Wednesday, May 16, 2007

My Closet Years - Part Five

In telling my story, I left off with my return to Virginia and private law practice. We moved to Virginia because I was already admitted to the Virginia Bar and, at the time, neither my wife nor I wanted to raise children in New York City. Returning to private law practice meant putting up again with the office politics of a reasonably large law firm and the self-identified “macho” types that are all too prevalent in the legal profession. This unfortunately included being compelled at times to participate in the bar association soft-ball league games. Not being good at the sport, I naturally went on high alert with fears that somehow my secret might become obvious based on my lack of playing ability. The only plus was that there were a couple of hot guys in the firm who looked great in shorts and shirtless, although I made studied efforts to never be caught looking.

Soon we had settled into a typical suburban pattern, with my wife staying at home with my oldest daughter, who was joined by her brother in September of 1985. He was born as Hurricane Gloria was sweeping towards a direct hit to Hampton Roads, making for tension in the labor and delivery room. The storm at the last minute veered out to sea, saving the area from huge devastation. (We had lived in Mobile when Hurricane Frederic scored a direct hit, so we knew well the type of damage that would have occurred - the best part of Frederic had been the almost communal living that had gone on with ML and our wives). Pat Robertson, of course claimed he had “prayed the storm away.” Subsequently, my younger daughter was born in 1989, fortunately with no impeding hurricane off the coast.

Being with a good size law firm meant a number of things, including (1) getting involved in civic and other organizations, not because it was the right thing to do, but to make contacts, (2) originating business, (3) treating the secretaries and paralegals as somehow something less than human, and (4) always watching your back against back stabbing by one’s supposed friends. While we would have several functions for the entire staff and their families each year where feigned camaraderie by the partners was the norm and statements were made that the most important assets of the firm were its employees, the real story was quite different. In actuality, everything was about money and the bottom line and all civic activity involvement was cynically calculated. In short, even after I made partner, I had to sell my soul and “play the game” to get along. It's ironic that immoral - although not illegal conduct - was acceptable, while being gay was not and as a result, I was trapped in the closet.

Given the cut throat reality of my job environment, being gay was obviously nowhere remotely among things “The Firm” would have approved of or condoned. (In this regard, little seems to have changed: for the recent HRBOR launch, I contacted five of the area’s largest law firms and no one was interested in being a sponsor, and only one had the courtesy of responding at all). Therefore, I continued living my life as an actor, playing the role that was expected. While it seems crazy in retrospect, at this point I still did not think of myself as gay. After all, I had never done anything with another guy, and, therefore, I couldn't possibly be gay notwithstanding the crushes on and attraction to guys over the years since I was about age 12.

Over the years, I changed law firms and found better and more moral atmospheres but never to a point that being gay was acceptable. It turned out that the last large “established” firm I was a member of was more like the first firm in this area I had joined back in 1983. I did in time come out at work in 2003 on a very discrete basis, but I kept a very low profile in terms of my sexual orientation. Ultimately, it merged with another firm at the end of 2004 and, in my opinion, I was one of the partners excluded from the merger because members of the other firm involved in the merger held political grudges against me (I had publicly asked one to resign from office when an illegal $12 million deficit was experienced by the Virginia Beach school division and opposed another in the firing of the head of the gifted education department). Now, I have my own law firm where I can follow my own political and activist objectives and be 100% out. None of my straight clients seem to care, and I have acquire a good number of gay LGBT clients too.

During these years I was joined and/or was involved in a number of civil organizations, including PTA’s, being a member and officer of my civic league, being a board member and two term president of the neighborhood pool, four term president of a local gifted and talented education advocacy organization, board membership on the local committee to prevent child abuse, eight terms on the City Committee for the Republican Party for the City of Virginia Beach, and a run for school board in 1994 (I lost by a small margin because the local teachers’ union candidates labeled me as “Christian Right”). At the neighborhood pool, I even was a regular participant in the adult volley ball games - not because I enjoyed it, but because it was the "guy" thing to do (surprisingly, I was a half way decent player).
I enjoy being a father and tried to spend weekend time with my kids (since private law practice involves long hours), including going to the beach, visiting my parents who lived fairly close by with the kids, hiking in a beautiful state park, going to movies, and numerous surf trips to the Outer Banks with my son and his friends. Between figure skating competitions for my oldest daughter, swim meets for the summer swim league, and numerous other kids sporting events, I spent countless hours hanging out with other parents. I guess stereotypically, I always got along better with the moms as opposed to most of the other dads (most of whom were NOT hot). Sadly, my inner struggle to suppress my true self, struggle with my self hate, and the need to keep up the act of being straight and father in a perfect suburban family often made me short tempered and tense. Looking back, perhaps I’d have been a better father if I had come out of the closet long before I did. It’s one of those things I will never know for certain.

I joined the GOP originally because of education issues. In Virginia Beach and most of Virginia, the affiliates of the National Education Association are allied with the Democrat Party. As the father of three academically gifted children, my wife and I were continually confronted with the problem of our children not being challenged in school. What gifted education differentiation that did exist was not adequate, especially for my son who has never been “a teacher pleaser” even though he is highly intelligent. The main opponent for the expansion of gifted education services was the local NEA affiliate. Since the Democrats did not want to antagonize the NEA affiliates whose members overwhelmingly supported them at the polls, the GOP was the natural place to find a home in Virginia Beach if one was pushing for more rigorous education standards, fiscal responsibility in the school division, etc. I felt this was especially true after the 1994 school board election where I was continually labeled “Christian Right” by the NEA affiliate and made to feel almost like a criminal. Moreover, NEA affiliates from 17 other states had sent money to influence the 1994 school board elections in Virginia Beach. The local NEA affiliate had needed an enemy and eminent danger to raise funds and I and several others who were candidates for other seats on the school board unknowingly furnished them with an enemy.

On the religion front, I continued to go to weekly mass and silently hope for a miracle cure that would end my attraction to guys. I even joined the Knights of Columbus and attained 4th Degree membership. Alas, no cure occurred. Thus my life continued up until late summer of 1999 when family crisis struck and my closet began to shatter.


Anonymous said...

In the early Seventies we often shared our "coming-out" experiences, because it all seemed so unique, so new, so brazen, so unique, but above all, to understand, strengthen, appreciate, and support each other in the courage to be authentic, open, and free.

As time and acceptance became more common, such stories became less and less common, seemingly less needed. The Closet, presumably, has been smashed, opened, and emptied. Sure, some "struggled" more than others, some had "opposition" more virulent than others, some had more difficulty "adapting" than others, and some had simply been "disowned" and "abandoned" for their efforts. But, we seemed secure that the chains had been broken and liberation availed the freedom to assert the courage to be.

Sharing your story makes my heart ache, because mine was so easy, simple, and supported -- most of all by my family. Inauthenticity was never a value I or they would have ever tolerated for any reason. I actually had a greater challenge facing other gay men's attitudes than "living up" to my straight parents, professors, superiors, colleagues, and friends' support. One of my "straight" mentors urged that I re-read Darwin, of all things, and appreciate the splendor of human diversity, that whatever was "gay" was merely one of many "markers" in the constellation of human diversity that may help "identify" for associative purposes, but could never "define." No one, this mentor argued, defines anyone, and those who try to "define" only want to deny that our uniqueness is a threat to their security.

Yes, "coming-out" is often a struggle -- as your recount makes painfully aware, but the real battle is in the Courage to Be in the face of everyone else's definitions. If Person A holds view B he's an X, an outsider, not one of "us." If Person E does Act F, he's an K, an outsider, not one of "us." The language of definitions is the language exclusion as virulent as it is inclusion. It serves to set "us" from "them," the "in" from the "out," the "saved" from the "damned," and so on and son on. Which may explain the ease I've chosen Nominalism over Essentialism (besides the fact that no "essences" can be found).

Just last evening, three of us from three different generations were sharing the oddity of having someone tell each of us that we were not "gay" by some arbitrary benchmark pulled-out of hat. Cracking-up over such arrogance that someone thinks he has the Keys to the Kingdom of Gay, maybe there's some justification (or explanation) that men who would otherwise readily identify as "gay," chose MSM instead. MSM has no Arbiter of "Gay," no "in" or "out," no keys to the kingdom of gay. It would be terribly sad that gay liberation has become a definer's prison of Queer Theory Orthodoxy. But whatever can be "defined" can be contained, and yet another struggle to break-out of definitions may be our next cause celebre. If the struggle to "come-out" is not sufficiently challenging, someone, somewhere will throw more "roadblocks" to those with the Courage to Be, and we wonder why some individuals struggle at all? One may "come-out" only to be "put-away" as unfit by the Holders of the Keys.

No wonder Darwin is a THREAT to religious conservatives and Queer Theorists and Post-Modernists and Ideologues of every stripe. It's his damned DIVERSITY.

Thanks for sharing your story. I had forgotten that it mattered. But, of course, it does, it always has, and always will. The Struggle for the Courage to Be has many, many Enemies (some lurking within as well as without). It will always be a fight, and the fight must go on.

Pink Elephant said...

Yikes-I'm more than a little frightened about being out at work. Part of me rationalizes with the virtue of keeping my personal life separate from my work life, but again I think being out in a new environment will help me get comfortable with being a gay man. Luckily, my summer firm has for the past several years received a perfect score on the HRC's corporate equality index. On the other hand, notwithstanding the policies, there are very few openly GLBT attorneys. So we'll see...

Michael-in-Norfolk said...

My sexual orientation was not the only or biggest issue. The biggest one, I believe was the fact that during my education and GOP activist years I had become an enemy of two of the parters in the firm with which my firm was merging. Both had been on the school board and made huge mistakes: One allowed an illegal $12 million deficit to occur and I publicly called for him to resign. The other had backed firing the head of gifted education who I supported (she later won a federal lawsuit against the school division), but being right often is not popular. -