On This National Coming Out Day – My Story

This is National Coming Out Day which was initiated on the anniversary of the October 11, 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Right. I was there at that March 30 years ago and it remains one of the most powerful experiences I ever had. This post is comprised of two previously published essays. The first deals primarily with my life up to the time I came out as Trans Femme/Agender and the second section deals with my gender identity coming out experience

In this first section I am have included yet another post I made several years ago as a part of my 3 part series about my journey from being a closeted Seventh-Day Adventist teen and son of a pastor to being an out and proud Queer, Humanist, Unitarian Universalist and Agender/Trans Femme individual. I hope this helps someone else struggling today.

JerBear: My Story

I have described my own experience in a former post but I am going to repost it here so it is integrated into this post…

Google or Bing the word “Queer” you will soon come across folks that fully embrace the word, those that are timidly tolerant of it and those whose words drip with venom in their hatred of it’s use. Since I identify as Queer and it is prominent in my blog, I thought I’d share how I went from the closet, to gay and then to Queer. This is the first of two or three parts. This is how I came out…

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I first told someone else I was gay when I was a freshman (we didn’t use the term “first year student” back then), in college I met a fellow freshmen named Kevin. He was the most flamboyant person I had ever met and didn’t hide it; not that he could. I listened to tales of sexual encounters while attending a religious boarding school, (Seventh-Day Adventist). I was attracted to him like a moth to a flame. No, I wasn’t sexually attracted to him as he was not my type but I was attracted to his “this is who I am – take it or leave it,” attitude. Soon there was a small band of us curious or gay students. We were bonded together by what Harry Hay would call our “otherness.” We knew we were not normal as it was defined in the Fall of 1975. Soon Kevin was sneaking out of the dorm and heading into Boston to pick up older men. I recall the time he recounted loosing his virginity. He was quite thrilled that it had occurred, I was skeptical.

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One memorable Saturday night a bunch of us went along to visit the nearest gay bar, a place called “The Mailbox” in Worcester, Massachusetts. I was a wide-eyed virgin in a bar full of gay men. I felt like a slab of meat on display as I was given that “come hither” look several times. Kevin rescued me by taking me under his wing and we were soon dancing, (a first for me as dancing was taboo in my church). I had been taught “the hustle” in Kevin’s dorm room so I didn’t make a total fool of myself. I kept convincing myself I was engaged in a Sociological mission (part of me knew better). Anyway, after all of that we were talking in the dorm stairwell for privacy. I told Kevin I was also attracted to guys, just not the older guys he liked. The conversation veered into religion and the terrible time we had reconciling who we were with what the church said. Soon it was the Christmas break. I think I went home then came back to college. I hitchhiked to Maine to meet a woman I knew. Got drunk and stoned for the first time. Nothing sexual happened, perhaps because one of my gay friends was with me and the woman wasn’t my cup of tea. When we got back to the dorm I finally had my first real sexual encounter with my friend. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me or my friend, Kevin had really hit bottom. He had an argument with his parents and in an act of desperation, went into the garage, with the door closed, turned on the car and killed himself with carbon monoxide.

I heard what happened and was shocked. This was the guy so confident in who he was that he was called “Rosebud.” I was no where near that confident and the shock and inner turmoil sent me flying back into the closet where I stayed for the next 11 years. I compartmentalized my life, keeping my gay side locked away. That compartment was only unlocked for fantasy until after college when I unlocked for longer stretches to go into the Gay and Lesbian Book Store in Boston, (this was before the acronym “LGBT” was used). I also would find books to read at the Library in Worcester. The problem was that there were only a few positive gay books on the shelves in the early 1980s.

Then a succession of events happened. At work an openly gay man got promoted to supervisor. This meant that I could come out and not worry about my job. I was able to talk with this person about my sexuality and that made me feel more comfortable. Meanwhile, I had found a new church home. I had a Comparative American Religions textbook which I looked through trying to find a gay accepting denomination. There were only a small number of options. I looked at all of their beliefs and decided to check out The Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester (Massachusetts). I went there for several months and decided to make it official. It was rather simple really. I simply signed the membership book, got a mug with the denomination’s emblem, shook hands with and hugged the minister and received a round of applause from the congregation. That was in the fall of 1986. In February of 1987 I came out for good, first to my roommate, who took it well considering he was a Seventh-Day Adventist. I came out at work and then came out to my minister who was wonderfully accepting and matter of fact about the whole thing.

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My next step was to return to the same gay bar, now a small club, that I had visited 11 and a half years before. That’s right, it was back to The Mailbox. I wandered in, my eyes adjusting to the dim light. Sylvester’ s hypnotic dance hit, “Do you Wann’a Funk,” was blasting out from the speakers as the subwoofers shook the floor. I turned and looked to my left and there, sitting on some steps, was an old friend from college. Bob was not just an old friend, he was also son of a Theology professor! We embraced warmly and marveled at our reconnecting in this particular establishment. He confided with me that he was afraid I would catch him in “the act” when I was an RA assigned to the floor where a special friend of his resided.

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1987 remained a year of firsts. My first Gay Pride in Boston. There is nothing like yours first Pride. It is like the collective hug of thousands of people saying, ”you belong here – you’re one of us now.” I remember attending a church event at The Arlington Street Church, sort of the Mother Church for the Unitarian Universalist Association. When the pipe organ belted out the chords for Holly Near’s song, “Singing for Our Lives,” it touched something deep in my soul. I felt really good to be a Unitarian Universalist that day! Then there was the parade; I was awe struck at the diversity on display. It was a mix of fun, partying and politics all rolled out on the streets of Boston.

imageLater that year, after attending organizing meetings in Worcester, I prepared to travel to Washington D.C. for the “National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and AIDS Care. I got myself into Boston’s South Station where I was going to catch the Amtrak train to Washington, D.C. The station was packed with “family” from all over New England. I connected up with Unitarian Universalists (UUs) and together we boarded the train. I met so many wonderful people that day. I barley got any sleep (this was an overnight train) but did catch some. We arrived in Washington which was crawling with Queers! I made my way to a Unitarian Universalist Church where a special service was held. As a part of the service a ceremony of remembrance was held for those lost to AIDS. People should softly call out the name of someone lost to AIDS and then come forward and light a candle. It was very moving as the church filled with the sound of gently sobbing people. It was then and there that I dedicated myself to do my part to respond to the crisis gripping our community.

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I then gathered with the UU contingent and joined the queue for the march. Finally we began marching, singing and chanting various slogans like; “hey, hey, ho, ho, homophobia’s got to go” and “What do we want? Gay rights! When do we want them? Now! We smiled and exchanged glances with fellow marchers and those lining the streets. We did pass group of obnoxious idiots with signs like “God Hates Fags” and “Sodomy is a Sin.” Yes, it was one of the first times our community confronted the homophobes from the Westboro Baptist Church.

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Leaving the bigots far behind we marched passed the first display of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Laid out on the mall in Washington for the first time. Another potent reminder of the epidemic that was ravaging our community.

We finally found our way to a place near the stage where we heard from many people including Whoopi Goldberg, Cesar Chavez and Jesse Jackson all civil rights icons in their own right. There were musical acts and more inspirational speeches. When the event was finally over we trudged back to the station and were herded like so many cattle, (that’s how it felt), back onto the train for the ride home. So ended the day that would be celebrated each October 11th forward as National Coming Out Day! – Today!

Following my experience in Washington I returned home vowing to become an activist. I did so with the blessing of my church. In fact the Minister and I co-authored a letter in support of the sexual orientation non-discrimination bill in the Massachusetts legislature. I also worked with the Central Massachusetts Chapter of The American Civil Liberties Union to pass a similar ordinance for the city of Worcester. Eventually we succeeded in getting both enacted as an amendment to the city and state Human Rights law(state) and ordinance (city). I was recognized as Civil Libertarian of The Year along with a Lesbian Lawyer for our efforts in making discrimination against people for their sexual orientation illegal in both the city of Worcester and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

I also worked within the Unitarian Universalist Association to create a Welcoming Congregation program to ensure that Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (LGB) people would feel welcome. I also was a delegate to the national gathering of Unitarian Universalist and helped draft a resolution on AIDS as well as strengthening the commitment to LGB people.

Later Gender Identity would be added along with Transgender to the official policies of the church. It took awhile longer for Massachusetts to add Gender Identity to the classes of people protected from discrimination. Here in New Mexico we added protections against discrimination on the basis of both Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the early ’00s.

I will tell the story of my 22+ year work in HIV/AIDS care and prevention as well as the work in STD/STI prevention later as that is worthy of a book.

I will also share more about the wonderful man I shared my life with for seven years and whom I partnered with in the fight for LGBTQ rights. Greg is a wonderful person and a dear friend who remains one of my best friends. The irony that relates to this theme is the fact that he was also the son of a preacher. The difference was that his dad belonged to a Christian church that welcomed LGBT people, The United Church of Christ. I was always welcome at his parents’ home and at family gatherings. In fact Greg’s dad joined us on a tour of The Southwest US which planted the seeds for both of us to move out here. While we were together we got unofficially married, in August of 1991, at a wedding/protest organized by Queer Nation. Here’s a photo of us at the ceremony:

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During and after my relationship with Greg, I continued my journey to refine my beliefs while remaining a Unitarian Universalist, never feeling that that exploration would exclude me. I eventually embraced Humanism and called myself an Atheist/Agnostic (I could be called either depending on your definitions).

Since I wrote much of the above, I have come out again. This time as a Trans Femme/Agender individual. There is some overlap in my story so you may read part of my story that was previously included but I think it’s important to share how those earlier experiences shaped the gender identity I now embrace. Here’s that part of my story…

My Story Continued, A Trans Femme Agender Tale

image.gifMuch earlier this year I decided to come out to all my friends on Facebook even prodding to see if I got a reply from people I wasn’t sure of. This is the letter followed by observations about the response:

Dear Friends,

As most of you know in late Summer of 2014 I began a gender journey. All my life I had felt insecure about my gender. There were a number of opportunities earlier in my life to look at my own gender identity. In the second half of my Junior year in high school at Pine Tree Academy I boarded with a local dentist and his wife. They had a daughter a few years older than me in college where she stayed in a dorm. As the dentist and his wife worked I often had a couple hours every now and then when I was alone. I discovered the daughters wardrobe or at least the part she left at home. I tried the clothes on and remember feeling that this was more than simple curiosity. Meanwhile at school there were a couple bullies who had made comments and shoved me when they knew no one could see them. At the end of the year I passed around my yearbook for signatures. Two of the entries were quite hateful. One used “gay” as an insult and the other called me a “faggot.” So come Senior year I made it a point to butch it up a bit, (appear more masculine), to avoid the bullying.

After graduation I left for college at Atlantic Union College in Massachusetts. In my first year there I met up with 3 or 4 gay guys. One of them was gender non-conforming, I became friends with him and had chats with him in the dorm stairwells where we found a measure of privacy. One memorable night he even took me and a couple others to a gay club. This was the fall of 1975 and my young mind was just overwhelmed by the experience. We continued to share secrets and concerns with each other. I came out as being attracted to guys and he shared both some of his exciting weekend encounters and his sadness at not being able to reconcile his sexual orientation with the church’s beliefs. Soon Winter break came and we went in different directions. As the break ended I was informed of something pretty horrific. My flamboyant gay friend had committed suicide. I was scared, sad, confused and determined to keep my secrets hidden which I did until 1987.

I came out as gay in February of 1987, thirty years ago. I quickly got involved with the community. I began working with people with HIV/AIDS (PWA), devising outreach programs and assisting PWAs secure services and support. During that time I heard a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church by a guest preacher who ran the denomination’s LGBT Program. He quoted Harry Hay, an early gay rights pioneer and founder of The Radical Faerie movement. What he said really struck a cord because his belief was that gay and lesbian people were different then straight people not just in the choice of sexual partners but also in our gender expression. The belief was that people like me were shamans, magicians and priests who stood between men and women and helped heal stresses and misunderstandings between men and women. I thought that I had found the answer.

During this time I got to know several transgender individuals beginning in the late ’80s. They were for the most part trans women and while I didn’t feel completely like a man, I didn’t feel completely like a woman either. So, while I felt an affinity with my trans friends back then, their gender identity didn’t match up with how I was feeling. By this time I had entered a relationship which became quite well known given our willingness to open up to the press. In an effort to be attractive to my partner who like hairy guys known as “bears” in gay subculture, I grew a beard stopped trimming hair off my body and became a bear, at least on the outside. I really grew to hate how I was frequently read – many presumed I was hyper masculine and probably into leather and S&M. I was really repulsed by that idea. I kept this a secret and our relationship weathered lots of challenges that came our way unitil August of 1996. On that date, for several different reasons, my partner and I changed our relationship from partner to close friend.

In 1996 I came to New Mexico and continued to work in HIV/AIDS work, focusing on prevention. As a way of deflecting presumptions about my masculinity I grew my hair out and declared myself a fairy bear which sometimes morphed into a “care bear.” I got to know some wonderful Trans people here and learned a lot from them, particularly a couple Dine’/Navajo trans women who shared the ancient wisdom passed down by their elders about genders beyond male and female.

By 2009 my disabilities, symptoms and medication side effects made it difficult to work. Eventually I was declared disabled and left work. I began searching the internet for information that would answer the lifelong confusion I had about my gender. I began to see talk of genderqueer individuals. At first it didn’t click with me because all I observed were individuals who were assigned female at birth. Finally a news story changed everything. I happened on a news story about a hate crime that occurred in California. I’ve shared the story many times so I will just lay out the facts. A high school student who identified as agender, (who had been assigned male at birth), was riding home on a bus and had nodded off to sleep. A boy sitting nearby who thought it would be a practical joke to set the person’s skirt on fire. The agender student sustained serious burns on his legs and their story, (many agender individuals prefer people use a singular version of they as their pronoun), made local and national news. In response the community rallied round them. The high school the agender individual attended had an event where most students and teachers in the school wore skirts for a day to show their support. Other schools and groups honored diversity and showed their support in other ways. This story, particularly the explication of what an agender and genderqueer person was, really meant something special to me.

I continued to explore, I came out as trans/agender on my blog. I will not rewrite what I already have in my blog. If you haven’t read it leave a comment and I’ll give you a link. After this gender journey I’d been taking on my own I felt the need to connect with others. I discovered a trans support group here in Santa Fe and went to my first meeting. I wasn’t sure I’d be accepted but that fear soon left as I was warmly welcomed. Soon I became involved in the group and helped out with a website and a Twiiter account. I also help facilitate meetings now and then. I have met so many wonderful trans men, trans women and nonbinary/genderqueer individuals. I have learned from their stories and continued to engage in self reflection.

I am very grateful to all the people I have met on my journey. Everyone of you has played a part in my life and your kindness and knowledge have been very important. I now identify as a trans femme, agender, nonbinary/genderqueer person, but if it’s easier for you to remember you can call me transgender.

I am part of the trans community, a community that is now under siege. I consider the trans community as a very large extended family. When a black trans woman is murdered it breaks my heart, when someone is bullied and tormented so often they consider suicide I am deeply saddened. I also am dismayed that some on the right have reduced our community to mythological bathroom predators. I want my trans men and trans women friends to be free to use the facility that aligns with their gender identity and I, along with other nonbinary trans people want to have a gender neutral restroom available. Just like you all we want to do is take care of business, wash our hands and leave. We’ve been doing this for years without a problem. It’s simply a fact that after losing the marriage equality battle the religious right aimed their sights on trans folk. A mythology was created and occasional incidents involving cis men were woven into the tale. I promise you we aren’t putting ourselves in further danger by lingering in the bathroom one second longer than necessary. It’s trans people that are the victims in some bathrooms. Bullies in schools are on the lookout for anyone who isn’t their idea of normal. So it’s trans students, gay and lesbian students and gender non-conforming cis students who get verbally and physically attacked. This needs to end now! I am proud to be a member of the trans community. This community has changed my life and made it meaningful again. If you don’t understand, that’s okay. Ask questions, read up on who we are and remain our friend. On the other hand, if you don’t understand and refuse to learn and open your heart then, regrettably, I can no longer remain friends. I am too old to deal with negativity! I faced enough of it earlier in my life. As for my wonderful friends, family of choice, biological family and fellow activists who accept me and my community I thank you from the bottom of my heart ❤️!

Hugs,

Jerry/Jeri

After this post began to receive likes and kind comments I was moved to respond. Here is that response with the names removed.

I am feeling so blessed and overwhelmed with gratitude at the response to this post. Three of my friends, from way back, during my years in Norridgewock, Maine from 13 – 16 years old. Your simple “likes” were so moving for me. It shows you may not understand all I’ve shared but your willing to try. You’ll never know how much that means to me and the literal tears of gratitude I’ve shared. Thank you so much! I was also moved by the “like” from my high school classmate at Pine Tree Academy. A time filled with both wonder and joy as well as internal turmoil I didn’t show anyone.

And… my friends from my college era who left comments or “liked” this post. I’m so overwhelmed by their memories, their acceptance and/or their willingness to understand, even if it’s with some trepidation. This means so much.

Then there are all friends who knew me during my gay/AIDS activist 🏳️‍🌈 era your acceptance means the world to me. Finally my new trans family 🦄 who’ve welcomed me with open arms, gave me encouragement and advice and support and love ❤️ your literal and virtual embrace have sustained me during the last two and a half years. Thanks so much. Finally my two unwitting fairy godmothers, your inspiration means more to me than either of you will ever know. I owe you so much and I will try and pass it on by being an inspiration and activist in our community. Before I end I should acknowledge my friend and dare I say apprentice, we embarked on our new journey together and I wish you all the best life has to offer. I may have missed someone, if I have I’m sorry but know your friendship is gratefully accepted. To all thanks🙏🏼, hugs🤗, love❤️and unicorns🦄!

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On this National Coming Out Day, thirty years since the October 11, 1987 March on Washington which led to the first National Coming Out Day a year later on the anniversary of the March I have the unique experience of having a link with the March that inspired this day. I also have come out twice once as Gay/Queer and years later as a Polysexual, Trans Femme/Agender Individual. If you’re not dependent on your non-supportive parents for room and board, I urge you to come out if you haven’t already.

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About Fairy JerBear

A disabled, trans/agender fairy bear living in the American Southwest and passionate about social justice, the environment, Trans/ LGBTQIA+ equality and combating bullying.
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