“The last thing I did as a straight man was see Judy Kaye in The Pajama Game at Lincoln Center. I came out that evening. Happy Pride Month.
It has always felt important to me that June is ‘Pride’ and not ‘LGBTQ+ Awareness Month’ or simply ‘Gay Month.’ For me, it is that idea of Pride which makes a different journey for my community than others. It isn’t just about awareness and visibility (which it most certainly also IS), it is about the ability to navigate through the world, my eyes meeting the gaze of others. Pride is acceptance, and for me, that journey to acceptance started within myself long before I could ask others to do so.
I am a very lucky man. I was raised in a loving and progressive…if chaotic…family. I had no great booming voice shouting me into a closet, I had no church leaders actively placing coals of damnation under my feet.
But from a young age, I knew something was very different. As a tot, I was OBSESSED with the Batman TV show. I would throw ear-piercing, lip-splitting, Damien Omen-type tantrums if I was home too late for an episode. It wasn’t about the camp (I was too young to see it), and I took it all deadly seriously: there was no finer creature in this world than the man in the navy blue cowl.
I recall asking my older brothers who was the best character on Batman (I mean, Batman, obviously), and being surprised when they answered to a man…Batgirl. I couldn’t understand why that could be, but it made me aware that somehow, I was watching a different TV show than they were, and somehow I knew that I shouldn’t talk about it. So, I didn’t. I continued watching Batman side by side with them, all the while writing entirely different scripts in my head.
It was the beginning of a long, long game of hiding in plain sight.
I was confused in middle school when everyone at my lunch table discovered Farrah Fawcett Majors or Valerie Bertinelli or Pamela Sue Anderson. Of course, I had my own discoveries (David Soul, either Duke of Hazzard, or Sgt. Wojciehowicz from ‘Barney Miller,’ don’t judge me…), but from the look in the eyes of my classmates, I knew I would keep those discoveries to myself and continue playing hide in plain sight.
Except now, things were more difficult to keep hidden. Even in the Lost World of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, puberty will find you. My body and my will were working in separate directions. When I had ‘the talk’ about reproduction and had prevention explained to me, the cognitive dissonance was so strong, I remember actually asking: ‘But if there is so much work involved—why would anyone do this unless they needed to make a baby?’
It was calmly and sweetly explained to me ‘because it is one of the most pleasurable things you can do with your body.’ But that wasn’t what I imagined, and the urges which (it was assumed) were tearing me apart were in fact very different from those imagined by the person who spoke with me. For a moment, in that very naïve question, I almost stopped hiding. But too afraid to lose…what? I don’t know…I laughed the question off, to make it easier for all of us involved, and then doubled down my will and intensity to hide in plain sight.
Fear and Lying
My will very quickly turned to panic as everything went haywire in my body, and that panic turned into a fear that I wouldn’t be able to disguise what was happening inside of me. I put more and more energy into making the buoyancy and play of the hiding in plain sight game seem natural. This was of course, exhausting, and I became addicted to the fear and panic, needing that fuel to shore up the façade which I felt for sure was visibly crumbling.
Like an addict, it made me do awful things. I lied to people I loved, I betrayed confidences, and I consistently shut myself away from joy I didn’t feel I deserved. Building this unnatural self left me exhausted and filled with a physical pain, which ached inside of me. It carved itself against my heart with each breath, with every move I tried to make, like something hard and vitrified. A tooth I created inside myself, to eat me alive. This physical pain was the price I paid, I thought, and it was, of course, Shame.
I learned to cry myself to sleep. It was a private release I could allow myself. As I grew older and became a more fully formed and stronger person, that ritual of crying myself to sleep became an opportunity to recharge and to begin to let go of some of the panic and shame. Honestly, I became accustomed to it. The price I paid for Shame, nothing more.
The Pajama Game
On my birthday, in 1989, I scored a free ticket to see The Pajama Game. I remember very little of it, except of course that Judy Kaye is a marvel and a force of nature. I came home to my apartment in the East Village, where my roommate and his girlfriend had a small cake and a gift for me (a brass letter opener, which I still have). My roommate fell asleep, and I sat chatting with his girlfriend in my bedroom in the wee hours of the night. I was, after such a long day, and this sweet surprise, exhausted.
And so, I started crying. Not bawling or sobbing, just crying.
Holding on to a perfectly normal conversation with tears rolling down my face. It was a perfectly normal, acceptable ritual for me. But I could see on her face it was shocking…so I told her not to worry. This is perfectly normal and everyday. I do this every, every night. She still looked—stunned. Maybe frightened.
‘No, no…it’s nothing. Nothing. Honestly. I just do this. I cry every night. Before I sleep. I just lie here and cry, and cry, and it’s normal. Perfectly normal. It’s just what I do. It’s just that I am so lonely. So terribly, terribly lonely, and I just cry…that’s all…’
Then she asked the question no one had asked me before: ‘Michael? Is it for a man?’
At that moment, everything opened up as I formed the word: ‘Yes.’
I bawled through the night with her, just pushing past all the knots and teeth of shame I had built inside my body, letting everything fall on the floor of that little apartment on Second Avenue. Letting it fall on the floor and pool, and seeing at last that all that shame was not only powerless to hurt me, but useless, heavy, and unnecessary. I had a second chance now, to carry myself forward without that weight, without everything I had built inside of myself to destroy me. I stopped putting energy into my game of hide in plain sight.
I had begun to move shame aside. Now, I would need to work very hard to replace it with Pride.
Happy Pride Month, Everyone. Whatever voices you have inside of you, I hope they are building you up, and not tearing you down.
And Judy Kaye? You really were fabulous in The Pajama Game.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Michael Whistler of Minneapolis, MN. You can follow his journey on Facebook, their website, and blog. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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