pilot who has been serving on active duty since 2008.

  1. Gene F. Barfield
    October 18, 2011 at 9:51 AM

    In a society in which so many face so much pressure to live lives that others have ‘designed’ for them, coming out to one’s family must be one of the most challenging decisions a person can face. How many of us know people whose life direction has been limited for them by choices others have made, about career, about faith in life, about life-partnerships? Even hetero-people are often forced to make such choices, about which their loved ones may have strong, possibly unfavorable opinions which sometimes lead to long periods of strain among family members.

    For those of us who are lgbt and who also have worn or now wear the nation’s uniform those choices can be far more daunting. The relief afforded by the end of DADT is palpable, but should not be taken as the final necessary accomplishment, as we continue to explore this new territory both within the Armed Forces, within our circle of friends and family, and within ourselves. I know of no other population segment in our society which is called on together and individually to find and then to deploy the depth of thought and the degree of personal courage needed to face such decisions.

    My ten years in the Navy required much thought and some courage. Nobody who serves on a submarine in the essentially hostile environment of undersea deployment can forget how they felt and how they coped with the jitters associated with their first dive, no matter how many times their boat had accomplished this maneuver and no matter how blase their more experienced shipmates seemed to them at the thought of prepping for the next dive.

    But nothing compared to the struggle of coming out to my father in the spring of 1990 when, as a vet who was about to graduate magna cum laude from Norwich University in Vermont (America’s oldest military college) as its’ first openly gay grad I had to come out to Dad. I was out to everyone at that time, except Dad. I had been heavily involved for seven years in the effort to pass Vermont’s civil rights legislation, and everyone around me knew I was gay and had found a life-partner while in the Navy. Except Dad.

    That Dad must have suspected, or perhaps even had made a factual observation or conclusion was something I considered. Since Tim and I met (29 years ago now) he’d been a frequent visitor in our home, even while we were on active duty and stationed together, but especially since we left the Service, bought a home in Vermont and were obviously a couple to anyone who had eyes to see. But saying something – making that leap – putting it right out there was different.

    It was also necessary. Life on campus was a constant battle against bigotry and sometimes just raw hate. I had received an anonymous note from persons claiming to be my classmates threatening me if I dared to attend Commencement. Honestly, my thoughts were that I’d be damned if I’d knuckle under to that kind of threat because I busted my ass, academically and otherwise, to earn that degree and the right to accept it at Commencement.

    But Dad would be attending, so I had to prepare, and be prepared for a possible incident.

    After everything else I’d faced up to that point, being gay in the Navy (like many others I was quite ‘out’ to many of my shipmates but the threat was always there – I’d been investigated once and it was a passage through hell), being gay in our society, having friends and acquaintances beaten up and, in three instances beaten to death for being gay, and then the early years of the AIDS epidemic where a positive HIV status was still a death sentence, you’d think that coming out to my father might not have been such a fearful thought. Mom (my parents were long divorced and were not in contact with each other) knew – she found out when I was in high school and reacted horribly (my step-father beat me up and I got thrown out of the house). I’d been thrown out of my church when I came out to my minister, who refused to pray for my best friend when he was dying of AIDS. (This happened when I was still on active duty, making it terribly hard to find the means to cope, and to mourn when that friend and far, far too many others died.)

    It would be unwise, I think, to believe that those kinds of responses and rejections did not color my thoughts as I contemplated how to come out to Dad. The simple act itself, of just telling him, made all your comments about rehearsing the words more than familiar. And I had a hard deadline – I had to do it before Commencement.

    I put it off and put it off until late in the spring of ’90. Nobody helped by postponing graduation day. My postponing could only go on for so long. Finally, Dad invited me to meet him upstate New York for a fishing trip a few weeks before Commencement and I knew I’d have no other chance. I planned and planned, thinking I’d meet him, do some fishing and get it over with. When that weekend arrived I drove from Vermont to New York and spent the entire weekend totally crazy, and let the clock run out. It was already two hours after the time I knew I had to head home when I finally told him I needed to talk with him, and did the deed. He took it much better than I thought possible, and as I left and drove home, aside from having to stop every ten minutes and pee in relief, it was a happy time.

    I never told Dad or anyone else except Tim (my hubby) that I had active duty and former military friends there on Commencement Day, who willingly, but unnecessarily as it turned out, served as bodyguards for my family in case something happened. When I accepted my diploma some members of the faculty were very vocal, cheering and applauding. I don’t know if it was because I graduated so high in my class, or because they, at least some of them, knew how much I had to struggle to keep my head on straight in a frequently hostile campus environment. I know it was the latter for at least a few of them.

    We should not have to struggle for something so ordinary as to be accepted as who and what we are. But we sometimes do. When our elders told us in grade school that fairness in life would be something we could rely on as we grew older they were shielding us from some hard truths. It isn’t always fair, and it isn’t always good. And there is love, and there is unlove. But that’s life. That’s why when we find fairness, when we find goodness we are so very, very much entitled to savor it, as we must. And love needs no explanation or defense. Only unlove does.

    Not everyone has a positive experience in coming out. Not everyone finds the love of their life. Not everyone is healthy, or happy or secure. And so we work, and the effort goes on. I think it’s called life.

    Those of us who have known the fear of not being accepted as who we are – for whatever reason – have this cause to pursue. And pursuing it, to make a better world for everyone else around us and who is to come after us is what molds and strengthens our selves and our character for the days ahead. And we find kindred souls, and often from that effort, we find the happiness and the security and the love that sustains us.

    It strikes me as apt that those of us who have chosen to serve this nation are also so purposefully prepared and appropriately placed to serve that part of the nation – it’s collective character – which is completely aside from it’s physical defense. I watch the contentiousness of present political life and cannot help but note how sadly many people there are, including some who pose as leaders, who say nice things but whose actions demonstrate that they do not really wish to share our nation with people they see as different from them. And then I see the kinds of people, people like those who make up OutServe and I am made strong and proud to know that our goal is to create and maintain a strong nation in which the fundamental purpose is to share it and its’ blessings with all others, no matter who and what they are. Common purpose, and common life with such people gives the strength that sustains.

    It is hard sometimes, to make the leap of faith that coming out represents. When one considers, though, the costs of not coming out, of not offering the clear and enduring message and the inescapable imperative of inclusive life, or the energies and time spent concealing simple and really rather ordinary truths about the variety of life, it is much, much costlier and harder not to come out.

    So often we find that the people around us react to us based, at least in part, on the cues they receive from us. When you have accepted your own self exactly as you find it to be, then at least two good things will happen: 1) You will have already found the strength to sustain yourself no matter how the people around you respond – you only have to look within to see it there for your use; and 2) more often than not when you have your head on straight about who you are and what you’re all about, nearly everyone else, since most people are good people, will take your presence as exactly who you are at face value and move ahead with it, even if slowly at first.

    That’s one of many reasons why sharing your coming out story is so critically important. It’s proof that no matter how afraid we might have been to do so, the overwhelming majority of us have made it through that process and are free now to live our lives as they need to be lived: openly, honestly, and without all the stupid encumbrances which cost us so much that they sap our strength for the real tasks of importance: life, love, and keeping this whole shebang moving in the right direction.

    Which is ahead.

    So my wish for you is that you go from strength to strength. Ahead.

  2. Ken Yocum
    September 25, 2011 at 9:53 PM

    I’m extremely proud of you for facing your greatest fear – I can only imagine that it was a bigger fear than serving our country. I’m not in the military, but, went through a very similar experience when I came out of a 26 relationship with my ex-wife and having 4 children. You’re right that not all experiences are this happy; my parents & siblings separated themselves from me during that time and have no contact with me still. I’m very proud of your parents and please let them know that I have great respect for them to support you; the same loving son they’ve always know and will get to know a more authentic man!

  3. Shenan
    September 20, 2011 at 12:08 PM

    Sometimes it is hard, some parents do not make it easy on their children especially when it comes to their personal life and their lifestyle. My mother made it extremely easy on my brother and it allowed him to be proud of who he is. I am very proud to serve with openly gay military members…since I serve in the Air Force as well. Good for you and I am proud of you!

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