In honor of National Coming Out Day, we are pleased to share Jim Obergefell’s piece recently published in the inaugural issue of PRIZM.
When the question came up, a scared Ohio grad student made a life-changing decision and came out.
By Jim Obergefell
“Are you gay or straight?”
My friend Cass, sitting in the driver’s seat, posed that question to our friend, Matt, in the front seat and to me in the back.
I had recently turned 26, and after teaching high school German for two years, I’d left Cincinnati to attend grad school at Bowling Green State University. We were driving to Wooster, Matt’s hometown, for a weekend break from classes.
Our conversation had been wide-ranging, covering what was happening in our program, with our friends, our families and the world in general.
Then that question came from out of the blue.
“Are you gay or straight?”
As Matt answered, “gay” from the front seat, I was freaking out in the back seat. What do I do? Do I lie like I have been for years? Do I finally admit it to myself and to someone else?
They say that at the moment of death, your life flashes before your eyes. I wasn’t about to die—no matter how much it felt like it—but I found memories running through my mind in that moment.
My mind flashed back to the times in my life when I brushed up against the truth of who I was, the times when I was either too young to understand what it meant or the times I slammed the closet door shut because I knew what it meant but wasn’t willing to admit it, to own it, to take that leap of faith and self-awareness.
I thought of that coffee can I kept hidden in the basement when I was around 8. Rolled up inside that can were the pages of men’s underwear from the Sears and JCPenney catalogs that I tore out after my parents tossed them in the trash. I later burned those pages because, although I couldn’t say why, I knew, just knew, it was wrong to have them. Those images meant something to my 8-year-old self. I just didn’t know what at the time.
I thought of my high school self, especially one evening when I was a junior. After finishing a performance with show choir, a classmate who was a year older drove me home. Except he didn’t take me home. He took me to a city park along the shores of Sandusky Bay, and I had my first experience with another boy. Although we remained friends, we never spoke about it.
I thought of that cute, kind boy on the same floor of the residence hall where I lived as a freshman at the University of Cincinnati. The boy who became much more to me over the course of those first few months in a new city where I was starting a new life. The cute boy I would eventually avoid because I couldn’t accept what I felt, what we did, what that meant about who I was.
The AIDS crisis had just started, so in addition to the personal insecurity about my identity, I was terrified that anything, even a touch or a kiss, meant certain death.
I thought about my family, especially my sister and four brothers. I’m the baby of six, and all of my siblings were married. All but one had children at that time. I had one expectation of adulthood. I would get married and have a family.
It went without saying that the person I expected to marry would be a woman.
And yes, I even thought of the talented, intelligent and fun woman I’d previously been engaged to. I thought of the guilt I felt for dragging someone else into my lie. I remembered the relief I felt when she broke it off.
All of that flashed through my mind in an instant as I panicked in the backseat of the car. It’s amazing how many memories, how much thought, how many regrets you can squeeze into the time it took Matt to say, “Gay.”
What do I do? Do I continue the lie and say, “Straight,” or do I finally admit that scary truth?
In that moment, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. Is this what I’ve been missing? Why did I wait so long? The dam broke, and I felt freer than I ever had in my life.
Like so many others, I felt a need, a drive—a requirement, really—to share my acceptance of myself with others. I wanted to ask for their acceptance. I decided I needed to start with my family.
Mom died when I was 18, and I still wish I’d been able to tell her. I was a momma’s boy, and I hate that I lost out on the ability to be myself completely with her. I can never know how she would have reacted to my coming out, but that means I can believe my mother’s love knew no bounds.
I can believe that she would have hugged me and told me it changed nothing.
Dad and I always had a good relationship, and it became much stronger after Mom died. I knew he had to be the first person in the family I told. On a visit home to Sandusky, I sat with him on the porch of my childhood home, watching life go by on the street, like we had so many times over a childhood filled with happy memories.
I finally gathered the courage and told Dad I was gay.
“Jim, all I’ve ever wanted is for you to be happy.”
I don’t remember if I cried, if I shouted for joy or if I was struck silent by his reaction. I do know I realized how incredibly lucky I was to have been raised by such a wonderful father. And I felt relieved that my most feared admission was accepted in the way we all hope, with love and without judgment.
But I still had five siblings to tell, and no matter how well Dad reacted, I was still nervous.
I called my sister—my oldest sibling—to invite her out for dinner. I said I had something I wanted to talk to her about. When she asked why I couldn’t just tell her over the phone, I said I wanted to do it in person. Her reaction was a variation of Dad’s.
Years later I learned she came to that meal already expecting what I was going to say. After we made our plans, she hung up the phone and told her three children that Uncle Jim had asked her out because he had something to tell her. As one, my nephew and two nieces immediately said, “What, that he’s gay?”
It’s a shame that so many of us fear acknowledging what many of our loved ones already know or suspect, but I suppose that’s part of the process of becoming your own person.
In those moments of complete vulnerability, we learn more about ourselves, and we learn more about the people we love.
I’m lucky to have the family I do, a family that never missed a beat in their love and support for me. I wish everyone could experience that.
Within months of taking that leap of faith into self-actualization, I fell in love with a man named John. Almost 21 years later, we married in the cramped confines of a chartered medical jet on the tarmac of a Maryland airport.
We all know how that turned out.
Jim Obergefell and his late husband, John Arthur, filed a lawsuit against the state of Ohio that in 2015 resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling for nationwide marriage equality.