I was standing against the wall of a popular college bar in Boston with a gin and tonic in my hand, some friends scattered around me, when I noticed a woman start to stumble over to me. The next thing I knew, she was inches from my face.
“You have such beautiful lips!!!” she yelled over "We Are Young," the only song that bars played back in 2012.
“Thanks, it’s just Chapstick!” I said, before taking an awkward sip of my drink. She ignored my joke and continued studying my face, making a few other comments about its general appearance and, eventually, asked if I was there with my girlfriend.
“Oh, nope, no girlfriend,” I answered. Amazing, now she thinks you’re interested. I stopped to collect my thoughts and added, “I’m here with him,” gesturing to the guy standing a few feet to my left whom I had just started seeing and had come to the bar with my friends and me.
I hesitated before mentioning this guy, partially because he and I weren’t by any means “official” yet, and I didn’t want him to feel pressured to be, as if I were proclaiming to this random woman, “That’s him! My gentleman caller! Right over there!” But I also hesitated before mentioning him because her question triggered a nervous response in me that’s been constructed after years and years of similar questions — from relatives, classmates, strangers — about my love life, and whether there was a woman in it.
Growing up in the closet, I dodged those questions with vague excuses like, “No, not at the moment” or “No, you know me, too picky” or “I’m holding out for Emma Watson! Who doesn’t have a crush on Hermione?” On that night in college, however, faced with a stranger asking if I had a girlfriend and competing in a staring contest with my lips, I had been out to my family and friends for about a year, and could finally answer this question honestly. Except, I still felt a quickening in my heart, a million calculations racing through my mind, a lingering fear from my adolescence that there would not be a positive response on the other end of my admission.
“Oh my gosh, you guys are so cute!!!” she exclaimed as the guy walked up next to me. “Is this your boyfriend??” she asked. Oh, hm, well. Before I could form a sentence somewhere between “Him? No way!” and “We’ll see — wink, wink,” she interrupted her own question with an offering I should’ve seen coming: “My brother’s gay, I think!”
She crossed her arms and planted her feet, settling in to seek our advice. “Well, he’s not out yet, so I’m not sure what to do,” she said. “He’s a theater major, so, you know — and I can kind of tell — but should I say something? Should I ask him?”
“NO,” he and I practically screamed in unison. “You shouldn’t out him,” I said. “It’s not cool to ask someone — it’s up to them when they want to share that with people.”
It seemed to click with her that she shouldn't stage her brother's coming out, even if he does "love the stage!" as a theater major, something she told us a few times. It also clicked with me that, only moments prior, I had come out to her myself, when I introduced her to the guy I was seeing. Everyone, like her brother, should be given the time and space to come out when they want, how they want, but the truth is, the journey doesn't end there.
That’s something I was never told about coming out: it isn't a one-step process. I don’t have to sit down at my kitchen table with every new person I meet, like I did with my parents — knees weak, palms sweaty, mom’s spaghetti (wait…) — and explain to them that, yes, I’m queer and, no, it won’t change anything between us. But as long as I exist in a heteronormative world, where the presumption is that I must have a girlfriend because I’m a man, I’ll never stop coming out.
It happens whenever I meet a new coworker, whenever I see a new doctor, whenever I talk to a friend of a friend at a party. The requisite “Where do you live?” comes up, which I’ve learned is the real-world equivalent of “What’s your major?” Once I answer, the natural follow-up is, “Who do you live with?” I tell them, “I live with my boyfriend.”
That short answer is all it takes for someone to know that I’m queer and potentially change the way they see or interact with me, even if they could already “kind of tell.” I'm grateful that, usually, no one bats an eye or treats me that differently afterward — though, my mom’s very Catholic best friend has been known to ask her, “Is Tom still living with his buddy?” Obviously, I now say, “I love that we’re just buds” in my best lacrosse-bro voice after I shut off the lights and climb into bed with him.
But it wasn’t always easy to let people in.
Over winter break during my sophomore year of college, I went to get a haircut at a chain salon in my hometown outside Philadelphia. I wasn’t out yet — of the closet, or of my emo phase, so my bangs still swept across my forehead like all of the guys in the bands I worshipped, and they desperately needed a trim. I sat in the metal swivel chair, black cape draped around my body, and chatted with the 30-something hairdresser about how I had just finished my third semester of college in Boston.
“Oh, you live pretty far away then!” she said. “And you’re home for a month?”
“Yeah, until the middle of January.”
“You must miss your friends at school… and your girlfriend??” she asked in a tone that reminded me of a nosy aunt.
Something came over me in that moment — a desire to be a different person with her, or to finally appease everyone else’s desire for me to have a girlfriend — and I decided to lie.
“Her too!” I said, giving my reflection in the mirror a look like, What was that?? Also, she needs to take more off the top.
“Aw! You guys met up there?” she responded with an approving grin, meeting my eyes in the mirror.
“Yep, in the fall,” I said, scrambling to make up a name in case she asked. Haley, I thought, remembering all of the times I watched The Parent Trap growing up, idolizing whom I considered the cooler twin, Haley. I’ve always liked that name.
“Is she home with her family too?”
“Yeah, so we’re apart for the next few weeks,” I said, starting to feel myself cringe.
“Well, I’m sure break will fly by and you’ll be back together soon.”
I smiled and nodded, and asked her what her plans for the holidays were before she could grill me about how Fake Haley and I met, or what we liked to do for fun (I decided on rock climbing, just to be safe). I didn’t really listen to her response, only catching bits about how she doesn’t like to go out for New Year’s Eve as much now that she’s in her thirties. I was too distracted by the story I had just concocted about an imaginary girlfriend in order to please a hairdresser I’d likely never see again. This wasn’t just a lie of omission, the type I had a talent for telling while in the closet — this was a total fabrication that tasted bitter as it rolled off my tongue and caused her to smile. I resented her assumption that I was straight, even if I wasn't ready to come out. I liked the haircut.
That was the first and last time I lied about having a girlfriend. A year later, I found the courage to come out to my closest friends at college, then my family, then my friends from high school, and then my mom mentioned in an email to all of my aunts and uncles that I was dating a man. It was both an exhausting and liberating period of time, opening up to so many people about a part of my life I had shouldered alone for years. Each conversation lifted its share of the weight and, without the wall I felt forced to hide behind, I grew closer to my family and friends.
The only person I’ll never have to come out to is my nephew. He’s only 4, but he understands that I live in New York with my boyfriend, and never has any questions. He just has an uncle who’s gay, growing up knowing that some men date men and that there’s nothing lesser about my life. If all children were raised like him, queer people wouldn’t have to constantly defy the idea that heterosexual and cisgender are the default — an idea that isn’t fact, but learned from a young age.
It can be taxing, bracing for impact ever so slightly whenever I come out to someone new, particularly if I’m unsure how they’ll respond, but what outweighs that feeling is the impenetrable sense of pride that follows. My hope for my nephew is that, because he’s already learning that love has no gender, if he were to realize he’s queer someday, he’ll experience that pride too — and won’t feel he has to lie about it to his hairdresser.