This weekend I had the amazing opportunity to speak at the esteemed Fenway Health in Boston. I was thrilled and humbled to partner with the devoted team from this outstanding organization. Fenway Health has been a shining star for over 40 years, providing services and a voice to a community that the rest of the medical profession was so hesitant to address. I couldn’t believe that I was lucky enough to be part of their story even in a tiny way.
The room was full; gay men made up the majority of the audience. They were all sizes, ages and races, each of them unique and lovely in their own way. I was lucky enough to stand before them and chatter away; they were so warm and friendly that I felt like part of the group immediately. I think I saw each of them smile at least once, if not several times, and I will cherish those grins for a long time.
After all, I had the audacity, as a straight woman who has generally lived within the expected social confines of gender identity and sexual preferences, to stand up and try to talk about ways to bring more fun into their romantic lives. I spoke to them as if their right to an exciting romantic life was in fact a right they could take for granted. As if it wasn’t an issue that has even recently led to hate crimes and violent death. I treated their right to sexual satisfaction as a given; an entitlement. I was wrong to do so.
As diverse a group as this was, these men all had one thing in common. They had somehow, with courage they probably didn’t know they had, managed to “come out” to their friends, family and probably professionally. They had to openly acknowledge their sexual self and desires. By doing so, they knew they were opening themselves up to judgement, undeserved hatred, possible violence and discrimination among so many other things. Yet, they did so. And they had found ways to survive well enough to join us for brunch this weekend celebrating their choices. They also were gracious enough to welcome me kindly and warmly.
During my presentation, I was lighthearted about the fact that they had already “come out”. I had the nerve to suggest that since they had done it once before they could do it again, this time to accept any taste for non stereotypical gay male interactions. I acted as though acknowledging our different preferences is easy and without threat of rejection or emotional pain. I am disappointed in myself that I failed to acknowledge how difficult it is to come out; I had no right to make light of it or to have the nerve to push them further without recognizing the price that is often paid. Coming out is a hugely brave act of courage and faith, and despite my cavalier attitude, I have enormous respect for everyone who has crossed that bridge.
I am a bit ashamed that I came to this revelatory insight only because of my own situation. I have been fretting about my own feelings of vulnerability as I promote a business that falls well outside other people’s comfort zone. In a very small way, I have been undergoing my own similar process. I often feel that I am declaring myself a sexual radical, an outsider, a “weirdo” by publicly proclaiming that I WANT to talk openly about intimacy and sexuality. I BELIEVE that current sexual norms in our society are not healthy for people and relationships. And worst of all, I LIKE sex. (Did you hear that all too common, sharp intake of breath at the shock caused by that simple statement?) How brazen is it for me to admit this other than in a reluctant whisper to my closest friends? Although I hide behind the veil of my business as I discuss these matters, the unstated crux of the matter is that if my advice is to have any credence, I must have some experience. Thus, even strangers meeting me for the first time who inquire innocently about what I do for a living are suddenly shocked by the change in their own impression of me as I answer. Almost always, I see their expressions shift as they adjust their expectations of me. In fact, I suppose it gets even worse, because as I tell them about my business, they are pushed to consider their own perception about the role of romance in their life or to move on to safer topics of discussion like the weather. My “coming out” to them is unexpected and not necessarily welcome. It is often felt to be indelicate; obtrusive.
I generally handle the awkwardness with humor. I chuckle and tell people that they aren’t the only ones shocked or uncomfortable with the topic of intimacy and romantic relationships. Sometimes I confound them further by telling them that I much prefer their shocked reaction to the negative responses I invariably got in my first career when I had to admit I was a divorce attorney. (“From shark to slut” probably crosses some minds, but as much as I like the alliteration, I remember that I am neither.) I try not to take it personally when people look at me like I am a crazy (or worse) woman for venturing into this “sensitive” arena of interpersonal relationships. Yet, regardless of my outward joviality, I am constantly defending/justifying myself trying to avoid the disapproval/disdain of others. That isn’t fun. I worry that I may never fit in at social occasions or people will not include me in events because their friends may not be comfortable with me. I feel like I am living on an edge; I have to be very careful to keep my place.
However, I have nothing to complain about compared to a person forced to come out in order to live openly as their true self. The fact is that while I believe that sexual education is my calling, I fully recognize that I have a choice in how I find my way professionally. If the struggles I find are too great, I can create a different path with less resistance. I can live a beautiful life without “coming out” too far. The same isn’t true for the beautiful souls I met this weekend, or all the other men and women out there who must “come out” if they are to live their life as they need. The bias and ugliness they may face is almost impossible for straight people to comprehend; few of us are well able to imagine what we have no experience with. Despite how far our country has come with respect to gay rights, it is still absolutely true that on a personal level, each and every openly gay person probably “comes out” to someone new every day. Each of those encounters creates a significant and real fear of negative consequences, personally, professionally, and even physically. Acknowledging one’s sexual self is still far from easy these days. For many people, the price required makes it almost impossible. This sad fact is one I had forgotten for a while, but it was driven home for me this weekend. I am grateful for the reminder though beyond sad for the reality.
I want to publicly acknowledge the bravery of the people I met this weekend and all the others who have courageously outed themselves despite consequences great and small. Bold, brave hearts reside within each of you and I am full of admiration. I learned so much from you this weekend. Each of you inspire me and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.