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Brynn Tannehill Headshot

The Ties That Bind

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On National Coming Out Day, I wanted to share some coming out stories from some people I know. The stories in and of themselves are touching, but they illustrate a much bigger point.

The pressure to fit in was immense, to the point where I abused alcohol and drugs to feel normal. After many stints in the juvenile penal system, I came to the conclusion that I am me, and I cannot change that. It wasn't until I was 22 when I was living on my own and had friends who did not expect me to conform to societal norms, that I felt comfortable and safe enough to come out to my family. I was stunned when my mother stopped me 15 minutes into my monologue over the phone, "Honey, I hate to interrupt you, but we love you. As long as you are happy, I am happy."

"Ethan" is probably the smartest person I know. We have been friends for close to 20 years. He's also one of the most thoughtful and devout evangelical Christians I know. Because he had been living in China for the past decade, he ended up being the last person I came out to.

Then, I got an email from Ethan. He and his family were back in the U.S. on a yearlong sabbatical. He had seen some of my social media stuff, and the jig was up. He wanted to talk.

When he called I apologized for being so evasive in the past, and not telling him the truth. "I couldn't tell you because I thought so much of you as a friend and as a person that I didn't want to lose you."

"You're still my friend, regardless," Ethan said.

"Thank you," I said, with a giant lump in my throat. "You don't know how much that means. I'm sorry I wasn't forthcoming, but I didn't know how your religious beliefs would allow it."

"If I shunned everyone who didn't live the way I thought they were supposed to, I would have been really lonely in a country with 1.2 billion people," Ethan answered simply.

As a child I didn't hear words like "gay" or "transgender." What I heard was about my uncle. Bob came out later in life, after marrying a woman, having kids, and realizing it just wasn't going to work. My stepfather began making mysterious regular visits to him Florida. When Bob succumbed to AIDS he died an embarrassment to his parents. He was cremated, and only a simple stone now sits in the family plot.

My stepsister came out as lesbian with aspirations of her own -- to be a member of the clergy. She battled depression and connecting with her father. She was rejected for a clergy position, and lost her battle when she put a loaded pistol in her mouth out in the woods.

I came out because I refused to be another victim. While it took 10 years to get up the guts -- I decided I wouldn't be the family member who was the "open secret." I wanted to be honest. Family matters to me and I wanted my life to be integrated with theirs. All of my parents struggled with the truth, but over time, they have all come support me as an individual, even if they can't handle the part of me that is "different."

I was only four years old when I realized I was different. I announced it loudly and without hesitation to my parents. The reaction I got made me realize that being me was not okay.

Eventually, there was no feasible way I could continue to live this lie. I was a hexagonal figure trying to cram myself into a triangle, and my edges were wearing. I started with my best friend, seemingly easy enough but as we sat across a table in an empty restaurant, the words I had been holding in for more than a decade were threatening to strangle me.

I brought the subject up slowly. She nodded along as I talked, throwing in some positive reinforcement as I went along. I paused, inhaled deeply, exhaled dramatically, and hoped somewhere in it she could piece together the truth. She took a sip of water and stared at me over the top of her glass as I spoke, a look of amusement dancing in her eyes.

"So, uh..," I began, " Hypothetically speaking and all, what would you say if I..." She cut me off.

"And the sky is blue. Tell me something I don't know."

What makes these stories exceptional is that they come from very different people, and yet how hard to categorize they are. One story is my own, another belongs to a trans man friend, and the other two belong to friends who are gay and lesbian.

Can you guess which one belongs to whom?

Even if you tried, I suspect you'd still guess wrong.

Therein lays my point. Coming out is one of the fundamental experiences that ties LGBT together. We also share the stresses caused by the cognitive dissonance required to live a lie. When we refuse to stick up for one another, we deny the reality and lessons of our own experiences.