June is Pride month, and to break from the usual political shenanigans, I thought I’d share the story of when I first came out as a gay man.
The first thing you should realise is that there isn’t a single coming out for queer people. It usually involves first doing so to a sibling or best friend, before expanding that circle: coming out to your family, work colleagues, and every new acquaintance you make throughout your life. Whenever small talk gets rolling, and one is asked about wives/husbands/partners/etc, we usually have to offer a quick clarification. The most seminal moment for most people, however, remains the moment we tell our parents who we really are.
My parents are extremely liberal. We’re an atheistic household, my Mum was born in Angola, my Dad’s father was a political prisoner during the Fascist dictatorship of Salazar in Portugal. I grew up seeing loads of different people as their friends, including gay men (which I had no idea about, by the way). This might make you think that I had the easiest coming out in the world, no?
Well, not entirely. I was very gender-conforming growing up, and whilst I always knew that I liked other boys, I made an effort not to fall into any stereotypes that could give me away. Girl colleagues of mine would hang out during breaks, rehearsing some Britney Spears’s choreography, and although I’d want to be with them, I just went away to do something else with the boys. Not sports, though, I never went that far – I was always severely overweight and vastly uninterested in anything physically demanding.
Mum and Dad had no suspicions (my Mum likes to say that she always knew, but I’m not too sure; she only started saying it after I came out, so we’ll never know). Forward to a few years later, when I finally go to university, and move from the small fishing village of Santa Luzia in the South of Portugal, to Lisbon. As I became increasingly comfortable with the idea of who I was, during my first year of uni (having loads of gay people as friends helped immensely), not even my friends suspected a thing. I genuinely believe that this was to do with me being so overweight and apparently thoughtless when it came to my image, not conforming to anyone’s prejudices of what a gay guy was. Zero interest in fashion, zero interest in talking about pop music (I listened to it secretly), zero mannerisms that could be perceived as effeminate. I went under everyone’s radar, including my gay friends.
I should also point out that I was living in a fraternity, with about a dozen other guys, and homophobia and misogyny were rampant. Their conversations were disgusting. And I knew that I couldn’t dare to come out there, because I’d face a lot of crap.
I first ended up coming out to one of my gay friends. I’d arranged coffee with him, saying that I needed to tell him something, and only then did it first click in his head. He was brilliant about it, and incredibly excited for me to tell everyone else. I’d also painted my hair blonde, by the way, and I think he was more excited about them seeing it than the fact that I was coming out. Anyway, I did, the following morning, before a uni lecture. Most of them thought it was a prank, and some didn’t believe me until months later, that was how entrenched their prejudices were (none of them were ill-meaning, by the way). Yet, as the months went by, I grew in confidence, even if I never came out in my fraternity.
Before we start the following year of uni, something finally clicked in me and I started addressing my obesity. I lost weight at an incredible rate, as I was inhumanely determined to fix myself, after I’d reached a point of loneliness and unhappiness I couldn’t bear any longer. I was an out gay man, and I wanted to have my first boyfriend, I wanted to dress in the clothes that I liked and not those that fitted me. I wanted to feel attractive.
As my weight almost evaporated, through a discipline and strength of purpose that I haven’t been able to recapture since, I started becoming a little vain for the first time in my life. I stopped hating the person I saw in the mirror, and started seeing the potential of who I could become if I kept at it. And so I did, and I started changing my style, and then I got my ear pierced. And then I got my second one, and this is when my Dad had a strange reaction that forced me to come out.
You see, as liberal as my parents were (and are), my Dad has some weird fixations about the body. He hates any adornments, because he thinks a healthy body doesn’t need anything; tattoos, piercings, even necklaces and bracelets. They’re unnecessary. So when I pierced my left ear, it was kind of alright, but when he saw the first picture of both my ears pierced, as he was having dinner with my Mum and brother, he called me. He wanted to know what the hell I was thinking, and if I was unaware that having both ears pierced could leave people thinking “that I belonged to certain groups”. This was a weirdly judgemental sentence for my Dad, I never heard him saying anything remotely close to that before or since. But that was the prompt I needed.
“Maybe I do belong to certain groups,” I replied. “In fact, I’m gay.” Slight pause. “You’re what?” he asks. “I’m a homosexual. Now pass the phone to Mum.” He hesitated slightly, and then I heard him tell her “Zézinha, it’s better that you’re sitting down for this.” My Mum picked up the phone, slightly anxious by the introduction that my Dad gave her, and I told her: “I’m gay.” She paused for a bit. “You’re what? What does that mean?” This was so weird, because of course my Mum knew what gay meant, but I guess it was her brain telling her that maybe she misheard something. “I’m a homosexual,” clarified, knowing how unambiguous that word was.
To be honest, I don’t remember exactly how that phone call ended. I had left the fraternity by that time, and was renting an apartment with three other friends, and they were all next to me then. I knew I was shaking, I could feel my face burning, and then we just celebrated as I felt a huge wave of relief.
My Dad called me the next day, and we didn’t talk about what had happened last night at all. It was all normal. It took me a couple of weeks to visit them, as I went back to the Algarve one weekend every two months or so. I went to have dinner with my Mum on the night I arrived, at the shopping centre of the nearby town, and she talked to me about HIV, how I should just make sure that I was safe, and then we weirdly talked about how she had cried so much when Freddie Mercury died. She also told me that she’d always known, but had waited for me to tell her. I’m sure that’s partly true.
Everything was normal. My Mum told my Granny and the rest of the family (it’s a small family), no one made a fuss whatsoever. Nothing changed between me and my parents, at least not negatively – if anything it just allowed me own my breath with confidence, when I was next to them. I was no longer playing any character.
I continued on my journey to lose weight, and it would actually take me a few more months before I even started looking for someone to date. It was okay, I took as long as I needed to feel comfortable enough so that I was ready to share it with someone else. I was 21 years old when this finally happened. My first sexual encounter turned out, unfortunately, to be one where I participated without consent, although that didn’t scar me at all, I was simply freaked out and ran out of his flat as quickly as I could. Took me a couple more months to find another man that I felt like I could date, and it turned out to be the love of my life, the man I’m still with, since the 20th of May, 2012.
As I said in the beginning, you spend your life coming out, if you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s okay, we get used and better at it. And each coming out is very different. Overall, my experience was nothing but an immensely positive one. My partner, on the other hand, is still almost entirely estranged from his family since coming out. But that’s his story to tell.
Love your kids for who they are. Sometimes, they don’t grow up according to your expectations. It’s not their fault, they never asked for those expectations. The only thing you should expect is that they live a long, healthy and happy life, and that you do everything in your capacity to guarantee that you’re a positive part of it all.
And if you’re reading this because you don’t know how to come out, because you’re afraid of being thrown out of your house or being beaten: I will not lie, and tell you that everything will be alright. Maybe it won’t. Maybe your parents have been drinking from a poisoned cup for years and years, and they will react badly. But they can also surprise you. Never be too certain. The most important thing is that you are honest with yourself, and that you have someone who you can count on, come what may. If the storm gets rough, you’ll need help navigating it. But you’ll survive, and as you lighten your burden, you’ll become stronger than you’ve ever known. And you’ll never be alone – the LGBTQ+ community is a family, and we’ve all been there. We will always understand you.
The world can be a very dark place. I still experience homophobia on a more regular basis than it should be accepted. But how we react to that darkness is by making sure that we shine brightly. There’s no power like owning your body and who you are.
Love is love. Happy Pride month.