My Coming Out Story

gay pride

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.

We can’t let division win

Al-Hubb, 23x31cm

Painting with the Arabic word for love, “Al-Hubb”, written in calligraphy. 23x31cm, oil on canvas. ©Saraband

Twitter can be mental. I love it. I guess most of you who use it also share this love/hate relationship with it, because we all know we’ve made some wonderful connections, but also seen a lot of crap. I guess that social media has all the problems of our modern society but they become amplified with the added layer of echo chambers, and the inability to provide some much needed nuance around complicated issues, a difficult thing to do with a 280-character limit (can’t believe we survived the 140-character era).

Today, in one of Twitter’s typical abilities to catch us unaware, a bitter little straight man popped up on my timeline, taking issue with the fact that I describe myself as a feminist on my Twitter bio (and, indeed, in life), and also support the Trans community as part of the LGBTQ+ family. The man assumed I was some radical activist wanting to erode women’s rights, which I’m not, and I absolutely don’t want to. So a discussion ensued, he ended up admitting that he had jumped in too quickly (although offering a backhanded apology, so fuck him), but I was left shaking because the whole thing caught me by surprise. Admittedly, I deal very badly with people making false assumptions about me, I have to work on that.

Whilst still reeling from that exchange (I took screenshots of it all before blocking him, by the way), I decided to do a wee spontaneous vlog on Twitter about my views on the subjects of male feminism, self-id laws, and the need for compassion in a debate that is becoming a mud-flinging mess on all sides. You can watch it here:

Keep in mind that it is a two-minutes long, unscripted video, so of course there’s a lot more to be said. It does not offer solutions to the questions around self-ID and women’s rights: to be frank, as a gay man perfectly at home in the body I was born with, it’s not my place to offer those solutions. I should listen to what women have to say, and how we can protect the Trans community without infringing on anyone else’s rights.

I will always stand by my sisters fighting for the right to be protected from male violence, and I will always fight for the right of my Trans friends to live dignified lives. These two things shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Don’t let the patriarchy divide & conquer us, when we should be fighting it together.

Diversity is not about saying that we’re all the same. We aren’t. Trans people are unique, as are women, gay men, straight men, etc., and there’s uniqueness within every single one of those groups as well. Diversity is about acknowledging that those differences exist, but respect them, and ensure that we are all able to live dignified lives. I know I owe the rights I enjoy today, as a gay man, to both the Trans community that has always fought for me, but also to my Lesbian and Straight sisters, who fought for the LGBTQ+ community at large. Let’s bring that compassion back, and keep the slurs and the dogmas out of the debate, for everyone’s sake.

Oh, and cheerio to anyone saying I’m not, or can’t be a feminist. I can feel the heel of the patriarchy on my neck, every day of my life as a gay man. I know the challenges I face are different from those of my sisters, and I know I still benefit from white male privilege every day of my life. But we are in this together, in a movement with women at the front.

I’ll not let any straight man dictate if I’m a feminist or not. The approval I need has been given to me in the knowing look of my female friends, and they will let me know when I step on the wrong foot, as we all occasionally do, because we’re all human – that’s the point.