The Courage to Open the Door

As you may have noticed, I’ve been in a hard-core introspective place lately. My recent embrasure of a couple of movies (as outlined in this post, which I consider pre-requisite reading to today’s) has forced me to confront things I had, traditionally, sort of back-burnered. So today, if you don’t mind, I want to talk about an actual process that I have not fully detailed in this blog before: Coming out.

Trust me, I even went back and re-read the entire blog just to make sure. I apologize for some of the zaniness of the past… but not much of it. That was me. Just like this is.


Each time that I watch the movie Love, Simon, it sort of forces me to open a door a bit further… a door I was not entirely aware I had closed in my head and my heart. OK, before I go any further… seriously, if it is at all within your power, you should go see that movie. Just go to Youtube and watch the trailer. At least do that much for me!

OK, back to the point. I have seen the movie five times as of this writing, and with each viewing, I have had the good fortune to bring new friends along for the ride. And each time, I have grappled with my own long-ago coming out process differently–more directly. Whether it is sitting at Perkins eating pie after the movie or standing in the cold, cold parking lot talking… this movie has led to a lot of processing. Tears, too–but mostly processing. Remembering. Saying aloud things that are not often said aloud. Then, of course, examining why it is those things are not said aloud.

When I watch this movie, I am moved–repeatedly–by the support system that springs up around Simon. Not because I didn’t have a support system–I am not moved out of jealousy. Not because my friends and family have not been supportive, because in the long run, all of those relationships are in good places for me. No… I am moved because of something that this movie creates that I did not possess, and that many before me did not possess… and that too many after me did not possess either.

This movie is a glowing beacon of possibility. When you watch it, you see the possibility that coming out will not be the end of everything. That people will be OK. That you will be OK.

I did not have that. I had no way of knowing what would happen when I came out of the closet in fits and starts from the fall of 98 through the summer of 99. I didn’t have a movie that said, “People will still love you.” Or even a single functional role model anywhere, on TV or in my town. That was the year that Will & Grace started, and it was revolutionary television, but it wasn’t about kids… it was about adults. Adults in New York City, where everything seemed both possible and magical. That didn’t do a guy in Jesup very much good.

Coming out back then–and for many still today–was taking a horrible chance that you were about to step off a cliff. This movie isn’t a promise that today’s young person will survive, but it is at least a rickety rope bridge, stretching across that chasm… the possibility of being OK. That may sound like slim hope, but imagine, by order of magnitude, how much greater that small hope is than having none at all.

So in that regard, the movie is magic. It makes my heart full because it is the bridge I did not have, and it is a bridge that more young people need. So for that reason, I adore it.

But all of this processing has also opened up some old boxes–locked up tight feelings and memories that were locked up for reasons. Like Pandora and her box, I’ve let them all out, one showing of this little movie at a time. I think, perhaps, what remains in the box, now, is–as with her–hope. But the ugliness that has come out, and that my dear friends have helped me to grapple with in these past weeks…

I guess, this far down the page, that’s finally what I think I am here to talk about. To talk about why I believe it takes incredible courage to open the door to the unknown, even in a world where a little movie creates a sense of possibility. Because it is SCARY. And for lots of people… it goes BADLY.

Five showings.

Five times opening that box of old hurts.

Shall we?

We shall.

First Time (with Tom)

For those who have seen the movie, the quiet moment in the car between Simon and Abby brought this on…

I remembered, viscerally, what it felt like to say the words “I am gay” out loud. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the whole world. Every sound was too loud, every word carried too far. I had never, ever felt more vulnerable or broken or lost or helpless. I chose the right person to say those words to… but I thought saying them would kill me. I had never even said them to myself. I don’t know what I wanted the reaction to be. Would anything have been right? I don’t know. I thought that letting those words pass through my lips would unmake me. In a way, they did. It began the hardest year of my life, and it was a year that was spent, so often, alone. Trying to figure things out. Never feeling like I was doing it right. Always, always out of breath… falling.

Second Time (Alone)

For those who have seen the movie, the confrontation between Simon and Martin towards the end brought this on…

There is a kind of anger that comes part-way through the process of coming out. Anger at others for their actions or reactions, yes, but also–at least in my case–anger at myself. Anger for being this way, for being made the way I was. Coming out was the beginning of acceptance of who I was, not the culmination of it. And in the middle, in late spring of 1999, that anger took me over. I had been isolated and alone with myself–just me and the internet for way too many hours, skipping class and avoiding everything that could be avoided–and I just… I just couldn’t stand the mess I had made of my life. I wanted to take it back, to apologize for the trouble I had made and just…

I wanted to give up. I wanted it to be over. I wanted out.

For the only time in my life, in that moment, locked in my dorm room in the dark, I catalogued the ways in which I could end my life. I… settled on one. I started tapping some freakish resolve that I had never before possessed, and I was going to do it.

I’ll spare you the details, because in truth, the details are too hard for me to bring back into my mind. They are attached to those feelings, and those are feelings I do not want back inside of me.

But I was ready to be done. Gone. Over. Out.

A random conversation on a comic book chat room diverted me. Someone popped up on my instant messenger on the computer, and then someone else did, and then… they convinced me to come in to chat for a while. I relented out of a sense of… dramatic farewell, perhaps? I mean, someone had to know what happened. Someone had to miss me. At that moment, irrationally, I was not convinced that anyone else would have.

And they kept talking. Making jokes. Being strangely, magnificently, supportive. Like they always were. Strangers saving me from a moment that could never be taken back.

I largely stopped going to all classes from that point on. I went to work, and I chatted online with my New Warriors Crash Pad friends. And day by day, inch by inch, they pulled me away from the place I had gone.

Had I been left inside of that anger, that self-directed horror and rage, alone… I do not know that I would be here. Maybe something else would have diverted me. Maybe a hundred things would have done it. I don’t know. All I know is what did happen.

So the statistics of LGBT teen suicide do not startle me at all. I can remember what that moment of decision felt like, even if I had, for many years, locked it up tight.

Third Time (with Andrew J)

For those who have seen the movie, Ethan’s chat with Simon in the office brought this on…

About two years after Tom and I got engaged, something happened that reached out and tore a chunk out of a heart that had mostly, largely, healed from the pain of coming out and figuring out my place in the world. Tom had that effect, by the way–he helped me heal over all of those wounds. Turns out, love does that. That’s why this is all worth it, right? So you can have someone you love standing beside you?

It was my grandfather’s death. We were gathering as a family at a relative’s house. I was a wreck of course–we all were. As I walked into the house, one of my relatives came up to me, the MOMENT I came through the door, and gave me a giant hug. She was sad. I was sad. That’s what you do.

But in the midst of that embrace, she grabbed my hand and pulled my engagement ring off of my hand. She stuffed it in my pocket and whispered, “Now is not the time” or something like that. The words are not important.

I had been wearing that ring for more than a year. I almost never talked about my personal life with my family. And yet, the first thing that person thought when I walked through the door was… what? Maybe they were trying to protect me. Maybe they were trying to make their own life easier in a hard moment. I don’t know.

I just remember now what it felt like to be erased for the comfort of others.

Fourth Time (with a ton of people, but especially Christi D)

For those who have seen the movie, Simon’s driveway conversation with his dad brought this on…

Sometimes you just want the people who matter most to you to say, “I am proud of you.” In your wildest dreams, you imagine they might say, “I wouldn’t change anything about you.”

Parents… that is what you are supposed to say. That is what you are supposed to mean.

I remember what it was like to get… something different. Memories of screaming at each other on the telephone. Threats. Tears. Curling up into a ball on the kitchen floor and throwing up in the bathroom. Checking the locks on the door.

I remember fear replacing love, and I remember believing that would never, ever be made right.

It got better. It is better.

But no one believes that when they are in the middle of the storm.

Fifth Time (with Kelly K)

For those who have seen the movie, Simon’s talk with his mom brought this on…

There are no magic words that make it better. Most of coming out is done alone, and we emerge from it stronger for that. But for God’s sakes, we have to be better to our people. To friends and to family and to the friends who become family.

No one should be alone because they HAVE to be. Should they want to be, should they need to be, then by all means, give your people space. But until then, and even then, be there when they need you.

There’s no magic words, but there are magic people. I found some–some early, some late. But everyone needs them. Be the magic person.

Be the person who gives the people in your life the courage to open the door. Be the person who they KNOW will still be standing there when they bare their soul.

And hope that we can build a world where no one again has to imagine that there is nothing on the other side of that door but an endless, breathless fall.

I still have the hope in my box, I said. Hope for that world to be our world.

But I’ve also churned up all of these complicated, painful memories of the process of coming out. As long as the movie theaters keep showing my movie, I’ll keep going back, week after week… and my heart will get full.

And we will keep talking about this, because it is important.

I can breathe now.

So can you.


About jlschwennen

A teacher, a writer, a voracious reader, a player and lover of games, and sometimes, if you are really lucky, an interesting conversationalist.
This entry was posted in Family, Lifestyle, Steam Vents. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Courage to Open the Door

  1. Have not had the chance to see this, but my daughter did with her friend. I read the book it was based on before the film came out and loved it.

  2. Jason Roth says:

    I loved the movie. It definitely opens up old wounds. My chest got tight and it took me back to when I was in the place that Simon was in. Mark was frustrated with the movie. I think mostly because of how easy it was for Simon compared to what we went through. I think because he doesn’t realize that many parents do react the way that Simon’s did. I think in fact because our parents are still not great with it, they have come leaps and bounds but still don’t see us on equal terms. I still like to hope that everything works out in time. Accept all steps, no matter how small they are. I can’t wait to watch this movie with my oldest. I think he will LOVE it!

    • jlschwennen says:

      I totally respect where Mark is coming from. I choose to believe that we, as a world, are better if people believe in the possibility that it goes well… partly because the generations after ours are better at this stuff. Not perfect, but their minds are so much more open than ours snd our parents’! Anyway. I hope your son loves it when he gets to see it… and I’m glad you and Mark have each other to help heal the ugly parts of the wounds that our generation so often demanded as the price of going through the door.

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