Jason Collins' decision to come out electrified the country—and not only for political reasons. Everyone wrestles with the struggle between fear and authenticity. Coming out is an act of heroism we're all called to—and you don’t have to be gay to join the party. This post will offer a simple exercise for naming your "personal closets," and gently liberating yourself from their hold.
It’s an inspiring irony: As I explain in Deeper Dating, the parts of ourselves we’re most timid about embracing are the very parts that can lead us to our greatest potential in life and in love. Yet courage alone is never enough to free us from the thrall of fear and shame that holds us back. For that, we need support.
I first met my friend Michael Clemente in college. With one sentence, he opened up my world. At the time, I was reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road; required reading for every post-hippie college student. Michael told me he had read it as well, but that he didn’t like it because the characters were so unkind to each other.
I was stunned. I had been out of the closet since high school, but I still didn’t know that guys were even allowed to say things like that. I had never encountered a male so unashamed of his gentleness. Through his freedom, Michael gave me my North Star. For the first time, I could envision dismantling a lifelong wall I had constructed--against myself. I’ve done my best to follow that revelation since I met Michael, and it has led me to a great deal of love.
Dr. Evelyn Hooker, whose groundbreaking research led to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness, would quote the novelist Finn Carling: "I am not only studying homosexuals, but I am studying refugees, because they teach me the meaning of movement. I am studying the blind, because they will teach me the meaning of sight, of vision. I am studying homosexuals, because they will teach me the meaning of love.”
When we’re denied love, our battle to reclaim it teaches everyone what love really means. Virtually every LGBT person is forced to make a choice: We must choose between self-acceptance and self-loathing. Truth and safety. Yet this choice is universal. It's bigger than sexual orientation or gender identity. It's everyone’s challenge. Being the first to say “I love you.” Expressing a part of ourselves we’ve hidden from everyone. Standing up for an unpopular idea. Saying “no” to our own guilt and shame so we can move ahead with what really matters to us. There are countless ways to come out.
Not that it’s easy: To choose self-acceptance, we most cross over high voltage trip-wires of fear, shame and the risk of disapproval, rejection and even physical danger.
Until we take the scary leap, we won’t know how the world will receive us. If we’re met with derision or worse, we will be wounded; perhaps terribly. But when we’re met with acceptance, even delight, it’s freedom. We feel self-validation at the deepest levels. It's as though we are finally given license to meet the world skin-to-skin. That’s when we glimpse our capacity for greatness; for life-changing love. As Gandhi said, “love is the prerogative of the brave.”
There is a small but tremendously potent question we can ask to discover our own personal “closet,” and a mindfulness practice to overcome our fear of stepping out of it. I encourage you to try it now. It won’t take more than a minute or two. I think you’ll love it.
Take a moment to reflect: In your life now, what is your closet? Is there an action you’re afraid to take? A part of yourself you're afraid to reveal? An emotional truth that is hard to share with a loved one? Or perhaps a creative pursuit you’re afraid to try, or a scary step you need to take.
Whatever it is, don’t try to push through it. Simply hold the desire along with the fear. Try to feel the humanity in both parts, as if you were holding two hurt children you love, one on each knee. Rest for a moment with them. Simply feel the beating heart of your own humanity in this struggle. Just by this simple act of self-compassion, you will move closer to your personal freedom.
Michael remained my friend and mentor until his death in 1991. I loved him urgently.When he was diagnosed with AIDS, he began a fierce fight toward self-healing. He knew that his healing would center on revealing the very truths he was most afraid to tell.
More than anything, that meant coming out to his parents. Even though he was living with his partner, he had never said the word “gay” to them—and he was petrified. After he came out (they were wonderful), he wrote this poem:
I Held On To My Secret
I held on to my secret tightly
Hid it behind my teeth
Choked it in my throat
Crushed it in my chest
Was dwarfed by it, humiliated by it
Chased by it
I stepped over the edge when I revealed my secret
but it didn't hurt
My other foot simply landed
It was, after all, no revelation
The pain I was protecting myself from
by carrying my secret
was the pain I was inflicting on myself
by carrying my secret
There is no worse pain than that of isolation. Whatever our closet, we can’t come out without the support of others. We need each other. As Ellen DeGeneres said to Jason Collins, “Because of you, there is a little boy playing basketball right now who knows that he can be who he is and play the sport that he loves.”
When we speak our scary truth. we open a path for others who are still afraid to do so. We give them the thrilling realization that freedom is a possibility, that there might be a place for them in the world. In so doing, we validate the people like Jason Collins who bravely came before us, and we pay it forward to those who are still too afraid to speak. Then the path of authenticity starts to feel like a path to freedom; a path we can stop walking alone.
© 2013 Ken Page, LCSW. All Rights Reserved
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