Eric Marcus

In Search of Pride

Filed By Eric Marcus | June 25, 2008 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: bringing your whole self to work, closet cases, coming out of the closet, gay pride, shame, Unilever

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.

Happy Pride!


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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 25, 2008 9:21 AM

Eric, thank you for your thoughtful introspection. In my business life I considered myself "out" but being Gay was not the first thing I expressed to a Department store buyer or store owner. I first concentrated on being best informed, a soft closer who could explain the merits of his product against any competition. We built relationships with our customers that lasted in good times and bad. We represented ten to twelve companies at a time, and I assure you it was constant homework. My factories all knew and there was never a factory gift with did not include both of us.

After I had established myself with a customer as among their best I might have shared my life IF they asked about my wife or family. If it was the right customer (virtually everyone) I would immediately be honest about it and announce that my life partner was a man, a 13 year air force vet, a former bank vp and you can reach him on the phone in the office as he is now my office manager. On my way out the door of the store or office I would also say: "I guess you know now that I will never lie to you."

Just today I received a thoughtful handwritten letter from a former customer. (I sold the business in 2002.

I never led with being gay as, frankly, I thought it was bad manners in a business setting (remember I started in 1976 and began my own company in 1980). I consider it something personal and somewhat rude to ask a hetero person: "What positions do you best enjoy in bed?" I thought of it that way and I feel just the same way now. One can be "Out and Proud," but we have a responsibility to ourselves to do so in a manner which concentrates on the best we can be in life. Lots of folks just make noise when they should make sense. Anyone who peeps over your shoulder at what you are reading deserves whatever they see. I have been a back sufferer for some years. I'll share secrets with you for some pain management if you would like. Bil will forward you my email I am sure as he has even helped me obtain a new friend in Thailand.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 25, 2008 9:33 AM

Oops, now I suppose someone is going to call me assimilationist. I have heard that word thrown around a lot during a spirited argument here. I always felt the six people I directly employed and the thousands I employed indirectly (both in manufacturing and retail) would have considered me...what is that word...quite antique...oh yes, responsible.

The tittle of Gay or Transgender could be interchanged through out you article.
In my early transition I attended a gender group meeting and announced " I am aware that my skills are lacking but I am empowered by my self awareness and pride to function normally in society"
On the way home that night I stopped at a store and sat for a hour too petrified to open the door.
I then felt shame for letting myself down and guilt for letting my friends and the very ideals and history of transpride down.
But until now I never would have admitted it publicly.
Thank you Eric. In your selfless desire to help others I see the beauty of your humanity and hope that I share in it.
P.S. we are all works in progress.

Thanks for the honesty, Eric. It helps all of us of a certain age.

Robert, you aren't assimilationist. Most people first doing business with a service provider don't care about the provider's life, they care about the service. Obviously you don't need your life partner's photo on your desk, as you can walk down the hall and see him in person. If the customer wants to know, you tell him. But I don't usually pry into the life of my car repairman, accountant, optometrist, etc. I want to know when the car/ tax return/ glasses will be ready.

Eric, thank you so much for your very honest post. I can relate to what you are saying. I always say that coming out is a lifelong process for us. And I think you've just given a prime example of this. I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one who still has days when I'm not feeling as much pride as I could. Like you say, though, it's an ideal to aspire towards.

I think all of us have been there. Sometimes in the subway I'm angst-y about taking Alberto's hand, but then I'm like, weren't we just making out on the bridge?

It's all a big mess, it seems.

We've all been there, Eric. Thanks for sharing such an intimate story with us. I realize how much it must have taken to put it all down in writing and opening yourself up to the whole internet to read. That's amazing and something to be proud of as well.

Fascinating article!

Pride is indeed a process that grows and grows and grows over a lifetime. It's when we can truly put aside what Donna Rose defines as the "unholy trinity" of fear, guilt and shame, and just be who we are and love who we love.

I transitioned back in 1973, but it took until this year that I felt comfortable wearing an NCTE
button - everywhere. I am proud of this.

I will not be ashamed to be who I am. If someone has a problem with that, that's their problem, not mine.

Everyone is on their own personal journey, and each one has his/her own comfort level. Some day, hopefully, each of us will reach this point when we refuse to buy into the need to please "them," whoever "them" is, and just be ourselves. We'll all be happier for it.