April 13, 2006
First Person - A Coming Out (of Egypt) Story
Sixteen years ago this month, I planned to take the Passover message of liberation to heart. I was going to come out of the closet to my sister and my parents and, in doing so, free myself from the bondage of keeping this huge and personal part of me from them. I was going to verbalize the secret I had feared revealing to them for more than 15 years since I first was able to put words to the feelings.
I grew up in a small, quaint New Jersey suburb of New York, a commuter town ideal for raising children. Since having moved to Los Angeles in 1987, at the age of 25, I generally visited my parents and sister back in New Jersey an average of once a year. That once a year was usually Passover time, since I had the time off from my work as a day school educator (and would enjoy the additional bonus of being able to lock up my home for the holiday and sell my chametz without having to go through the cleaning and other laborious pre-holiday preparations and rituals).
Perhaps my plan to come out during Passover was just practical, since that was when I typically returned home; or perhaps it was a flair for the dramatic or symbolic, since I had come to think of the emotional bondage of keeping my secret as a modern-day equivalent to the physical slavery of my ancestors. Either way, it was during Passover of 1990 that I had planned to come out to my parents and tell them I'm gay. I returned to my childhood home that year armed with several articles and a book titled, "Now That You Know: What Every Parent Should Know About Homosexuality," all designed to prove how normal it was to be gay.
I had come out a year earlier (also at Passover) to Rob, one of my best friends from college on whom I had had a crush. We got in his car, and I asked him to pull over on the way to wherever it was we were going because I had something really important and serious to tell him. He pulled into a parking lot (my elementary school parking lot) and turned off the engine. I loosened my seatbelt, turned to face him, took a deep breath and said, "I'm gay."
To which he responded, somewhat anticlimactically, "Is that all?"
I don't know if I was more relieved or disappointed, but there was no rejection. My first coming out was successful.
It took an entire year after that to muster the courage to tell my sister -- who responded, "I still love you, and of course I won't tell anyone." To this I said that I wasn't telling her so that she would now have to keep the secret. Coming out to my sister was planned to precede the coming out to my parents by several days. It was my warmup, my practice. But anticipating these two experiences, as anxiety-filled as they were, was nothing compared to the immeasurable angst I felt as I practiced and replayed over and over how I would reveal my secret to my parents.
The day I was going to tell them, I went to New York City to visit friends. I took the commuter train back to our town and felt the rumbling in my stomach as I anticipated freeing myself from my personal Egypt. The train sped closer and closer to home. With each station the train pulled into I could feel the rumbling in my stomach increase, and as I walked to my parents' home (my childhood home) my stomach was on the verge of exploding. I tried to eat normally, but my appetite was limited. The meal, the conversation were overshadowed as I got closer to the point of expelling my truth, all the while wondering whether I would actually be able to follow through on my plan.
After dinner, I told my parents that I had something I wanted to say. They sat down at the table, dishes already cleared. With the gasses in my stomach doing triple axels, I mustered the courage -- more courage than I had ever needed to do anything to that point in my life -- and I said the words that liberated me from the self-imposed oppression that I had endured since realizing years earlier (beginning in third grade, if not even before) that I felt different than what I thought others felt: "I have something that's really hard to say ... I'm gay."
Silence. Unbearable silence. To fill the silence I gave them the book and articles that I had brought. Perhaps I had brought them as much to help my parents through this new world as to prove to them that I was serious and that this was thought out. My father's first words were: I'm shocked but I'm not shocked. (I had never really dated girls and though not effeminate, I fit some of the stereotypes.) My mother, tears filling her eyes, expressed her fears and her anxiety for me -- I wouldn't have a happy life, I would be alone -- I did my best to assuage the concerns, but I had, after all, been working toward this moment for years and for them it was all new. And, frankly, I hadn't thought through the post-liberation experience. The idea of telling my parents that I'm gay was so overwhelming that I hadn't thought past anything but their initial reactions.
My father left to go to a meeting. My mother went to the sink to do the dishes. There was quiet again, but this quiet was the aftermath, the quiet that occurs when the truth and all of its realities, some becoming known and others not yet thought, become real, and we are trying to make sense of the implications. I felt a confusing mix of feelings - relief, anxiety, disappointment - and freedom from the mitzrayim, the narrow places, in which I had been stuck all those years.
On reflection, I wonder whether, thousands of years ago, the Israelites, too, didn't experience the disappointment that the liberation wasn't quite as easy and complete as expected. I suppose the fantasy was that I would come out of the closet and would be told, "Is that all?"
But my parents had more invested than my college friend. Their picture of my future, and by extension their future, would take longer to sort through, reimagine and come to terms with. The beginning of my liberation was now, in some ways, their new wilderness. It would be up to them whether they would turn it into a self-imposed bondage.
Due -- in no small part -- to my coming out, I have come to believe that our primary task in life is to know ourselves, accept ourselves and to love ourselves and to hope that those who love us will do the same. Each year we are to imagine ourselves as slaves in Egypt and to re-experience the bitterness of the oppression symbolically through retelling the story and through the sensory experiences of the seder. We are to think about the way we are enslaved and oppressed today, how we oppress ourselves and how we can help end the oppression of others. How we can take ourselves out from our personal house of bondage. How we can free ourselves and how we can come out.
Jeff Bernhardt is an educator, Jewish professional and writer living in Los Angeles.