August 16, 2014.
Just four days before I was going to start my freshman year at Syracuse University, I made the biggest decision of my life. I came out as gay publicly, stepping out of a one-way closet that, even four months prior, I never dreamed of leaving. A closet that, for so long, I did not even realize I was in. But on that date, I knew I was ready to live my authentic life, swearing to myself that I would close the closet door and never look back.
Now, two years later, I'm speaking to the scared gay boy in his bedroom, nervous as he clicks "Post" on his Facebook declaration. I'm sharing with him the lessons he'll learn – good and bad – in the short amount of time he's lived as an out gay man.
The hardest part is done.
For me, the most difficult coming out I had to do was to myself. We're raised with these expectations of a husband and wife and their biological children. We're taught that anything outside of that just isn't normal. The fear of being abnormal is enough for so many people to refuse to accept themselves. I, like many, convinced myself that it was all just a phase. Perhaps I'm bisexual and I'll be able to just live a seemingly-straight life. Even the word "gay" itself was a word I couldn't utter.
We all go on different journeys to discover and invent our identities; for me, it took a real boy crush. Yet once I came to terms with my sexuality, everything came easier. It took 17 years to come out to myself, but only a couple months to come out to the world. Thus, looking forward, I know the hardest part is complete.
But your coming out is far from over.
Many straight, cisgender folks don't realize that LGBTQ people don't just come out once. Each time we meet someone new, apply for a job, or reunite with someone from our past, we wind up coming out all over again. Be prepared for the shock when you say the word "boyfriend" or when you're talking about your man-crush Monday.
The more times you do it, the easier it gets, but that still doesn't make it comfortable. It may be 2016, but you still never know how someone might react when they find out you're gay. Though you might live each and every day out and proud, you never know when you'll have to come out once again.
Being gay is just one part of your identity.
Before coming out, my privilege as a white, cisgender man never forced me to seriously think about identity. I'm grateful that coming out allowed me to understand oppression and how it manifests in so many corners of our society. I understand what it means to be an ally, whether that's to Black Lives Matter, the feminism movement or trans liberation.
At the same time, it's important to remember that one part of your identity does not define your entire being. I love drag queens, not because I'm gay, but because they're fierce and entertaining. I'm a storyteller, a social media addict and a pop culture enthusiast. Being gay is central to my identity, but it isn't everything.
There's a lot to learn about this community.
Everybody talks about this "same love" you'll experience in the gay world. While love, at its core, might be the same, our community simply isn't the same as the straight community. That doesn't make one community better than the other, but it's important for you to understand these differences as an out gay man.
Tinder might be a trashy hook-up app in the straight world, but that's professional dating for gay men, with apps like Grindr and Scruff. There's a rumor that every gay man knows every other gay man and all there is definitely a lot of truth to that. Be prepared to find out your current boyfriend's ex is your ex, too – our dating pool is limited, to be fair. Open relationships can be pretty common, but that doesn't mean you can't find someone who is monogamous, either.
Our community is rapidly changing, so don't think that you'll learn the rules quickly. I'm two years in and still figuring this all out.
No matter what, be proud.
Despite the ease on restrictions that gay people in the United States have to live with today, we are still an oppressed community. The very fact that we have to come out is proof enough that being gay is not viewed as the norm.
Remember the brave people who came before us, coming out against and risking their lives to demand equality for those after them. Because of them, we can live safer lives today. We can celebrate the progress that we've made already while still recognizing the work that is left ahead.
The greatest progress in acceptance for the LGBTQ community happens when someone they know comes out. You're making a difference not only in your own life, but you're helping the people around you become more accepting. I've witnessed this first-hand. That, itself, is a reason to be proud.
August 16, 2016.
I'm not the same person that I was on August 16, 2014. I've been through good times and bad, triumphs and heartbreaks. I've cried knowing I can get married in any state in the United States and cried knowing I can get shot in a gay bar for being my authentic self. Through it all, though, I've never regretted coming out. I'll continue to celebrate that each and every year.
Lead Image Credit: Matt Gehring