People

Scale Out: National Coming Out Day

by Richard Ni, Willow Primack and Abe Gandy on October 18th, 2022

Scale Out: National Coming Out Day  cover

Last week, and every October, we celebrated National Coming Out Day. The celebration started in 1988 on the first anniversary of the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October 1987. 

The march's goal was to draw attention to the federal government’s inaction in confronting the AIDS crisis and the Supreme Court’s 1986 ruling upholding Georgia’s anti-gay law. According to NCOD (National Coming Out Day), protesters flooded D.C. over a five day period and demanded legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples and the funding for AIDS research. The march also marked the unveiling of the AIDS memorial quilt, a massive patchwork honoring those lost to the virus, and at the time an unprecedented show of support for gay rights.

National Coming Out Day is meant to be a celebration of individuals within the LGBTQA+ community who openly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, queer, asexual or intersex. It’s a day for honoring the act of coming out, and all the hopes, fears, dreams and expectations for the future.

Whether it is at home, work, or in your community, coming out is the first step to living authentically. Scale is committed to creating a culture of inclusion that supports all Scaliens – no matter how they identify.

We want to express gratitude to the Scaliens who have opened up to share their stories for this year’s National Coming Out Day:

Abe

I grew up in a town of 1300 people in the middle of Southern Illinois. Where the pressures of never coming out and the expectations of settling down were standard.

We moved from Missouri to Illinois around that time to help my grandma after my grandpa had passed suddenly of cancer. She lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere and that’s where me and my twin brother, along with an older brother and sister stayed for a few years until we moved to another house in the country when I was 9. During my tenure in grade school, there were a lot of slurs thrown around by kids who didn’t really understand what they meant. I never used them personally, because that's not who I’ve ever been. But I know if one of those slurs was directed at someone, it was a really bad thing and meant that kid was now viewed as less than a human. So I tried to fly under the radar. 

In middle school, I tried dating girls, because that was what you were supposed to do: date women, get married and have kids. I even pined after my best friend since the 4th grade until we were out of high school, but she never really returned the way I felt. 

When I got to high school, a kid in the grade above me was the first openly gay person I’d ever met. I admired the heck out of him for doing something I thought I could never do, and also didn’t understand why he’d want to subject himself to the small-minded mentality of the town we had grown up in.  

I finally graduated high school in 2000 and went to a small community college over by Centralia, IL. While going to college there, I was working at a gas station and an attractive male customer came in…that’s when I had my “holy CRAP, I’m gay” moment. I think many of you know what I’m talking about: the time you finally admit to yourself that you’re definitely not straight. 

I met the person who would become my future wife on the first day of freshman orientation. We were inseparable. We did everything together, enjoyed all the same activities like driving around, singing songs on the radio, and just enjoyed being around each other. After a few years, I thought to myself, “If there was anyone you could make a straight life with, it would be this woman.” So, I did what anybody who came from a town of 1,300 people would do: I asked her to marry me, driving down IL-4 one night. I was between Stelleville and Sparta when I popped the question…while driving…and didn’t have a ring. We were married on November 6th, 2004 at what was supposed to be a beautiful ceremony outside her parents house.

Even before I had admitted to myself who I truly was, I had explored being with men. With that being said, a few months after I was married, I met another known gay person from my hometown (who had graduated high school right before I had entered) and struck up a friendship with him. Problem was, I ended up kissing him after the friendship started. Now this was the first time I had ever kissed another man, and my whole life changed. I couldn’t eat and seriously lost 40 pounds in 2 weeks. I couldn’t sleep, because I just thought I was always going to be married to my wife and now that I had kissed another man, I knew I couldn’t go on living as a straight man.

So one night, I came home after a late shift, woke my wife up and told her the news, “Honey, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m gay. Here’s how it happened [see story above] and I’m truly sorry. I thought I could be straight and I just can’t be anymore.” There was a lot of crying that night between the 2 of us, a lot of discussion about the future and what it looked like for us, and how to start tomorrow off. I ended up coming out to everyone else that was important around me for the next few weeks and really received love and support from 99% of my family unit (I’ve always had the philosophy that family is the ones you choose as your family, so that doesn’t just mean people I’m related to). We ended up selling the house and 1 year and 1 month after we were married we officially signed the divorce papers. 

I still look back on that night with awe on how I ever had the courage to do it. I know I hurt some people, especially my ex-wife, but we still talk to this day and joke about that time in our life. She’s remarried with a beautiful daughter and I’ve even met her new husband. I’ve since moved to St. Louis where I try to be a beacon in the community, including heading volunteer efforts for an LGBTQ+ group I’m a member of, recently chairing a committee that helped raise $1500 for The Metro Trans Umbrella Group (MTUG) in one night. 

Yes, it was hard to come out, but I never liked closets anyway. The sunshine is so much better outside of them.

Willow

I knew from an early age that I was gay and transgender, but it took me many years to come out. The social stigma felt very high. Gayness was used as an insult, and transgender people were a bad punchline at best.

It took me 14 years of growing up to decide that I didn’t really care about the social stigma. During that time, I had focused on becoming an engineer and a soldier, stereotypically male professions. While deployed in Afghanistan, I was struggling to understand why I felt more depressed about the thought of returning home than staying in theater, and I realized that I was living my life inauthentically in a way that was leaving me devastatingly unhappy.

When I got back home, I came out as queer and made plans to leave the military. In 2014, transgender people were still barred for military service, and while it seemed like that might change, I figured it would be a messy policy process with too much back and forth for me to want to live through (unfortunately this turned out to be correct). The first person I came out to as transgender was my long term girlfriend, who was incredibly supportive and caring. Next, I came out to my parents who said they loved and supported me and promised to assist in any way they could with transition. My immediate supervisor was also supportive, which made managing my exit from the military much easier and simpler. Even the most supportive coming out was very hard for me psychologically: it felt like a terrible admission of fragility and stigma. How much more difficult for those without support?

I left the military, went back to school, and changed careers and genders. It was very challenging emotionally, but bluntly far easier for me than most other transgender people as a result of relative socioeconomic privilege and education, and due to the supportive friends and family around me. For this reason, it has always been important to me to be out as queer and transgender in my social life and business life. I do not treat these aspects of who I am as secrets, and I hope that being out makes coming out less of a burden for other people over time.

Richard 

I knew I was gay years before I met an openly gay person. I was 11 years old and watching TV when all of a sudden I found myself attracted to a male actor. For whatever reason, in that moment, I had no doubt that I was gay. I didn’t want to be - “gay” was a prejorative even among 5th graders in midwest suburbia - but it was a fundamental truth, as undeniable as 2+2=4.

It never occurred to me that I could hide this forever. Living in the closet requires telling dozens of lies daily. Some are overt. Many are subtle, a slight blur of the truth. It’s an exhausting existence, one that I personally was not capable of. Rationally, I knew that I had nothing to be ashamed of. But as much as that made logical sense, it was still emotionally terrifying - would I lose my friends? Could I have kids and build a family? Could I have a “respectable” career and be a “respectable” member of society? 

I’m a big believer in “getting your reps in” - you need to practice in order to build muscles, whether they’re physical or emotional. Coming out isn’t a one-time thing. You come out over and over again. To your friends’ parents. To new colleagues. To old friends you didn’t really keep in touch with, and you aren’t quite sure if the gossip reached them. It took me a few years to learn how to come out without showing my fear externally, and a few more to not feel it internally either. It took dozens of reps to rewire the part of my brain that would go into overdrive - that flight or fight response that kicks in when you subconsciously perceive that you’re in danger.

As a teenager, coming out was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. Arguably, it still is. There were no openly gay students at my high school. There were no openly gay men in my college fraternity. It was terrifying, but what was once a source of terror is now a source of pride.

One of my fondest memories was visiting my brother in 2012. I was 20 years old, and he had joined some small startup called Dropbox in some far away place called San Francisco. I was eating lunch served by company chefs in the office cafeteria - that in itself was a novel concept - and overheard a same-sex couple, surrounded by friends and colleagues, talking about their baby. My mind was blown by how at ease they were, and how “normal” it all felt. At that moment, I really felt that I could both be gay and have the foundational things I wanted - friends, family, and a career. My dream was a possibility, and it was up to me to make it a reality. For this, I will always be grateful.

During my lifetime, the world has overall become a more accepting place. I’m optimistic that, even if there are some bumps in the road, we’ll continue to make progress, and more and more people will have the freedom to live authentically. 

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