'Round the Fence
By Thomas Metz
My Coming Out Story. What can
I say? It's like every other Coming Out Story. Funny how a lifetime
of gothic dread and drama seems pretty ho-hum when everyone you
know has gone through the same thing.
I was born in Durham, North Carolina,
in 1960. Dad was in medical school there, at Duke. Mom taught school.
Yes, I knew I was different even then. In kindergarten I played
with the girls at recess. Score one for the stereotypes. Kelly Brown
was my "girlfriend," and we scandalized the other kids by kissing
on the lips. I was a little too well-behaved for a boy. My parents
actually began to make jokes about my amiable "okay" to every request
at chore time. But it wasn't always so amiable. For one thing, I
sang like a girlJulie Andrews, specifically, because I listened
to "The Sound of Music," and memorized every song. I fashioned
a skirt from an old Army blanket and twirled around the living room
like Leslie Anne Warren in "Cinderella." Both of these
were the focus of parental opprobrium and they stopped by the time
I entered first grade, by which time I was making a concerted effort
to be "normal," unlike my classmate Rickie, whom everyone knew to
be a sissy.
When Dad corrected the girlish
way I held my hands when I walked, I studied how boys were supposed
to walk. When my brother sneered at the way I put on a jacket (over
my shoulder rather than under my elbow to find the sleeve), I didn't
get angry, just paid attention and tried to do better next time.
I was a good student. By the time I was eight, in Ohio, you could
have mistaken me for a normal kid.
But I knew I wasn't. For one thing,
I was physically aroused in the fifth grade when Steven and Roger
whispered in math class about how they ran naked through Roger's
mother's attic. But when they invited me to join them, I knew better
than to accept. When the whole sixth grade went to camp, I came
back with a bad case of weeping fits. Dad quickly put a stop to
that. I couldn't explain why I was crying. It had something to do
with seeing for the first time the other boys and girls begin the
rituals of flirt and parry. Something in me knew even then that
this was important, normal, and good, and I couldn't have it.
But if I couldn't learn to flirt,
I could learn other social skills, and in the seventh grade I asserted
myself and formed a social clique of the brightest kids in my math
class who did everything together: went to the football games, the
swimming pool, the Dairy Queen. These diversions had the important
effect of putting a face of normalcy on the unspoken perversions
I felt in my heart. I was surely the horniest kid in the seventh
grade, and my heart and groin were full of dark thoughts about the
other boys on the track team, especially the eighth-graders, who
were more developed and full of the irresistible arrogance of adolescents
who had discovered their own sex appeal.
Then I was seventeen. I wanted
to die. I prayed for God to change me. I prayed a lot. I was an
acolyte in my church (Lutheran). I was a lay reader on Sundays.
I was treasurer of the Junior Youth Fellowship. I borrowed books
on religion from Pastor Trump. "Mere Christianity," by
C.S. Lewis. I wanted to figure it out: Being homosexual was a sin,
and yet when I prayed to be changed, God wouldn't help me. I even
got my friend Linda to pray with me although I didn't tell
her what we were praying for, it was a silent prayerbecause
I read in the Bible that whenever two or three of you are gathered
in My name, there am I also. And your prayers will be answered.
So He had to hear me then, right?
Then I gave up on God. He made
me a sinner, but He wouldn't let me change. Screw Him.
I tried to date girls. Madhu Rustagi.
I'm sorry Madhu. I really liked you. Jeanine Howe. Liz Witiak. Sorry.
Can we just be friends? I liked kissing anyway ...
This was all in Ohio. It's no
good trying to describe it here. I can't go back and bring you a
picture of what it was like. It was like a nineteenth-century novel.
Anguishing over the moral aspect. Why don't gay people ever get
credit for that? We wrestle with God just like Jacob and that angel
of his. How I wished that angel would visit me. I'd give him the
fight of his life. It was living a lie, living in disguise, trying
to act masculine enough that no one would find out my SECRET, MY
HORRIBLE SECRET. Would I get beat up? Shamed? I was ashamed. Would
my parents still love me if they knew? There was a special tone
of contempt and disgust in his voice that Dad saved for when he
talked about the "queer" at work, or male ballet dancers, or Tommy
Tune, whom I idolized. I learned to keep Tommy Tune a secret. I
met him once when I was an usher for a summer stock show. I wanted
to sing and dance. "What I don't understand is why you would want
to be involved in a line of work that attracts people who are like
that?" What would happen when I grew up? What would happen when
everyone else got married and I didn't? How would I explain?
I read books about Jews a lot.
Anne Frank. Elie Wiesel. Hiding out. It was comforting somehow.
God, don't let them find me out. Please, O Lord, save me. Help me
Driving Dad's Camaro over Wilson
Bridge, back and forth, back and forth. One of these days I'll take
a right-hand turn, just before the spot where the cement part of
the guardrail begins ...
My best friend (I'll call him
"Adam"). Turns out his dad is ... gay! He comes out to the family
just as eleventh-grade Adam is discovering girls. Adam is in a really
bad kind of adolescent pain. I'm good-looking and popular, so Adam
assumes I'll have some answers to the girl stuff. He wants advice.
He presses me. What should he do to make Barb Turner like him? How
should he handle the embarrassment of a gay dad? You're my friend,
Tom, level with me. He just keeps asking me all these questions
... I drop him as a friend, my best friend. He's getting too close
... to my horrible secret.
Then I was in college at Ohio
State, too depressed to get out of bed for class. I got A's on my
tests, then I got F's, depending on the cycle of my mood swings.
I would hold out as long as I could, then withdraw from a class
when it looked like an "F" was imminent, accepting the stigmatizing
"W" on my record since it was better than an "F." Finally, I was
in danger of just plain flunking, in my senior year, and one day
I showed up in Dad's office at the hospital, begging his help. Stammering
and flushed, I finally blurted it out: "I'm queer!"
Dad was not convinced. I didn't
act queer. I confessed to a drunken attempt at sex with a former
roommate. (Dad warned me not to tell him anything I would regret
later.) Did I ever have sex with a girl? No. Then how did I know
for sure? I was just young. Confused. Undeveloped. I had the wrong
kinds of friendships with girls. My friendships with them were too
"serious." I needed to relax about this. I wasn't really queer at
all; the thing to do was just remember that. Would Dad please help
me find a shrink? Well, that was a difficulty. Shrinks couldn't
be trusted. A shrink would probably just try to help me come to
terms with being gay, and we didn't want that. I agreed. Well, could
I at least talk to you about this? I need to talk. It's eating me
up inside. Sure, we'll talk. You'll feel better. Just remember,
you are a good person, whom God and I love. Everything will be fine.
I could have walked on air. I
wasn't really queer. Dad said so. Dad's a doctor. I passed the next
several days and weeks in a euphoric haze. I told my friend Mabel,
the first of my three confidantes in this matter, that I wasn't
really gay after all. False Alarm! Ha, ha! Gosh, what a relief.
I was a regular guy after all. Mabel was a little confused by this
turnabout, following so quickly upon my first tortured confession,
but she seemed to take it in good spirits considering the fact that
she had recently made the same dark confession to me.
It turns out Dad doesn't have
time after all to talk me through my sexual confusion, but it doesn't
seem so important now. I returned to my studies with renewed vigor.
I could do anything. In fact, I could even get accepted into a master's
degree program at the University of Chicago, a fancy brand-name
university with Nobel laureates and ivy-covered archways. I couldn't
wait to start school there next fall.
But first there was one other
minor inconvenience to deal withmy right hand. After typing,
it fatigued quickly and the fingers wouldn't flex open far enough
to strike the keys. I began to see neurologists and neurosurgeons
at Dad's hospital and I was confident that under his direction this
problem would be dispatched as efficiently as the other had been.
Hell, this thing with the hand was nothing. I knew what real trouble
was, and I had survived that. A stupid neuron ailment in one of
my extremities was a day at the beach.
By the time autumn rolled around,
the motor neuron thing was in my legs as well, so I postponed grad
school till the following spring. No sense in courting academic
disaster by trying to gimp it through one of those fabled Chicago
winters. I stayed with Mom and Dad and went to the library a lot
to prep for grad school. Then, only two brief quarters behind schedule,
I matriculated the following spring.
It was complicated. The silly
little motor neuron thing had accumulated several names by now.
Peripheral motor neuropathy. Spinal muscular atrophy. Atypical motor
neuron disease. It's like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, only it
moves more slowly. And it's not so silly anymore. My body is wasting
away. I've lost the function of my right hand and I've learned to
write with my left. I'm wearing braces on both my legs, walking
with a cane. Two hundred fifty milligrams of Prednisone every other
day. I think I'm going to die. And so, I learn years later, does
my neurologist. But I have learned one surefire defense mechanism,
DENIAL. I just pretend it's not happening and somehow I earn a master's
degree, and I'm even accepted into the Ph.D. program. God, am I
proud. But I'm becoming weaker with every passing month.
At the University of Chicago I
meet Jonathan and Irwin. They are perfect and they run the Gay and
Lesbian Alliance. They are smart, cute, Jewish, intellectual, and
they have something I lack: integrity. They never lie about their
sexual orientation. In the face of precipitous decline, things like
integrity are the straws of dignity I can still cling to. It doesn't
stop the slide down, but somehow it is important. I have no God,
I have no hope, and I am going to die. I want a clear conscience.
No more lies.
I go home for Labor Day. It's
a busy weekend. I attend my high school reunion, and I systematically
come out to every member of my immediate family except my little
brother, whom Dad convinces me is too young and impressionable to
hear about such a thing. This weekend is one of the hardest memories.
My mother, sister, and older brother hear the news with poker faces,
not really surprised, not really sure what to say. I act out the
Phil Donahue show in my older brother's living room, explaining
to him and my sister what "gay" means. Mom and Dad are another story.
They wouldn't even show up at my brother's for the discussion.
When I talked to Dad, he closed
the door behind him so no one would hear, then shouted a diatribe
on rimming and child molesters. "What's rimming?" I asked. And I
pointed out that most child molesters are straight men. By now I've
done some reading on the subject. Fact: You take a hundred gay men
and a hundred straight men, and the child molesters are almost all
straight. That's a fact. I'm trying to stick to the facts. I'm trying
to stick to the truth. I need the truth. I'm in trouble. I need
support. I'm slipping, and I'm trying to reach out for support.
Dad says I will never be accepted this way. How many people have
you told? I am ruining my life and he will never "accept" this.
Don't even use that word. And there's another word he doesn't understand.
"Support." What do I mean by that? He literally does not understand
the word. And although I am in a master's degree program for language
and literature, this is a word I can't define. It doesn't matter
what you mean, Dad says, the only way to deal with this is to keep
it a secret. Forget "support."
I am so afraid of the hate I see
in my father's face. I don't know what he may do. There was something
that sounded like a veiled threat, "If you tell your little brother,
I just don't know what I'll do with you." That night I crept into
the kitchen to retrieve my cane and slept with it at my side. Just
The weekend ends
and I am back at school, but it isn't over, because the motor neuron
thing marches on through my body. I know there will come a time
when I am dependent on these people who are so ashamed of me. Who
will feed me? Who will dress me? How will I blow my nose and wipe
Home from school the following
summer. I'm driving over Wilson Bridge again. This time I'm driving
closer to the guardrail. Back at school, briefly, then the worst
happens. That winter I am back living in their house. It's for good
this time. They try. I can't tell you how hard they try. They build
an addition to the house, downstairs because I can't do stairs.
This is where I will live. They do things for me. Dad, who has an
especially gentle touch, clips my toenails for me. My sister takes
me to the grocery store with her, so I get out of the house. My
older brother takes me to a movie. My little brother pours my coffee.
Mom makes my meals, washes my clothes, takes me to doctors. She
finds clothes for me that have elastic and velcro. No buttons, no
snaps, no zippers, no ties. She helps me put on my ankle braces
each morning. She fills out stacks of paperwork for a Social Security
nightmare. She does all this for me and once a month she drives
300 miles to do the same for her dying father. Maybe it's true what
they say about gay men, that they have strong mothers.
I honored Dad's fiat for a year.
I didn't tell my little brother. The following year, when he graduated
from high school, I considered the terms of that injunction to be
over, and I did come out to him. He told me that he had in fact
known all alongever since my fight with Dad, which apparently
everyone in the house heard. But nobody has said anything. At all.
Nothing. We're that kind of family. We don't talk about unpleasant
things. I have become an unpleasant thing.
I try not to make anyone mad.
I'm funny. I'm charming. I'm a good conversationalist. I am a guest
in their house. I am not grateful. I am ashamed. I am twenty-five.
I want a life.
I live in my parents' house from
December 1984 till September 1987. I was turned down for Social
Security. Because of the progressive nature of my illness, I couldn't
prove I was disabled back on my "eligibility date," which is officially
determined to be June of 1982. Ronald Reagan is in office and this
is happening to everyone who applies. His Administration gets more
judicial reprimands than any other Administration in history. Half
of the people who are ultimately found eligible are turned down
as a matter of course, to wear them down through the appeals process.
It's not even a secret. It makes one news column in the "New
York Times." These are the 1980s and no one gives a shit. I
do get Supplemental Security Income, SSI, it's $124 per month. I
try the ALS Society, Easter Seals, MS. Nobody can help me. I have
the wrong disease. It doesn't even have a name for Christ's sake.
But I don't complain. What have I got to complain about? I know
I'm lucky to have a roof over my head, and my folks have a showcase
house. I have one other thing: access. Because Dad is a professor
of medicine, I try some very expensive experimental drugs. He comes
home from the hospital with exotic treatments, and I sign on. Medicine
is a calling, and Dad's a believer. So I believe, too. He's more
than a doctor, he's a disciple. He's gentle, he's kind, he's generous,
he's smart as hell, and he takes all the time in the world to explain
exactly what's going on and how this drug might help you. When you
see my father on the floor of the University Hospital, you understand
that sometimes there's a reason why a doctor is beatified by his
patients. It's because he's a saint.
I am so fucking desperate. I stay
up late. I have not had a full night's sleep since I started Prednisone
in 1982. One night on late-night TV, in spring of '85, I hear a
pop psychologist talk about his self-hypnosis technique for quitting
cigarettes. It's simple. Just tell yourself over and over that you
are quitting. You don't even have to really believe it, your unconscious
will hear the words and believe for you.
I try it. I walk around the backyard,
repeating the words in my head, "My nerves are recovering." I make
it once around the yard, sticking to the fence so I can hoist myself
back up when I fall. I do this for a year, every single day. It's
an exercise in delusion and I know it. But I am so angry and scared
I don't care. I have no hope, but I have reached a place beyond
hope where you try because there's nothing else. I get to the point
where I can't walk from the family room to the kitchen without hearing
my own voice in my head: "I am getting stronger." A year goes by.
My stamina improves, and I'm walking twice around the yard. Then
twice around the yard, twice a day, and finally, onto the flood
plain behind the house. But I'm as weak as before. Dad is still
clipping my toenails. I keep walking, mumbling miracles under my
Then in the spring of 1986 something
I tilt the coffee pot.
Bracing the lip of the pot against
the coffee cup.
Holding it at arm's length, the
way I always do.
Grasping the handle with both
Steadying the pot with my left.
Tilting it with my right hand.
And my right arm lifts the pot.
It lifts the pot. My right arm lifts the pot. Something has changed.
I don't tell a soul. I keep walking
around the backyard. At some point, my legs get stronger, too, and
by autumn I can move my right leg from where the gas would be to
where the brake would be, then back to where the gas would be. I
think I can drive. I try it once in my sister's car in front of
the house, and that's all I need. I begin to apply for jobs. I typed
up a resume on my computer. I think at this point I was typing the
way I do nowby using my left thumb and wedging a ball-point
pen (the kind with an eraser on the end) between the fingers of
my right hand. I filled out job applications by holding a pen in
my teeth. I did this only when I wanted the writing to be legible
and when I was pretty sure no one could see me. When I thought someone
could see me, I used the more laborious method of holding the pen
in my left hand. I could also write by wedging the pen in my right
hand if I wore a hand brace, but then all the movement had to come
from the elbow and I wrote in letters that were too big to fit on
an employment application. Life was complicated, you see. Complicated
and full of all this infuriating adaptation.
So there's this guy, Raj. This
is where I hear Barbra Streisand humming in the background. Raj
loved me, in all my needy excess. He was beautifulis beautiful
we're still friends. How did I deserve to be held and loved by such
a beauty? The thing is, when you're disabled,
you don't carry much currency in the meet market.
Gay bars: going there for love is like going to the Praise-The-Lord
Club for religion. I mean, they talk about it, and it looks like
they're going through something like what you were after, but they've
got another agenda. I never felt love in a gay bar, mostly I just
felt rejected by hot-looking guys who went to the gym a lot. Raj
loved me. I loved him. That's all I want to say about that. It was
I did find love in the Columbus
gay community, but it was at the AIDS task force. This was real
communitya couple hundred volunteers, 150 people with AIDS,
a handful of staffamateurs mostly, trying to do something
about a really terrible disease that seemed to select as its victims
only the most outcast. Learning as you go. Hugging everyone. Sharing
your milkshake with someone you know is HIV-positive, and knowing
enough about transmission to know that it's not a problem. At some
point getting angry enough to stop using the term "AIDS victim."
At some point getting angry enough not to care if your employer
finds out what you do on your time off. This is where I count the
beginning of being gay and being happy. Being proud to count among
your friends drag queens and S/M dykes. Proud to kiss your friends
hello when they show up on your front stoop and the hell with what
the neighbors think. Proud you survived and found all those other
people who listen so rapturously every time they hear "Over The
I'll never forget the first time
I saw two guys kiss, friends, just saying hello. I'll never forget
the time I held a friend's hand as he died, my AIDS task force "Buddy."
I was such an inept volunteer. I'll never forget my gay uncle inviting
me to his home on Long Island and showing me off as his "intellectual"
nephew to all his queenie friends. I'll never forget reciting names
during the opening ceremony of the Columbus display of the NAMES
Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. I remember adding my uncle's name at
the end of the preprinted list, and I remember that that was the
only funeral he ever had. I remember that it was my AIDS task force
friends, gay and straight, who held my hand that evening.
So things change. The impossible
happens. I'm thirty-three years old
now, and I'm writing my coming out story for publication. I'm not
sure I like the tone that all of this has taken. It carries too
much of the tenor of those bad old daysI can't think about
them even now without getting angry, defensive, hurt, and scared.
But life is different now. My life is a nice place to be. It's not
always easy, and not always happy, but it's rich. And mostly it
is happy. I have learned to forgive and move beyond that hard place.
My family has never uttered Raj's name, and that hurts, but I love
them anyway, with some limits. They seem to love me, sometimes lavishly.
We've all tried so hard. And I've worked at finding my own courage,
my own acceptance, my own sources of "support," that word my father
had so much difficulty with. I can take a broader view of things
now because I have a job and I am independent and I don't need anyone's
help. It was harder during the enforced dependency of my illness,
when I was all grown up but not quite a grown-up. The people who
loved me and cared for me hated who I was; they were ashamed of
me. That's the picture that sticks: they loved me and they hated
me and I needed their help and they helped, with a generosity that
was seemingly endless. And in a very complicated way, I am finally
grateful for their help.
Support. Let me tell you about
my friends. My friends are also my family. The stories we share
are a part of my personal family history, as much as Aunt Annie's
spaetzle or Grandpa's collie dog named Watch. Gay people are making
a new kind of family, and this is where I have found joy. There
are a thousand networks of friends and lovers and ex-lovers who
care for each other and take care of each other. At its best it's
like the Columbus AIDS Task Force. My family can be as big as I
care to make it. Mabel does Thanksgiving, Bob does Christmas, we
all do Halloween. Linda reads my stories, Carol takes out my stitches,
Doug lets me cry on the phone. Michael explains love, Ron explains
astrophysics, and I boss Mabel about her flossing habits. It's a
circle. We share holidays, we share jokes, we share ways of looking
at the world. We share our lives. There are a lot of us out here
and when we come together that makes a community, but each of us
came here a different way, and we were only able to come together
because each of us individually, one day, by ourselves, after long
silence and fear, decided to tell the truth.
© 2002 Thomas Metz. This essay was first published,
in slightly different form, in "A Family and Friends' Guide
to Sexual Orientation" (Routledge Press, 1996).
METZ lives in San Francisco. He
has performed as a guest artist with AXIS Dance Company and in readings
at Red Dora's Bearded Lady Cafe in San Francisco and the Highways
Performance Space in Santa Monica. His writing has appeared in newspapers,
magazines, and in "A Family and Friends' Guide to Sexual Orientation."
His essay "Love Is All Around," will
be included in the anthology "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men
and Their Stories," edited by Bob Guter and John R. Killacky,
to be published in 2003 by Harrington Park Press.
Photo: © 2000 Denise Mignon Railla
BENT: A Journal of CripGay