I had an experience on the NYC subway last week that reminded me that no matter how out I am, no matter how many books I've written, speeches I've given, or how much advice I've offered, that being out and proud remains an elusive goal for me.
On Thursday morning during rush hour I got on a half-empty northbound "E" train at 23rd Street. I walked to the middle of the car and grabbed onto a pole--I've been having trouble with my back so sitting is torture.
As we pulled out of the station, I started reading through an almost final draft of a workshop I was set to lead that afternoon at Unilever's corporate headquarters in New Jersey. The topic of the workshop, which was sponsored by Unilever's gay employee group, was "Bringing Your Whole Self to Work"--essentially, how to be out on your job and why that's a good thing for both the employees and the company.
The event's title and subtitle, which were not my choice, studiously avoided the word "gay." That seemed a little retrograde and closet-y to me, but I've long since learned that in a corporate setting you meet people at their comfort level and let them push the envelope when they feel ready. Still, I didn't want them to be too comfortable, so the word "gay" was all over the page I was reading on the subway--in 16-point type--because I wanted to be sure to use it plenty of times in my workshop.
At the 34th Street station, scores of commuters piled on. Suddenly I was surrounded by guys in business suits and within seconds I was feeling very self-conscious and embarrassed. What if someone standing next to me or behind me saw what I was reading and thought I was gay? My first instinct was to put away the draft.
Then I thought to myself that I couldn't let my fears of what people might think get the best of me--especially given that in a few hours I'd be standing in front of a hundred Unilever employees, including the company's straight, pro-gay, president, to talk about bringing your whole self to work. And here I was, having trouble bringing my whole self on the subway!
But I couldn't concentrate and before we got to 42nd Street I'd safely stowed the offending pages. I felt totally embarrassed and ashamed--and I felt totally embarrassed and ashamed that I felt totally embarrassed and ashamed. Even worse, I knew I was going to have to share this experience with the people at Unilever. How could I have any credibility with them--and any credibility with myself!--if I didn't explain that I still struggle with my own fears of being out and my shame about being gay?
I've been out of the closet since 1976--that's when I first came out to myself and started coming out to friends and family. But I've found that it's one thing to be out and to put a positive spin on being gay and an entirely different--and much more difficult--challenge to embrace the idea of gay pride and to feel pride about being gay in my heart of hearts.
I can give you a long list of reasons why we should all feel proud of being gay and proud of our gay heritage. (And I've got the TV and radio clips to prove that it's a subject I know well and about which I can speak passionately.) But over all this time I've never managed to replace the instinctive shame I feel about being gay with the consistent sense of pride that I know I'm supposed to feel. And I fear that this is something I will struggle with for the rest of my life.
It was surprisingly easy to admit to the people at the Unilever workshop that I'm not a post-gay homosexual who wears his pride confidently. Among the employees who grew up when I did--in the 1960s and 1970s--there was a recognition that we share common ground having come of age at a time when homosexual shame was a given and gay pride was a battle cry.
I think gay pride is a great goal, however elusive that goal has proven to be for me. But I'm done pretending that my gay pride is a natural fit and automatic. I'm gay. I'm out virtually all of the time. I've worked hard to feel good about myself. Sometimes I feel a sense of pride about being gay. Most often I feel neutral. And on occasion I feel ashamed. There are worse things.