The recent announcement by NBA player Jason Collins that he’s gay — the first athlete in one of the four major US professional sports to do so — brought back my own recent experience of coming out. I did so decades ago to friends and family, following the same path of worry, relief and release that Collins describes in his Sports Illustrated essay. I don’t even think about it now. I’m just naturally and comfortably out now — so much that the term “out” feels strange because there is no possibility of “in.” I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to face the risk of coming out. But then there was Mtuseni…
Early in the application process with the organization that originally matched us, I brought up the issue of being gay and asked if it would be a problem. They assured me that teens in Johannesburg are sophisticated and it would be fine. So I continued on and was matched with Mtuseni.
For over a year, the issue of my sexuality never came up between us. Given Mtuseni’s circumstances — a typical narcissistic teenager facing extraordinary challenges and requiring much love and support — the focus had been more on his life than mine, and rightfully so. In the back of my mind I wanted to tell him, as it somehow felt dishonest, but I was working on learning about him, which was a slow process of peeling back layers.
And then one day he was at a three-week church fundraising camp during the holidays. He was very unhappy, some kids were teasing him, and he wanted to leave. When I asked him what the problem was, he explained vaguely — in large part hampered by texting on his old number-pad phone. Then suddenly came the line: “Well I hate gays.”
It hit me like a kick to the stomach. From what I gather there was a gay kid at the camp; I didn’t get much more detail. Given Mtuseni’s pentecostal church background, I shouldn’t have been suprised by his comment. Still, my head was filled with white noise. We continued chatting and I helped calm him down over the crisis, telling him he could leave the camp and go home whenever he liked, and he went to sleep.
But then I was faced with the reality that this kid who I was beginning to love and was getting ready to put through college “hated gays.” And, by extension, hated me. I shut down. For a few days I couldn’t even look at his pictures on my fridge. I have zero tolerance for homophobia, least of all when it’s directed at me. And if it’s wrapped in the guise of religion? Well, I won’t even go there…
I could feel Mtuseni slipping away in my own head and heart, and knew I had to address the issue. So later that week during a chat, I asked to circle back to his comment about hating gays. And I just told him, “You know, buddy, I’m gay.”
“Oh.” That’s all I got back. My mind swirled with what was happening 8,000 miles away.
“How do you feel about that?”
“Well, I’m shocked, but you know I’m okay with it.”
I told him we could talk more about it and he could ask me any questions. He passed. Mtuseni still didn’t know too much about my life at that point — we had only recently ended our limited weekly webcams and started all-access unlimited texting — so jumping into a discussion of my gay life probably was a bit much.
That was almost three years ago, and we never talked about it since. It’s still mainly The Mtuseni Show, and that’s okay with me. Then one day he was talking about some couple that split up, and I referenced the end of my relationship with a long-time partner.
Thinking it just happened, he asked, “What!? How come I don’t know about this?” I LOL’d him and said it happened years ago. He asked why we broke up and I explained the sad reality of people growing apart. Mtuseni said that wasn’t a good reason and we should have worked it out “cuz you guys loved each other.” The discussion was interesting, first because I wondered how much it reflected his sentiments over his father leaving when he was 12. And second because it was so ordinary and matter-of-fact. Mtuseni knows the guy who acts as his dad, best friend, protector and champion is gay — and he was giving me relationship advice. It was pretty cool. And I’m certain that his knowing me — and attending an artsy communications college — has changed his attitude toward gay people.
Coming out, I am reminded, can be an ongoing process — surprisingly still fraught with potential risk at times. But, as always, it’s best to be who you are and live your truth, especially with the people you love. Big props to Jason Collins, and to a country that is moving fast and furiously — though not always fast enough — to accepting a valuable segment of our American community.
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