If life’s a journey, coming to terms with being gay in a straight world can make that journey an arduous adventure. Some fortunate souls adjust to it easily. Others, like Tyler Celementi who committed suicide after being outed in social media by his Rutgers roommate, are not given the opportunity to deal with it themselves. Being gay is something deeply personal that we each should be allowed to handle in our own way. I had the misfortune of needing to deal with it twice – first as an adolescent and then again shortly after turning 50 years old.
I was around 12 – 13 years old when I started to have my sexual awakening. I wasn’t truly conscious of my attraction to other males at first. I had attended Catholic school through 7th grade. After that, I had to attend public schools which had Physical Education as part of the curriculum. Being in the locker room and showers with naked boys for the first time was the catalyst that made me think that I might be gay and it terrified me.
To understand exactly why I was terrified you need to understand what the times were like back then for gays. I grew up on a small farm in northern Virginia during the late 1950s through the 1960s. All our news in the form of television and newspapers came from Washington, DC. Our nearest neighbors were at least a mile away and social interactions outside of school were scarce. Often needing mental diversions, I began to regularly watch news programs and read the DC newspapers. The times were volatile with the Cuban Missile Crisis, Civil Rights Movement, and Vietnam protests and so there was ample material to interest me. It was through the news that I came to have some inkling of what it was like to be gay back then. Being gay was considered a mental illness and perversion. If a gay was discovered, his name and address would be published in the local papers as a warning to the public of his presence. The potential to get a job or even keep a job were at risk. For a young person such as I was then I could be denied access to college which I desperately wanted to attend. There were news stories of military personnel stationed in the DC area going into the city and harassing gays. Sometimes gays were beaten so badly they died. Stories about this were bad enough to a young boy but it was made worse by the attitude of the newscasters back then who reported the story in such a way as to make it seem a minor problem because the victim was, after all, a pervert in their eyes.
All of this came crashing down on me and I simply couldn’t deal with it. I went into deep denial refusing to believe that this was real. I subconsciously developed mental defenses such as distancing myself from close male friends, coming up with excuses as to why a girl didn’t interest me to avoid dating and so on. These mental defenses only got stronger as I moved through high school, college and my early adult years. There were periods of depression because I couldn’t understand why I had trouble forming relationships. When I would finally work my way through the depression I would simply tell myself that I was meant to be a loner.
I was in my mid-30s when out of the blue I met a wonderful woman. She was beautiful and intelligent. We clicked on all levels and soon fell in love with each other. We got married and had a child together. It was the happiest time of my life – I finally had the family life I had always wanted with a terrific wife and a daughter who I doted on since she was born. Twelve years into the marriage, however, a problem arose. Sexual activity between my wife and myself had atrophied over several years and she became depressed. I was still the happy family man but she thought there was something wrong with her that made me no longer attracted to her. It got to the point where one day she told me she had looked at herself in the mirror that morning and hated herself. When she told me that I knew the situation was serious. There should have been a natural desire for her but that natural desire wasn’t in me. Realizing that, I knew I was the one who was creating the problem and needed counseling.
I found a counseling center that specifically dealt with sexual issues. The counselor I met with had an easy-going manner and I felt comfortable talking to him about my marital problem. Most of the discussions in subsequent sessions quickly focused on my formative years. My counselor commented to me that my retelling of my adolescent years seemed unusually vague compared to other periods of my life. Soon after concentrating on those early teen years my memories of my fears came forth and I openly talked about them for the first time. My counselor told me that is a very sexually confusing time in a young person’s life and wanted to do some evaluations of my sexual orientation. Naturally it became apparent to both of us that I was gay during these evaluations. With that realization a different form of panic took hold of me than the type I had when I was thirteen years old.
Once you are out of denial you can’t go back into it. I simply wanted to ignore the truth for fear of losing my family life. My counselor advised against that. He explained that I would never be able to act like I did before because the truth would always be on my mind. He also tried to make me see how unfair I would be to my wife. The foundation of our marriage had now shifted and she needed to be allowed to make an informed decision about how she wanted to spend her life. It took quite some time but eventually I understood that he was right. At that point my panic only became heightened but my counselor coached me on how to approach my wife with the truth.
My wife was the first person I came out to and it was the most difficult thing I have ever done. We went through a horrible time during the first seven months after I told her. Today we are divorced but very good friends. The journey between then and now was very emotional and often quite sad. During those first seven months I told my daughter, other family members and closest friends about it and they were all wonderfully accepting of me. I could never say that I regret going into denial since it allowed me to have the happiest years of my life and gave me a wonderful daughter to cherish. The regret that I do live with to this day is the pain and anguish it caused my former wife and daughter through the breakup of our marriage.
Kit Rivenburg is a happy, openly gay man, living in the Garden State of New Jersey.