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OutServe Magazine | October 26, 2012

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Coming Out: Honoring the Dead

Coming Out: Honoring the Dead
Jeremy Johnson

This is the last in a series of blogs on National Coming Out Day 2012 (October 11), focusing on personal experiences related to revelations about sexual orientation.

As National Coming Out Day passes once more, and the opportunity to see all the coming out messages on FB and Twitter begins to fade into the streams and news feeds of constantly renewing information, I’ve taken the time to reflect on my own coming out.

My initial timid utterance of the words, “I’m gay,” came at the age of 18. Since then, I’ve come out on every end of the coming out spectrum – from a quiet utterance to a friend, to a grand post on the front of – and it is always the same rush.

I always wait for the backlash that almost never comes.

I decided to come out to my family in 1999 at the age of 22. It was the hardest thing I’d done in life at that point and required telling four parents in a period of several days. I would focus on the trials and tribulations that followed, but those don’t matter. Not this time.

What matters is my motivation. What matters is that I came out because people died and I didn’t want my own life to end in miserable tragedy.

I was raised – as I said – by four parents: my stepmother and father, and my mother and my stepfather. My stepfather was divorced with two adult children when he began courting my mother. Her pregnancy with his third child led to nuptials.

As a child – I didn’t really hear “gay”… what I heard, in elementary school (late 1980s), was about my step-uncle – Robert Johnson. What happened and is embedded in my memory is the speed with which the tragedy went down. My stepfather began taking regular flights to Florida to visit his dying youngest brother, but there weren’t many, and they didn’t last long. He died of  ”cancer”. He died of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS.

It was at its deadliest peak in this country, and Bob was someone who had come out late in life, after marrying a wife, having kids, and realizing all too late that it just wasn’t going to work. According to the family, he’d been disowned by his children, but was living with his “lover” when he died. My stepfather had been visiting him as he was dying… and I don’t know many more details beyond this. He was cremated, and a simple stone now sits in the family plot – near what would later be his parents and my mother’s plots.

After he was diagnosed, he flew to his parent’s home in Virginia and told them he was gay; and they rejected the notion.  He said he was dying, and they simply couldn’t handle the truth.  According to his folks, he died of cancer, and that’s what they told anyone who asked.

My stepfather’s trials weren’t over though… he’d spent his younger life as an alcoholic and bitter on the outside; he was angry and dangerous, and mentally abusive to his children, physically to his wives. His daughter Pamela grew up and came out as a lesbian with aspirations of her own – to be a member of the clergy. She battled with depression and, I suppose, connecting somehow with her father. As far as she was concerned – it would never happen. She was rejected for a position in the clergy, and lost her battle with depression when she put a loaded pistol in her mouth out in the woods.

She left a letter behind that was a scathing damnation of the man she called “father” and instructions on what to do with her dog. She was also cremated, and given a memorial plate next to her gay uncle’s in the family plot.

These two deaths set in motion my passion for activism.

AIDS and suicide. The very things that we see as problems today were just as much of a threat twenty years ago.

I refused to be another victim. Something stirred in me and while it took close to 10 years to get up the guts to come out to my parents – I decided with Pamela’s death that I wouldn’t be the gay family member who was the open secret.

I wanted to be honest, and wanted to avoid being talked about behind my back when people wondered why I wasn’t dating women. Family matters to me and I wanted my life to ALWAYS be integrated with them. I wanted my boyfriend to be able to meet my family, and the last three have. All of my parents have struggled with the truth, but over time, they have all come to support me as an individual – if not the part of my life they see as “gay”.

My stepfather – tragedies already behind him and wizened by the losses – simply told me to brace for impact and take care in who I told. The world isn’t kind, he said. And to some degree he was right… but on oh so many counts, he was wrong.

Coming out has great power. It casts light on the darkness and robs the shame from those who do the shaming. It allows us to own our identity and be unapologetic to those who would judge us simply because they can’t comprehend loving someone of the same gender. Staying in the closet may be the answer for many – for now – but for empowerment to happen, we must all, always, be looking for the opportunities to be authentic; to tell our stories and don’t let those who died before us be lost in vain. Learn from their despair, and take solace in the great strides we’ve made in giving voice to an LGBT generation.

Be bold. Stand up. Be counted. Make it your goal to be remembered for being you, not for your “secret”… When the time is right, you’ll know, and we’ll be here for you, waiting with open arms to welcome you into the family of those who will never reject you over saying, “I am who I am.”

Jeremy Johnson
  • On 12, Oct 2012
  • Jeremy Johnson is the blog editor for OutServe Magazine, and is co-lead of the DC/MD/NoVA/DE Chapter of OutServe. He is currently a full-time sociology student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Prior to beginning his college education, Jeremy served 10 years as an active duty journalist in the United States Navy. He was discharged under the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy in May of 2007. On September 22, 2011, Johnson became one of the first DADT dischargees in the nation to publicly reenlist in the military, joining the U.S. Navy Reserves at the same rank and position he left. Jeremy volunteers with The 6th Branch in Baltimore City, MD, as a board member and primary team member on "Operation: Oliver", a veteran-sponsored community revitalization project. See more from this contributor.