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‘Coming out’ doesn’t change who you are

Before proceeding any further, I ought to just get it out in the open and tell a couple thousand strangers something awkwardly personal about myself:

I’m gay.

Oh, I know. I never was one for this gay pride stuff myself, and between you and me, I find it annoying. But don’t worry, I have a point.

See, being a young man is a strange thing. You are basically trained from birth to be a man: guttural grunts, local team jerseys, the whole nine yards. I remember being small and having my father point out all the attractive ladies he saw. This was correct behavior. I must notice women because I was expected to eventually bring home a nice one and marry her. I didn’t get it, but that was what I was taught: Boys play rough; boys form almost primitive, tribal groups and stake out territory so that they might engage in play warfare to defend their space. Boys compete in sports. Boys don’t cry.

Eighteen years I was told this, directly or indirectly. I walked around assuming that every woman had a man and every man had a woman. The world was shiny and clean and I knew exactly what was going on; I could rest assured in the basic knowledge that I was a man. I was rough. I was masculine. I had to speak with a measured amount of derision in reference to ‘chick flicks.’ I could only listen to appropriately masculine music, and God forbid I ever be forced to witness the dreaded musical.

We men had a strict set of conduct, yes we did. And for 18 years I bought it.

High school was fun. Everyone was dating, and eventually so was I. It was all rote, all scientific. I just assumed that was how dating worked: a guy and a girl hung out together and kissed for some reason. Quite frankly, I didn’t get it at all. I was miserable. A string of girls who got fed up with my apparent lack of human emotion just sent me deeper into depression. I was consumed with these horrible feelings that I was somehow wrong, inferior — maybe I was born upside down or something?

Whenever I dared let an honest thought slip through, I was berated. A man who doesn’t actively pursue women is not a man at all, and the one thing a boy is taught growing up is that if you are not a man, you are nothing, and you are weak.

I spent high school becoming more and more of something that I hated. I was pretending to be a man; I was desperately trying to be normal in a fundamental way until I couldn’t take it anymore. I had finally slipped deep enough into self hatred that facing up to who I was seemed better than living my life without real emotion, without ever really getting close to another human being with the very real prospect of being alone, no matter who I was with. So I woke up one morning, took a shower and sighed into the mirror. If I already hated myself, why not hate myself for who I was instead of what I could never be?

I felt like if I started living my life gay, that everything would change. My behavior would change, my speech, my mannerisms, my taste in music, movies and art. I thought I had killed myself and just let this other person take over. The funny thing was, nothing changed after that moment.

When I got off of the school bus that morning, everyone was still there; the sky was still blue, and I was still who I always was: I was still so very afraid.

Much later, and on a lark, I went to a Valentine’s Day party sponsored by a gay-straight alliance at the University of Tampa. I thought I would be standing in a room full of Jacks from “Will and Grace.” I thought I would become one of them. What I found was that I was standing in a room full of people. Normal human beings, people who were no different than anyone else, people who looked like people. I met a group of students from USF who I talked to, who didn’t say the word gay in every sentence, and who were not the vilified gay men and women I had been exposed to on TV. The fear was disappearing.

I told all of my friends that I was gay, mentally prepared for a devastating blow, but it turned out that none of them cared. In fact, nine out of 10 times I received a shrug and a “so what?” response and then the conversation went back to whatever silly thing we would always discuss.

I wasn’t evil, I wasn’t separate from the human race like the Christian right was telling me, I was AJ Rollo: a human being, the same human being I had always been.

That’s the moral of the story. If you are afraid of being yourself, if you don’t think people will accept you, don’t be. If you have arms, a kidney, a mind and a human mother, then you are a human being by default. Your friends will still be your friends, your family will still be your family, and yes, the world will still be exactly the same as it was yesterday. You have to be yourself. Straight, gay, Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, vegetarian, Democrat, Republican, musician, poet, thinker, athlete; it doesn’t matter. Live what you believe in and you can’t be wrong.

AJ Rollo is a freshman majoring in literature and philosophy.