The beginning of this story happens 12 years prior, on Mother’s Day 2000. That was the unfortunately timed Sunday morning when my parents put the pieces together and called me in Atlanta at the crack of noon to ask if I was gay.
I’ve never been filled in on the details of exactly how that discussion went. When they asked, point blank, what exactly the relationship was between my “roommate” and me, I confirmed their fears, and the line went dead. The phone was no longer necessary. I was fairly certain I could hear their screams all the way from Mississippi.
For my parents, my coming out was the final infuriating twist in the epic drama of raising a son who they loved without question, but could not begin to comprehend. A bullied fat kid who wore costumes to school and quoted “Designing Women” episodes. A teenager who got kicked out of two of the best schools in the country, gave up formal education altogether at 17, and decided his career path would be as a playwright and essayist, despite no one making a living doing that since the late 1800s.
They’d tried to accept, even embrace, all of this. But my homosexuality felt like a final assault on their hopes for my happiness.
The only men they’d ever known to be gay were haphazardly closeted and married to miserably optimistic women, or they were outcast from their families and living with HIV. In their minds, that’s what my future held: misery, then death.
After my death, their religion explained, I would be punished for eternity. They were terrified. All those years of trying to support their confounding offspring had been wasted. That fear and betrayal manifested as rage.
It is the inescapable truth when you come out: A concept you’ve been grappling with for quite some time, arriving at some measure of self-acceptance, is going to be presented to your loved ones in a single moment. In a best-case scenario, they will have had suspicions, and done a little prep work of their own. But it’s going to slap some people in the face.
When that happens in your own life, or if it already has, there are two things you need to do. First and foremost, take care of yourself. Surround yourself with people you trust, because you’re going to need those folks to remind you of what is true, and what is right. You are still an extraordinary creation, and the only life worth living is one lived in honesty and love.
The second, more daunting task: Allow that love to extend to those who react with fear and confusion. Their reaction has nothing to do with you. It is the result of their own expectations and perceptions.
Your coming out results in a moment of crisis, as they’re forced to re-evaluate the way they see the world. Let them know you’re open to helping them get through that challenge, but not at the expense of your own identity. Some will never come around. Those people are toxic. They are dealing with some demons that have nothing to do with you. But others, after an initial lousy reaction, will commit to rebuilding.
The morning I came out was the moment my parents and I finally began to understand each other. We didn’t know that at the time. But we worked together, and the result is so much stronger than what was ever there before. That’s how families survive, it’s how marriages last for 40 years, and ultimately, it’s how we’ll change the world.
Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at topherpayne.com.