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January 28, 2013

The Man in the Beige Windbreaker

Images-4When I first came out of the closet two years ago, I attended a support group at the local LGBT center.  I had just begun telling people, starting with my wife.  I knew I was facing what might be one of the roughest experiences of my life, and I needed some sort of community, even just for a little while.  

The Men's Coming Out group was comprised of a nice bunch of guys with a wide range of experiences.  Some were in their 20s, trying to figure out how they wanted to self-identify.  Some were in their 50s, in the middle of coming out processes that, for them, was taking years.  A few of them were family guys like me, with wives and kids.

I went for about two months.  I didn't bond with anyone else there, but I did notice one older man who attended every week.  He was in his early-to-mid 80s.  Leathery face.  Bushy eyebrows.  Always wore a beige windbreaker and a battered baseball cap.  He always entered the room silently, and took the same seat in the corner.  He never talked when it was his turn to share.  He’d simply wave the conversation off, passing it to the next guy in the circle.

I noticed him, but never really wondered too much about his deal, since I was so wrapped up in my own emotional turbulence. 

He didn't say a word for the first month I attended the group.  And then one night, he spoke up.

I don’t remember what the discussion was about that evening, or why he chose that particular session to talk.  But when it was his turn, he sat up a little in his folding chair and said in a gravelly voice:

“I’ve been coming to this group every week for a long time now, and I’ve been listening to y’all talk about whether or not to come out to this person, or that person.  It sounds like you’re all doing pretty good.  I just wanted to say that I’m feeling very good tonight too.”

Well that’s great! the mediator said, encouraging him to continue.  What happened this week that made you feel good about yourself?

“Nothing happened,” the old man continued gruffly.  “I’m just feeling happy. I know that I’m gay, I've been gay all my life, and I’m just really happy about that.”

One of the other guys asked him who else he’d come out to over the years, and whether any of those conversations had been difficult.

“No one,” he said.

We all must’ve looked pretty confused.

“I've never told anyone outside of this room that I’m gay,” he said matter-of-factly.

He went on to explain that he was married, to a woman he’d been with for 50 years.  They had kids.  They had grandkids.  He had several friends with whom he had coffee once a month.  He'd known he was gay for many decades, but back then, he didn’t know what to do about it.  So he did nothing.

One of the guys asked if he’d ever had any experiences with men when he was younger, if he’d ever snuck around behind his wife’s back.  “No sir,” he answered.  “Well, one time almost," he added.  "But no, I never did.”

Everyone in the room wanted to ask a lot of questions, but didn’t know how.  But… but… how can you… how do you even know you’re… how could you live your whole life as if…

The man simply sat back and said, “I just wanted to tell everyone that I’m happy.  I’m happy that I get to come here every week and say that I’m gay.  I’m very content with that.  So thank you, all of you.”

I learned later that the man had been coming to this group every Thursday night for years.  He told his wife he was going to a friend’s house to play cards.  And instead, he came to this room. He came here, sat in a metal folding chair, existed silently as a gay man for two hours, and then he went home.  

I drove home that night deep in thought, imagining what his life was like.  It wasn’t too hard to picture.

Two years later, I still think about him, particularly on my rougher days.  I’m glad for him, for the fact that he’s happy.  He was being sincere that night, I could tell.  You could see on his face that he felt completely at peace.  I have no doubt that he loves his wife and family, and that he's had a great life.  I guess for him, being out on the inside is enough.

Of course, he sort of has no choice now.  At the end of your life, you can either look back and see everything you wanted but didn’t have, choices you didn't make, paths you didn't take, and let regret bury you… or you can decide everything is fine, and that you’re happy with how it all turned out, even while knowing you didn’t live the full life you were meant to. 

I’m happy that he’s happy.  I am.  But I’m even happier that he told his story on a night when I was there, back when everything was still raw and painful for me.  I think about him, and I gratefully recognize what coming out of the closet means.

It means I will officially never be that man.  

I will never be an old man in a beige windbreaker who looks back on a closeted life and has to figure out how to be happy about it.  If everything else falls apart, it’s the one thing I know.  I will never be that man.



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