My New Shirt (And My Coming Out Memories)

Posted on June 18, 2013 at 12:30 AM


By Paul Johnson


I came out when I was 14. It was at the tail end of two years of quiet suspicions, repressed feelings, and unnamed fear. Eventually, I felt sick at how much it took to hide this all of the time. I slowly and tentatively came out to a few close friends, who largely responded with a mixture of acceptance and complete ambivalence.


One lunch during September 2011, in the wake of several widely reported gay teen suicides, I slowly stood up at my lunch table and brought myself to say: "You guys... There's something I need to say. I'm, uh, gay." The group collectively looked silently up at me, shrugged, offered a few muttered "Good for you, I guess" sentiments, and readily returned to their previous conversations.


I slowly and awkwardly sat down, unsure what to make of this. My friends had all seemed fine, but... whenever I'd seen a gay person coming out on TV (my total exposure to gay people at that point), the reaction had always been a big deal, as friends and family tried to wrap their minds around a life-changing announcement. What was I supposed to make of friends who didn't think being gay meant anything special, good or bad?




I suddenly found myself living a life I'd never allowed myself to dream of as a middle schooler: I was an ordinary high school nerd and jock who just happened to have a shirtless picture of Taylor Lautner in his locker, who just happened to complain about his dick of an ex-boyfriend, who just happened to make "That's what he said" jokes. Without any particular intention of doing so, I slowly came to forget that not everybody came out when they were 14.


It was only on a recent visit to my old middle school that I began remembering my old hell. The lunch table where I'd quietly sat every day, hoping people couldn't see secrets all over my face. The dark corner of the gym where I used to sneak off and weep as I thought of how soon all my friends would hate me. The locker room that I fully knew I'd never be allowed to reenter once I began dating. It left me deeply troubled and compelled once again to be more "out" in some way.


One afternoon, searching through a novelty nerdy T-shirt website, I found something. A shirt that casually proclaimed "My ex-boyfriend told me to grow up and get a life. Done," followed by the image of a Mario Red Mushroom and Green Mushroom. I loved it instantly, a chance to show my childhood love of New Super Mario Bros. and unremarkably disclose my sexuality to anyone I happened to pass in the street.




When it arrived a few weeks later, I excitedly put it on, imagining how much my life would've changed had I seen a boy wearing this shirt four years ago. But... I kept reading articles on gay websites that talked about how sad it was that gay couples couldn't hold hands in public without fear of being attacked. If I put on this shirt... would I be in danger? Could I get assaulted, punched, shamed? I sat on my bed for a while in quiet introspection, thinking about what it would be like to die at 17. And yet...


Didn't I have some level of responsibility? My forebears had stood in the streets with gay pride signs in an age where that meant certain arrest and assault. They did that for me and my generation, so a boy could dump me by text message and I could bitch about it in the locker room the next day. How could I let a little risk stop my own duty to the next generation?


I walked into school the next day with a hoodie sweater in my backpack. I needed a cover if I felt threatened. My usual group of friends had already assembled in the front half of British Literature. I sat down and joined the conversation on last night's "Walking Dead." After a few minutes, Justin glanced over and intoned, "Dude, can you stand up? I wanna read your shirt." As casually as I could manage, I got out of my chair and straightened the wrinkles on my front. A half-dozen boys glanced over, chuckled, said "Nice," and returned to fresh outrage at Andrea for trusting the Governor.


The rest of the day continued without remark until my track team met after school to run around the neighborhood a few times. A small sixth grade boy I didn't recognize pulled away from his friends to glance at my shirt. A small look of surprise passed through his cheeks. He looked up at my face. I grinned and said, "Hey, dude." He gave a small smile and quietly replied, "Hey," before walking to rejoin his friends.


I set out into the suburbs with a group of teammates, satisfaction and release quietly burning inside my head.

Categories: Other Voices

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Reply Hue-Man
4:48 PM on June 22, 2013 
Growing up in the pre-gay era, my "internet" was our small town's sympathetic public librarian who fed me up to 10 books every week without taking into consideration my (pre-teen) age.. Gays didn't exist in my world but brief passages in these books described the inconceivable. They validated the feelings that I was made to consider abnormal in my isolation. The power of the internet and especially It Gets Better is that no one is isolated or a freak or abnormal - "you are not alone" and are part of a larger community is a sustaining message.
My question for today's gay youth: what message is being conveyed to straight boys about "the gays" and who is delivering the message? I'm fairly certain it's not their parents but are out gay friends telling them that gay-panic is a myth? Should this form part of the anti-gay bullying effort, to tell straight kids that they are not prey for their gay friends? My own view is that bullying will end when we are not seen as a threat and as "the other".
Reply Yiannis
11:42 PM on June 19, 2013 
I loved your story Lucas! You're so right to point out that the first battle to be won, is the one with our old self. Hope you win all the battles in your life :-)
Reply Cole
1:49 PM on June 19, 2013 
Very nice account, Lucas! I have trouble imagining doing anything that even approaches this in high school. One of the greatest triumphs of the gay rights revolution is the ability for so many to have a "normal" transition from childhood to adulthood. You should be able to talk about your boyfriend and dance at prom and all the rites of passage.
9:38 PM on June 18, 2013 
Well done Lucas! Keep 'em coming ;-)
Reply The_Fixer
11:49 PM on June 17, 2013 
Great story, Lucas! Loved reading it and look forward to more.