With Fresh Eyes: A Coming Out Story

by Rich Nelson

Actually, this is the coming out stories of two gay men, one a fictional character, the other more personal.  Both are connected, however, in their journey of self-discovery and becoming comfortable with their true nature.

First, the recent critically-acclaimed film Call Me By Your Name (based on the book of the same name) centers on Elio, the son of an American family spending yet another sultry summer in northern Italy.
His college professor father, as his tradition every year, invites a graduate student, Oliver, to the family’s summer home for a six-week internship. Oliver’s presence awakens long dormant and intense feelings in Elio, leading to a brief yet intimate relationship, which then ends in heartbreak with Oliver’s return to America.

Elio navigates gingerly through a minefield rife with self-doubt and hesitation in sorting through his emerging feelings.  He guardedly  seeks a connection, and, with Oliver, becomes comfortable with conversing about, as Elio puts it, “things that matter.” In real life, such things that matter are often taboo with family and friends.  Sharing one’s deepest and most intimate thoughts and feelings are usually off limits at the dinner table or in the school hallway, particularly the topic of sexual orientation. In too many instances, when this subject does emerge, coming out as gay, lesbian or transgender to family or others has led to shaming, rejection, and even violence. Elio does find a supportive ally in his father who, after Oliver’s departure, encourages his son to embrace the grief he is feeling and follow his true nature.

The second coming out story is mine. Call Me By Your Name brought me back to my coming of age years in the 1960’s and early‘’70’s, a time when few resources or gay role models were available to latch on to for support and affirmation. I buried my feelings of same sex attraction during my school years and plodded through the motions of dating female classmates, laughing at the homophobic jokes in the locker room, and being on guard 24/7 to ensure that nothing I said or did would slip and reveal my true self to others, all out of fear of being ostracized.  Those buried feelings nevertheless kept resurfacing, and it was virtually years before I came to terms with my true self and achieved a comfort level to come out to myself, let alone summoning the courage to come out to others.  In the new biography of Leonardo DaVinci by Walter Isacson, DaVinci, lamenting on his place in 15th century Italy as an outsider, both as flamboyant artist and gay man, describes himself as “a person who is part of the scene but detached from it … who is immersed but marginalized … who is of this world but apart from it.”  That was my struggle.  It was a long and sober journey before I found an honest connection with others and was finally able to share, openly, the “things that matter.”

Today, support for LGBTQ young people is out there, among them resource centers and Gay/Straight Alliances on school campuses, The Trevor Project hotline offering confidential support, notable role models, and advocates such as the PFLAG organization (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). 

Challenges remain. The Anti-Violence Project reports 52 hate-motivated homicide victims in 2017, 27 of whom were transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. Last month, 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, a gay college student, was stabbed more than 20 times in California by a suspect with ties to a neo-Nazi group. The recent rise in hate crimes has been linked to the subsequent rise of the white supremacist movement.

Despite the current climate, I am hopeful.  As more LGBTQ individuals come out, they are recognized as someone’s relative, friend, co-worker or acquaintance. Those who know them gain a new perspective and are then often more inclined to reject and challenge homophobic slurs and threats.  And, thus, they are ready to join in on the conversation of the things that matter.

E-mail Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com.