Celebrating 16 Years of Gayness

Today is National Coming Out Day and I’m celebrating 16 years of gayness.

I came out of the closet in 2001 at the age of 22 after being mired in self-loathing for years due to my fundamentalist religious upbringing. When I came out I was very fortunate to be living in a progressive city (keep Austin weird, y’all), have a solid job with an LGBT-friendly company (thank you IBM!), not be financially dependent upon my parents in any way, and have friends who accepted me with love1.

Coming out of the closet and admitting to myself, and my friends, that I am gay was a turning point in my life. It’s not been perfect, but I’ve never been happier to be able to live my authentic life at home and at work.

There those among us who think we don’t need National Coming Out Day, that by intentionally coming out and celebrating it we are preventing gayness from being fully normalized and accepted in society. To that I reply: check your privilege.2

Coming out risks rejection from loved ones and peers. Many LGBTQ-folks are financially dependent upon their parents and risk being kicked out of their homes; a disproportionate number of homeless youth are LGBTQ. In numerous states, if you come out to your employer they can fire you. For many people there are real, tangible risks to living an authentic life.

For those of us who have a preponderance of privilege, I believe we have a moral responsibility to come out. Coming out establishes an expectation of acceptance, similar to our expectations of justice and liberty. Coming out, and being out, help creates that normalcy of gayness that will ultimately reduce National Coming Out Day to a mere Hallmark Holiday, with as much emotional and life-changing consequences as getting a greeting card.

Until then, if you can, I encourage you to be very visibly out. Let’s help create those places for fellow LGBTQ-folks to be safe and help blaze the trail of acceptance that those before us started.

Thanks to my friend Jason Lucas for helping me coalesce my thoughts on this.


1 The second person I came out to was a woman I had worked with for just a few short months: Jonobie Ford. Seventeen years later she remains my best friend.

2 Alternatively: “you try growing up in a small town in the south in a state where it’s legal to be fired for being gay in a fundamentalist conservative Republican family knowing you are going to hell and then tell me we don’t need this”, but “check your privilege” is more succinct.

A Preponderance of Privilege

Despite being gay, I have a preponderance of privilege1.

I am privileged to be a white cis male born in America. I am privileged to come from a loving, caring household. My parents worked very hard while I was growing up and we always had enough quality food on the table. My parents paid for me to go to college and I graduated with no student loans. I am privileged to have a knack with computers, and privileged to have had access to one at a very early age. I am privileged to work in the tech industry and am paid insanely well. And while I work hard at my job, so do many others in many other industries who live paycheck to paycheck. I am privileged to be fully-abeled, have good health, and good health insurance through my company.

I have so much privilege that frankly, it’s embarrassing. I contributed nothing to being white, being male, being from a loving household, having a knack for tech, or being born fully-abled. Throughout the course of my life I’ve used and build upon these things to get where I am today. Doors were opened and opportunities presented to me because of my privilege.

The only aspect of my life where I don’t have privilege is being gay. And still I am privileged in that the thing that makes me part of a minority group is something I can easily hide if I felt my safety was at risk.

Being gay is what helped me see my privilege.

I think until you can identify some area where you don’t have privilege, it’s hard to really grasp what privilege means. It’s much easier to see doors that were closed in front of you for something you can’t change rather than ones opened just because of who you are. It wasn’t until I had to fight for the right to marry the man I loved that I understood that not everyone is playing on the same field.

It’s worth noting that privilege does not denigrate effort. You can work hard for what you’ve achieved with or without privilege, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t start with a leg up on the ladder because of that privilege.

Being privileged is what makes it easier for me to live as an openly gay man.

LGBTQ+ people can be fired simply for being gay in 28 states, yet because of my privilege I was never worried about this when I lived in Texas nor am I concerned about someone not hiring me because I’m gay. My privilege lets me get away with things like this worry-free that others can’t. And I feel that it’s my obligation to use that privilege to be very visibly out as a gay man, both personally and professionally. To advocate for those less privileged in my workplace, be they LGBTQ+, women, people of color, etc.

I consider it my moral obligation to use my privilege to help others with less privilege in any way that I can3, Because I did nothing to earn this privilege myself.

 

1 I know many people get wound around the axle on the word “privilege”. If you are a religiously-inclined person, just substitute “blessed” or “blessings” for privilege. It’s not an exact match but if that helps you with the concept, go for it.2

2 That ruins the alliteration in the title though, so just retitle this post in your head to A Bevy of Blessings.

3 To those of religious backgrounds, this should bring to mind the parable of the faithful servant.

Dear (straight) doctors: advice from a gay patient

Last year my very good friend Dr. Monica Tschirhart was giving a lecture to some medical students in Oklahoma about LGBTQ+ health. She reached out and asked if I had anything to share. After giving it some thought, this was the feedback I gave her based on my own personal experience and stories from friends.

  • LGBTQ+ people, particularly those in conservative areas, can be afraid of coming out, even to their healthcare provider. The most important thing you can do for them is make them feel comfortable talking about all aspects of their health, including their sex life. This may mean putting aside your personal beliefs or judgments — doing so will make you a better physician.
  • Don’t assume the person you are interacting with is straight. Doing so by asking about their girlfriend/wife (if they present as male) or boyfriend/husband (if they present as female) already forces them to correct you, making the already stressful “coming out to the doctor” worse.
  • Don’t assume that just because they are married they are straight, regardless if it’s from the intake form or a wedding band.
  • If discussing their sexual practices, don’t use euphemisms – be direct. Like straight folks, “sex” means many things, oral sex, anal sex, etc. If they say they are having “safe sex” it could be they use condoms when having anal sex but are having unprotected oral sex. Also don’t cringe. If you can’t say “do you practice safe anal sex” without cringing, practice in the mirror until you do.
  • Never, ever ask “are you the girl” or “are you the boy” regarding sex. If you’re comfortable with the terms, ask “do you bottom” or “do you top”. If you aren’t comfortable with those terms ask “are you on the receiving end or giving end of anal sex”. Again, practice in the mirror until you can say it without cringing.
  • If asking about their sexual practices, don’t assume they are monogamous if they have a partner. LGBTQ+ folks are often non-monogamous and just because they have a partner/boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife doesn’t mean they’re only having sex with that person. And yes, most of the time their significant other is fully aware and OK with it.
  • Don’t inadvertently out your patient. Unless they tell you differently, you should treat how they identify as confidential. LGBTQ+ folks can be fired for being gay, ostracized from their communities of faith, and worse. It’s sad, but there are good reasons why some people are still in the closet — particularly in conservative areas of the country. The moment you out them you’ve violated their trust and potentially their safety.

Daniel added these two very important points to the conversation:

  • Treat your patients as individuals, not stereotypes. If you want to talk about sexual health, start by asking them about their sexual practices (or lack thereof) instead of assuming you know what “people like them” do based on their age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or whatever.
  • Give your patients an opportunity to tell you what name and pronoun they want to be addressed by — and always use it, both in conversation with them and in conversation or notes about them.

This doesn’t even touch on PrEP, knowing the risk factors of STI transmission of different types of sex, etc which are all important but I think is somewhat secondary if the LGBTQ+ person won’t open up to begin with.

Dr. Tschirhart said that the students appreciated some of my comments and that it made it more real to them than some general statistics. And that’s just it — we’re people, not statistics or stereotypes.

The above is decidedly cis-gay-male centric based on my own experience. LGBTQ+ folks, what other things would you like doctors to know to provide great care for our community?

PS: The American Medical Association’s LGBTQ physicians resources page is a great springboard for doctors too.

 

Find an LGBTQ+ primary care physician you can trust

Recently I was discussing with a friend how much better medical care I received as a gay man when I started going to a gay primary care physician. It occurred to me that it might not be obvious to other LGBTQ+ individuals how important it is to have a medical provider you can fully trust and open up to so I thought I’d share my experience.

When I first came out in 2000, I was suffering from depression attempting to reconcile my fundamentalist Southern Baptist faith with being gay. During a visit to my doctor I brought up my depression and ultimately came out to him in tears there in the exam room. I got the deer in the headlights look. Instead of compassion, reassurance, or suggestion to talk with a counselor I got a prescription for anti-depressants and told I should be tested for HIV immediately. I changed doctors after that.

I came out to my next doctor in the first meeting wanting to make sure I had found someone who wouldn’t flinch. This doctor was straight but treated me being gay as a total non-issue. As part of the physical he asked about my mental health, any depression, if I was seeing anyone, was I having sex, etc. We discussed safe sex practices and had a discussion about regular STI testing based on my sex practices and risk profile. After I started dating Benjamin, he asked about Benjamin at every visit. He treated me like a human being — that made all the difference.

Fast forward to when I moved to Seattle in 2010. I intentionally sought out not just a gay-friendly doctor but a doctor who was himself gay. Asking around I discovered Dr. Chu and the good folks at Capitol Hill Medical. Hands down this is the best medical care I’ve ever received. I feel totally comfortable chatting about all aspects of my health and sex life with a fellow gay man who understands the LGTBQ+ community. The front desk doesn’t bat an eye when I call in and schedule a regular STI screening and I’ve experienced zero judgement.

Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you have to have a gay doctor, but I believe it is vitally important that you have a primary care physician that you feel comfortable having open and frank conversations with. If you can’t talk to your doctor about any and all aspects of your health you aren’t getting the best medical care possible. If you’re looking for an LGBT+ health provider, check out the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association’s provider finder.

Regardless of your sexual orientation, race, or gender I strongly encourage you to find a primary care physician you trust. We all deserve the best medical care possible.

Happy Pride

Pride is Gay Christmas. You greet one another with “Happy Pride”, there’s a festive joyous spirit in the air, and it’s a chance to celebrate life among strangers and friends. Rainbows are everywhere. For one glorious weekend of the year you are immersed in your community. You can hold hands and steal a kiss from your boyfriend as you walk down the street and get smiled at by strangers rather than jeered.

There are street fairs, block parties, and concerts in the parks. Numerous organizations are staffing booths at all of them, including the Seattle Public Library, National Parks Service, the ACLU, and more local nonprofits than you can shake a stick at.

Today Seattle’s Pride Parade will include the City of Seattle, King County, churches, schools, and local service organizations both large and small. In addition, some of the largest and most well-known corporations like Alaska Airlines, Amazon, Delta, Google, IKEA, Microsoft, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Whole Foods and more will be represented by their LGBTQ employees. We are far past the days where only the alcohol companies wanted to be associated with us. The parade will last for hours because it’s that big. The support for our community is that big.

Fly a rainbow flag, kiss the one you love, and celebrate life.

Happy Pride!

Feeling Unsafe in Trump’s Rural America

This weekend Daniel and I got out of town and stayed at a lovely AirBnB out in Deming, WA — about 2 hours north of Seattle. Our AirBnB hosts were delightful people and our stay was great. Along the way I figured out that I now feel unsafe in rural America.

You don’t have to get far outside of Seattle to see pro-Trump signs. They’re on the side of I-5 as well as alongside small backroads but all primarily in rural areas. This isn’t surprising, urban centers are typically lean liberal (read: Democrat) and rural areas typically lean conservative (read: Republican). As someone who grew up in a rural, very conservative, area of the country I have first-hand experience with the racism and homophobia that go with such insular, isolated, usually-religious communities. Rural areas didn’t suddenly get more racist or homophobic the day Trump was elected, but they did get implicit affirmation that it’s OK to vent those opinions vocally, just like their new President did on the campaign trail.

As we left I-5 in left-leaning Whatcom county I started to feel more uncomfortable, wondering if it really was safe for two gay guys to stay at an AirBnB in a very rural area. After we checked in and walked along the road to the Nooksack river, I wondered if it was safe for us to be seen together as trucks with gun racks drove past. When the owner of the general store looked us over as we walked in together I wondered if we were in a safe place. I don’t know if we were or not but I felt unsafe all the same.

We got back to Seattle without incident this afternoon and I read about how Trump praised leaders of homophobic groups, as sharp contrast to former-President Obama’s proclamation of support. It’s no wonder I don’t feel safe in Trump-land.

I’m realize I’m being irrational, but I told Daniel that for our vacation this fall I didn’t want to visit any US county that went to Trump. That effectively nixed our plans to visit Alaska. I’m not all sad about this though, there are tons of wonderful blue cities in the US and literally hundreds of countries to visit where I feel safe. I’m sure they won’t mind taking my liberal US dollar either.