March 28, 1979
October 11 is National Coming Out Day. In celebration, I offer a rememberance of the day that I decided to come out of the closet.
In March of 1979 I faced a time of scary decisions. I was in my senior year in college, finishing up a very successful undergraduate career. I had just gained acceptance at 4 doctoral programs in various biochemistry departments around the country. I should have felt that the whole world was before me.
I was actually miserable. In part I was in the throes of unrequited love. My friend C and I had been close for about a year. He was smart, handsome, and funny. I was competely smitten with him. He, of course, liked girls. To further complicate matters, iwe were attending a very small college in rural New England. I knew only one other gay person. I feared the prospect of a lonely, miserable life spent in shame. Was I doomed to fall in love with, and be frustrated by, straight boys for ever?
Spring break came. I did not go to Ft, Lauderdale or Panama City. I went to Massachusetts to spend the week with my family. I wanted to spend time not
When I am in need of emotional healing, I turn to the natural world. So on Wednesday of that week, I borrowed my mom’s car and drove down to spend the day on Cape Cod. I planned to drive down, eat fried clams, walk in the National Seashore and think hard about my school choice. Two memories from the drive remain vivid. I heard for the first time a song called Sultans of Swing by the then-unknown group Dire Straits. I would follow their music for decades to come. Partway through Boston, a news bulletin came on the radio announcing that there had been some sort of malfunction at a nuclear power plant outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The news spoke of little else for the rest of my journey- and for weeks to come.
I walked a lot that afternoon- over dunes, through maple and cedar swamps, and along beaches. It was chilly enough to keep me going as a means of staying warm. But instead of thinking about school choices, I found myself thinking about C and the pain of not knowing if I could ever find happiness with another person. I thought of how tired I was of feeling isolated. I wanted the pain to end, and realized that meant taking a very different approach from the hiding and being afraid that had dominated the last six or seven years of my life.
The funny thing is, even though I was thinking about things that had nothing to do with the main decision in front of me, my thoughts that afternoon led to my choice. If I was to get beyond my uncomfortable isolation, I’d need to find other people like myself. Were there any? Were they all weirdos? It was a chance I would have to take.
Of my four grad school options, two were clearly the preferred ones. I had received handsome (and very similar) fellowship offers from the departments of Biochemistry at Northwestern and the University of Rochester. I knew enough to realize that my immediate future lay in a city, and that there would be more prospects to come out in Chicago than in Rochester, NY.
The decisions I made on March 28, 1979 would affect the rest of my life to a degree that I could only dimly imagine that day. I would accept Northwestern’s offer and move to Chicago. I would try, if only tentitively, to come out of the closet. And I would come out on my own terms, letting nobody else dictate what that would mean. These decisions, which would prove to serve me extraordinarily well for the rest of my life, were made in beautiful surroundings on a day where it seemed almost possible that the world could end in nuclear holocaust;
Happy National Coming Out Day to my gay and straight readers alike.