I Came Out Of The Closet To Find Myself In A House With A White Picket Fence
"Why do you have to advertise yourself?!"
In 1993, I was 18 years old. I had lived in the same small town for all 18 of those years. In the South. In Texas, particularly.
I was also single, frustrated, gay, and scared out of my mind about the idea of coming out of the closet to my family and the public at large. So I had an idea. Let’s just tell a male friend or two. I chose male friends because I figured men would talk about things like that, even if just to make fun of it, and word would get around. Then, if someone was looking, even if they couldn’t say so, they’d know I was available.
It wasn’t a pretty life. I didn’t date. I’d never had a boyfriend or a girlfriend. I had had casual encounters, mostly with guys who lived on what would later be called the down-low. And it’s not that I didn’t ever enjoy the encounters. I did. I’d be lying if I said they couldn’t be fun and exciting, at times. But it wasn’t what I really WANTED.
What I really wanted was someone to keep, someone to call my own. More importantly, after a history of falling in love with people who didn’t love me back, what I really wanted was for someone to call me HIS own, as much as I called him mine.
I had already noticed that, while I couldn’t find anyone to love me and want to keep me, I could provide other things for men when they wanted – or, as they said, “needed” – it. In certain circles, it was not really private, but overall, I became a sort of quiet slut, really. If your girl won’t put out, come to me.
It wasn’t just sex that appealed to me. I mean, I’m human, so I wanted that, too, but what I really was hoping was that someone would “visit” me and notice that maybe I wasn’t the poisonous taboo I felt like they viewed me as. Maybe they’d like to come back, stick around, and maybe even stay.
It doesn’t help that I’m not an attractive person, at least outwardly. I’m the most dynamic !@#$%^ you’ve ever MET, in most other ways, but as far as looks go, I’m afraid I’ve always fallen flat in that area. I know what I look like. I also used to say that the phrase “You’re not my type” was invented for me. I seemingly wasn’t ANYONE’s type!
So in 1993, the year I graduated high school, I decided to start making things known a LITTLE more publicly. I told my male friends. They talked, as I imagined they would. Word would get back to me about that friend saying this “horrible thing” about me. See? Why was it so horrible?
Anyway, my strategy backfired on me. I had recently found a church I really loved, and I started attending it. I’ve also always been really good with children. So when things blew up, they blew up in the worst possible way. Someone went to talk to the preacher about me. One of my male friends. Next thing I know, the preacher asks to see me in his office. When we got in there, he asked if what he had heard was true. I confirmed it. He asked if I wanted to change it. I denied that. So he then tells me that I cannot have anything to do with the children in the church anymore, since he knows this secret about me, or he’ll be forced to tell the parents. Have to look after the kids, you know. While in principle, I didn’t dislike his line of thinking so much – I was used to it, after all; I couldn’t help but feel insulted and slighted. I asked the preacher, “So what if a kid comes up in church service and wants to talk to me? What am I supposed to do? Tell them to leave? They’ll think I don’t love them or that they did something wrong, when they didn’t!”
So I left the church. I hated doing it, because other than that, it had been a fantastic place for me.
Okay, so now I was officially-enough out of the closet. It was TERRIFYING, because I knew church people gossiped just as badly as anyone else, and I’d really liked and respected these people, so I didn’t want them to turn me away from their lives. So I made a decision.
Goddamnit, Herm, if you’re going to be out of the closet, no matter what, you’re doing this YOUR WAY!!!!
So I went alllll out. I bought rainbow stickers for my car. I dressed however I wanted. I opened up and started “acting gay,” which had really been part of my personality all along, anyway. Now I just opened it for everyone to see.
My grandmother came over to my house at night and peeled off the rainbow stickers from my car. I asked why she did that, and she asked what was to become a standard line, for a while: Why do you have to ADVERTISE what you are, like that?
In those days, I was not eloquent or prepared enough to explain myself well. I was also some big part rebellious, so I didn’t deal well with being nagged to death about what I wanted to do. I told them all that I’d show myself off any way I damn well pleased.
But that was only a little of it. You want to know the real reason I “advertised?” I said it at the beginning of this piece. I was lonely. I was single. I was tired of being alone. I hoped that if I brazened it out in public, that some nice gay guy would see me, say, “Hot damn, he’s gay, too!” and we’d live happily ever after.
It didn’t happen that way. As happens so often in my life, there were some unbelievable curves thrown my way.
From "Out and Proud" to Husband, Dad, and Grandpa
I continued living in the small Texas hometown until I was 28 years old. About two years before my first out of town move, I decided I wanted to have as many gay friends as I could have, since I was coming up empty in the romance department. In order to accomplish this, I tried getting friends to introduce me to their gay friends, and I tried this thing called Yahoo! Clubs, which are now Yahoo! Groups, if they even still exist.
The Clubs had a section for gay pen pals, and since e-mail made it much easier to correspond, I thought it seemed like a great idea to make new gay friends. Now, it wasn’t as if I refused to have straight friends. After all, even with the current larger visibility of the LGBT community, we are still a minority. I would have had to discriminate quite a bit to refuse to have heterosexual friends. That would just be silly. I simply wanted more gay friends, so I would have people to talk to about issues that straight people generally don’t want to talk about.
So I joined the Gay Pen Pal group, and I wrote in to it. I don’t remember what I said, really, but I do remember trying to be funny and light-hearted. Well, within the first day or two, I received a response from a “Peter Campbell.” He wrote that I was funny, witty, and charming, and he would like to get to know me. I have always maintained that flattery will get you everywhere!
Peter and I began talking on the telephone pretty regularly. People still had land line phones, then. One day, he told me about going to the bus station, to pick up a long distance boyfriend who was making his way to San Jose. As he waited for the friend to show up, we talked, and I suddenly realized that I had managed to fall in love with Peter. I was jealous of this boyfriend who was showing up!
After a while, things didn’t work out for the boyfriend and Peter, and I spoke up and told him, in December of 2003, that I was in love with him, and I didn’t want him not to know that. You could have knocked me over with a feather when he replied that he loved me, too!
I have to take a detour here, to tell you about the rest of Peter’s life. During our conversations, I had learned that Peter lived in a condominium with a woman named Laurie, and Laurie’s daughter Elisabeth. I also knew that Laurie had an older daughter named Tiffany, who had three children, at that point. Laurie was 45 years old, and she was in a relationship with a woman we’ll call Ann.
Peter was extremely active in Elisabeth’s life. In fact, I so often fumed about the fact that when anything official needed to be handled, Peter would handle it, rather than Laurie. I often spoke out in anger, saying what a negligent mother Laurie seemed to be, pawning her child off on Peter like that.
I think some of you may be getting a picture of what’s coming. Lord knows all my friends did, at the time. I didn’t.
So we continued in our own long distance relationship for a little over a year. Finally, after waiting so long, Peter said he was taking the bus to Waco, Texas, where I now lived. I was so excited and happy! Since his move coincided with the old boyfriend’s (they had stayed roommates), I called the roomie and asked if he knew if Peter had made it on to the bus on time.
This guy, whom we will call Rick, says to me, “There is no ‘Peter.’ It’s Laurie pretending to BE Peter!” I just thanked him and hung up. It made me angry that he would say something like that. Why try to hurt me in any way? Then I realized that after all the time I’d known him, as well (from his being Peter’s roomie), I knew it wasn’t Rick’s character to start trouble. He was honest and nice.
So I dressed up in the specific outfit I’d described to Peter and headed to the bus station, when the time came. He’d told me what he’d have with him, so I knew what to look for. When the bus finally arrived, I watched as the passengers unloaded. Then a middle-aged woman, carrying the blankets and bags Peter had described, got off the bus. I went back inside, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do now. She walked up to me and said my name, in that questioning way we do when we meet a new person. I nodded, and I think I said yes. Then I took her to the car, and we loaded her stuff into the hatchback.
For a quick flash of about a half a second, I thought about slamming the hatchback on her, as she bent to put her bags into the car. It passed. I was STUNNED. There’s no better word for it. We got into the car, and I think I said, “Ok, let’s go home.”
When we arrived at the house in a few minutes, I asked, “Was any of it real? What about Peter? What about the person I fell in love with?!”
“He’s real. He’s in here.”
I can’t say that I believed that.
She wanted to take a walk, so we put her stuff inside the house, and she took a walk. I went inside the house and proceeded to lose my mind. I had some friends come over, and I made a few phone calls. Then Laurie came back from her walk. I showed her the computer I had set up for her…or for “him,” really…and I went to the bedroom. Laurie kept asking me what our AOL password was. I told her about three times before I realized something was wrong.
I went back into the “office” to check on her, and she seemed to be passed out. Suddenly, the chair she was in began creaking and leaning to the left. The next instant, she was on the floor, with red liquid coming out the corners of her mouth.
My friend Jenniffer swears I asked her what was the number for 911, but I think she imagined that. I couldn’t really promise, though. I was pretty confused, right about then. We managed to call an ambulance. Once they arrived, I followed the stretcher outside and told Laurie I would come up to the hospital soon, but I would call Tiffany and Elisabeth first. After all, I knew about them. I just didn’t know they were my partner’s children.
After telling Tiffany what happened, she said, “Please, Herman, go up there! Don’t leave her alone in the hospital. She’ll die, and I need my Mom. She’s my rock. Please, go up there with her. Don’t let my Mom die!”
I went up there, but Laurie was being treated for an overdose on several medications. I was angry, I was hurt, and I was scared. I literally sat down and wrote out a list, to help clear my mind.
On a page of a notebook, I wrote down a list of questions for me. The last two remain in my head, to this day. “Can I live with Laurie for the rest of my life?” The answer to that was unclear. “Can I live WITHOUT Peter for the rest of my life?” The answer to that was a big, fat NO.
In discussing things with my mother, later that evening, I was going through some of Laurie’s things, and I pulled out her driver’s license. I thought, “Well, she’s pretty.” And I told Mama that, no matter how crazy it sounded, I really believed Laurie and I would wind up getting married.
Six months later, we did, and I became a husband, father, and grandfather all in one day.