I'm 31. I came out when I was 21. I admitted to myself that I was gay when I was 19. I guess I was 14 when I flirted with the notion that I might be gay. Numbers, lots of numbers that will always remain an important part of who I am, because they relate to defining moments of my coming-out process, a process that lasted for seven years.
As soon as I had told my best friend that I was gay back in 2001, I felt that everything was going to be OK. That sickening fear I had carried for so long simply disappeared. I had told someone, someone whose opinion meant a lot to me, and his nonchalant reaction reassured me that it wouldn't make a slight bit of difference to our friendship. From this defining moment, the moment at which the proverbial weight had been lifted from my shoulders, I became more and more comfortable telling people, and with every positive reaction I received, that stomach-churning fear I had carried for so long became more and more of a distant memory.
Fast-forward 10 years. Back in March, in my role as a youth worker for the National Health Service, I was working with a 17-year-old boy who came out to me. I was the first person he had told, and he had many questions: How should he come out to people? What was "out" gay life like in general? I tried to reassure him as best as I could that the fear is usually more terrifying and unpleasant than the actual experience of telling people you are gay, but it didn't seem to be enough for him. I decided to write down my coming-out experience and let him read it. While I was revisiting those chapters of my life, I began to experience those feelings I had had back then. I felt that real fear of abandonment, of the inevitable violence I assumed I would face. I felt waves of sadness, and at times I cried. For the first time in over a decade, I had shone a light on the 19-year-old version of myself, a version of myself I wish I could reach out to and hold. I wanted to tell myself that everything would be OK, that my friends and family were not going to disown me, that one day I would actually be proud of being gay, and that people would respect me for the decisions I would make in life.
I was shocked at how emotional I found writing my story. I guess as soon as people started to accept what I was telling them, I no longer had a need to hold on to those unpleasant feelings, so I simply boxed them up and forgot about them. Until I forced myself to revisit those feelings, I had never had a reason to reopen that box.
The next time I saw the 17-year-old, I gave him my coming-out story, which I'd printed out on four sides of A4 paper. He seemed surprised that I'd gone to the effort of writing it down for him, and he was very grateful. I watched his eyes as he eagerly read my words. I wasn't worried about the fact that I had been so open in my story; there would have been no point in writing it otherwise. I was waiting for his reaction.
"I wish I could read another one," he said, finally. He was like a child who had just opened his first present on Christmas morning. We spoke about aspects of my story that he found interesting, and I tried to answer his questions about the gay scene, reassuring him that he should never feel pressured to fit into a stereotype, but I knew he needed more. That night I contacted my gay friends via text, email, Facebook, and Twitter, asking if they would be interested in writing and sending me their coming-out stories in order to give the boy I was working with a wider range of experiences to read. I was aware that my childhood family life was very different from the one he was living now, so I felt that the more stories he had, the likelier it would be that he would identify with one or more of them. My friends were amazing, and the stories came thick and fast, many accompanied by a "thank you." Many of my friends had also found the experience of revisiting those years emotional and in some cases therapeutic.
Starting a website seemed like a natural progression, so once I had 10 stories, I registered the domain rucomingout.com and uploaded them. Social networking is part of everyday life for the younger generation, and peer support via chat rooms can be a great thing. However, I feel that these stories, written with the perspective that hindsight provides, could become an invaluable resource not only for gay youth but for older people who are still not fully out.
Being gay doesn't condemn one to a troubled, drama-filled life. I hope the stories on rucomingout.com can show people (gay and straight) that we can be happy, strong, successful individuals who contribute to our communities. These stories would have encouraged me to be less afraid of coming out, and I hope they do the same for those who are in that situation now. I guess I feel it's my duty to share my story with others.
You might not think too much about your coming-out story these days, and it might not really be that important you now, but that doesn't mean it won't be important to someone else. Over 100 people have realized the importance of sharing their story so far, and I hope that figure grows and grows.