To this day, people are unbelievably curious about how it all happened…how on earth did I ever get married and have kids, and then get divorced and come out?
How did I not know I was gay?
It’s by far the most frequently asked question I get, no matter where I go and who I talk to, and no matter how many years have passed. The line of questioning starts whether I’m in a personal or a business setting; people just want to know.
I’ve gotten used to it, and I now see it as a sign of caring, but there was a time when it was really hard for me to take. It was really hard to handle when I first came out.
The honest answer, whether you believe it or not: “I didn’t know I was gay.”
Sorry to say, folks, but I didn’t know I was gay.
I didn’t know I was gay!
I know it’s hard to believe; I understand that. Most people figure it out way before I did. I had a lifetime of experiences as a “straight” man before I ever even thought I might be gay. I was in my early thirties!
I have literally, publicly and privately, been harassed on this point: how could you not have known before you got married? How could you go on to have kids and not know you are gay?
I remember a year or so after I came out, I was at a very fancy dinner party with about forty people. A gay couple I had recently met was hosting it at their farm in Bucks County, PA, about a half hour from where I lived. It was a beautiful summer night and I was so happy to be included. Not everyone was gay, but everyone was fabulous, at least upon first sight.
It was the most gay-friendly dinner party I had ever been to, I can tell you that.
The party started out with cocktails out in the wildflower garden…you could only get to it by walking along a little babbling brook lined with flowers.
All the guys were wearing jeans or linen pants with casual summer shirts, dressed to perfection. The ladies were wearing light summer dresses that were just oh-so-right for the occasion. There were handsome waiters in tight t-shirts serving iced cocktails and appetizers. It was the most beautiful night I had ever experienced.
We later sat down for dinner at a long rectangular table, with about twenty or so people on each side. It was starting to get dark, and the only light came from candles running down the length of the table and from chandeliers that were strung from the tree branches above. Nestled between the candles on the table were hundreds, if not thousands, of fresh flowers that had been cut from the garden that day.
It was the most stunning table I had ever seen. I was smiling from ear to ear.
Just as we were sitting down, one gentleman (I use the term loosely) started in on me. He was the boyfriend of another guy I had met earlier; they were both very successful gay men from New York City. They had been together for years, and they could have been role models for me, or at least that’s what I first hoped.
I quickly realized that would not be the case as he started his questioning.
He had heard me say to someone else that I had two kids.
“You have kids,” he interrupted. “How? Aren’t you gay? You were married?!”
I felt like I was under a firing squad, being shot down for being a gay divorced father. It’s a wonder that I didn’t run back into the closet.
As this “gentleman” asked me question after question, he started getting louder and louder – I guess because he found my answers harder and harder to believe. His voice caught the attention of the entire dinner table, and a hush fell over the crowd. I had never known exactly what that expression meant, but I learned it the hard way at that dinner table.
I’m not sure if everyone else was interested in my answers too, or if they wanted to ask their own questions, or if they were just mortified and paralyzed by what they were watching unfold.
“How could you not know you were gay?! You must have had an affair!”
As more and more questions came, I got more and more embarrassed, and I got redder and redder as sweat started pouring down my face. I wasn’t prepared for this at all. It had been such a pleasant night, and suddenly the beautiful fresh flowers and glowing candles all faded from my sight. He knew he had me and didn’t stop. He went in for the kill. Worst of all, he was also a gay man…an older gay man who should have been kinder.
A new friend next to me started shouting at him to stop, and kept saying to me, “Don’t answer that question; you don’t have to answer that question.” Eventually, thankfully, people started talking amongst themselves, as a signal to move on. Eventually he must have gotten bored with my answers and turned to his partner to start a different conversation.
He shrugged me off. I was mortified, and drenched in sweat.
The couple hosting the party walked over with a fresh drink, gave me a hug in my chair, and one of them kissed me on the top of my head. While that was very sweet of them and I needed the love that very instant, I couldn’t help but feel like a little kid at Thanksgiving who was sitting at the adult table where
I didn’t really belong.
The two hosts wound up being very supportive of me when I needed encouragement over the next year. Although they lived on a multi-million dollar estate, they would come to my modest apartment when I couldn’t get a babysitter. The man who was sitting next to me at that dinner party is still among my most favorite friends, as you can imagine.
My response to that “gentleman” at the table then is still the same now: all I can say is that I didn’t know I was gay.
I didn’t know I was gay.
The schmuck didn’t believe it. Many others don’t believe it. But all I can say is that I didn’t know. I never had those “feelings” and I never had a “college experiment.” I never had a torrid, heated, “man-romance” that would have set me “not straight.”
No such luck.
In some ways I wish I had. Looking back, I do remember wanting male companionship and wanting to make male friends, but it was never sexual. Never. I think all guys want other male friends. I see how my son hangs out with his friends; that’s all I wanted when I was his age too.
I guess being gay just wasn’t on my radar, as odd as that sounds.
You have to realize that growing up there was never any mention of “gay.” I never saw or met or even heard of anyone being gay. It never came up. Never. As a child growing up in Syracuse, New York, there wasn’t anything that would trigger “being gay” for me. Syracuse was very isolated at the time. I had never even been to a beach until I was in college!
While my parents were conservative, they were also extremely social, having numerous parties at the house and their friends’ houses. Their crowd of friends were such social butterflies and so stylish, all of them. I’m sure that’s where I got my own sense of style and my fascination with colorful shirts, along with a desire to entertain in my own perfectly clean and wonderfully decorated house.
But they were all straight. I think.
Growing up we used to get all dressed up and have big formal dinner parties almost weekly, usually buffet style because there were so many people to feed. My mother was gorgeous, especially at these parties. I used to watch her get ready and put on her makeup. A lot of times she’d ask me what to wear for the night, often because I had picked it out while we were shopping.
Nope, I didn’t know I was gay.
My father was a master host; no one left hungry and no one ever had an empty drink in their hand. He was much tamer in his style, but he was the type of guy that everyone loved to talk to because he was always just so calm and happy.
In addition to learning how to entertain from my parents, I also gained my adoration for all types of music, and I learned not to be shy when it comes to dancing. The bigger the beat, the better the dance moves! While I loved the beat for sure, I was also enamored with the lyrics. It was like poetry for me, much like writing for advertising eventually became poetry for me. When we finished eating (which never came soon enough) then I would play DJ with the latest disco music of the era. It was the late ’70s, after all!
As Casey Kasem, host of American Top 40, would say, “If the beat gets to the audience, and the message touches them, then you’ve got a hit.”
My father would push all the furniture to the side in the family room and we’d have a makeshift dance floor. I had every top disco record on the charts, including every album from Donna Summer. Every song I played was a chance for me to get everyone dancing, and I got so much attention. Hot Stuff!
To this day, I make sure the song MacArthur Park is the first song played in every new place we move into. It’s how I personally bless each new home, year after year, as we moved through life.
Nope, I still didn’t know I was gay.
I suppose things should have changed when I moved from home and went to college, but they didn’t. If I was young today, I’m sure they would have. As a freshman, I joined a fraternity and had a blast on every level. Was it about hanging out with other men? No! It was a social extravaganza like you’d expect at a place like Cornell. I had friends around all the time, with lots of girls too. I dated girls just like all the other guys, and yes, I enjoyed it. Because I loved to dance, I never had a problem meeting girls. I think most of them invited me to their sorority formals because they knew I would dance all night with them, non-stop.
Nope, I didn’t know I was gay and neither did they.
It was social; there were no red flags.
Cornell University and the town of Ithaca, NY are very liberal, so even as we progressed into junior and senior years and the term “gay” started to be bantered around, it never occurred to me that the label would apply to me. It never occurred to me, even after one of my best friends confessed his sexual orientation to me right before graduation. There’s an awkward term that was so common back in the day: sexual orientation.
It also never occurred to me years later when a close work colleague I had hired “suddenly” died from AIDS. I was sad for the loss, but I processed his death in ignorance and realized that I hadn’t known he was gay. It hadn’t occurred to me; I hadn’t noticed. I was so naïve.
I met my now ex-wife while I was at Cornell and it was classic college dating. I was in a fraternity and she was in a sorority, so it was a hop, skip, and a jump from party to party. I was a senior and she was a sophomore. I was just a few short months away from graduation, and I just wanted to have fun. I can only imagine what life would have been like had I let that relationship fade after college, like so many do.
I know now that I should have graduated and moved on, but I think looking back, I just so intensely wanted to get married and have kids that I hung on way too long. I was supposed to get married and have kids, according to “the plan.” All of my college friends were getting hitched, and some were having kids before I even got engaged. I wanted to do the same, I really did. I always saw myself being a father; there was just no way that wasn’t going to happen. But I had to be married to a woman to have kids, obviously. There were no other options at the time.
So I stuck to my guns and despite a few bumps I pushed forward with the relationship, and advanced it to the next level after she graduated from Cornell and even after I went back to graduate school.
I guess, looking back now, I just got caught up in the momentum of it all… way too many years of momentum, and never stopped to think about it. I never questioned if it was the right thing to do or not. I never stopped to make sure it was what I really wanted.
I never stopped to really make sure that “she” was the one. I never stopped to make sure I wanted a “she.”
I never stopped, that’s the truth. The momentum took over.
So the decade of the 1980s became ten years of getting my plan in order. I graduated from high school in 1981, then college in 1985. I went back to graduate school in 1987, got married in 1989, and then graduated again in 1989. I went to work on my career in 1989 too.
1989 was a big year for me, and a gallon of gas cost ninety-seven cents. $0.97.
There was no Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to make me over, and there was no Andy Cohen from Bravo who I could have looked to as a role model. It’s a shame, because life would have been different had there been anything that I could point to and say, “Hey, that’s me.”
So I went along the same path that every other little boy in that era did and followed in the footsteps of what you were “supposed to do.” I found a girlfriend, I got married, and I had kids, in that order. There was no room for a gay fling in that equation.
I didn’t know I was gay because there was no way that I could have known I was gay. It wasn’t until I became insanely unhappy in my situation that I realized that perhaps, just maybe, somehow, there could be a different way to approach life.
Once I accepted the fact that my path wasn’t working, I opened up my mind to other paths. Then and only then was I ready to start reading the messages to myself. And no, my ex-wife didn’t “make me gay.” I would never pin that on her. We were both young and in hindsight we were not ready for the
life we created. I’m not sure either of us wanted it. My intense unhappiness is what ultimately opened my mind.
I don’t know how else to explain it because it’s the truth…I didn’t know I was gay.
Shortly after I came out, so did Ellen on Ellen with a little help from Oprah. The timing was ironic and iconic. It gave me a burst of confidence to really start telling people, because at least now it was being talked about in pop culture, in a more positive way.
I thank Ellen for that. She faced a lot of prejudice for it at the time, and a lot of scrutiny about her life.
But sadly, like Ellen, once I did figure myself out, it could be used against me…